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The Struggle Against Populism is Far From Over

populism struggle biden inauguration

Roar writer Derin Koçer discusses the ongoing fight against populism and how countries in the ring can learn from US President Joe Biden’s election.

“We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbours. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury; no progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos”.

These words summed up President Joe Biden’s key message at his inaugural address. It was not a speech of detailed policy or partisan demagoguery, but a call for unity. And this, the audacity to bring people together, is indeed a lesson all nations facing the populist threat need to learn.

Every country is indeed unique in her political movements and societal necessities. As Jan Werner Muller brilliantly shows in What Is Populism?, populist leaders seek to divide nations and cause, as Biden called it, an “uncivil war” within them. Trump argued countless times that he represented the “silent majority” of America during his time in the limelight. Similarly, Erdogan also labelled those who dare to run against him as the “coalition of traitors” and argued that his base was the “real Turkey”. Those who listen to them have every reason to believe that they share nothing in common with their leader’s “adversaries”.

In this brutal and immoral field of politics, it is quite easy to respond to populists with a similar call to arms. In Turkey, we have made this mistake numerous times against Erdogan. Whenever he managed to denominate the secular opposition to his religious conservatism as “being elite”, the opposition stopped talking about the economy and began talking about their “way of life”. They stopped putting the corruption in state institutions first and emphasized the nostalgic days during which the founding of the secular republic was celebrated by valse and champagne. The mentality was as clear as Erdogan’s intentions: His radicalism was met with another form of radicalism.

However, Jonathan Haidt of NYU argues in The Righteous Mind that value- or culture-based divisions among nations significantly impact people’s voting behaviour. Our political decisions – like our decisions on what to buy in a supermarket – may not be rational at all. The Trump-a-likes are clearly abusing this to the extreme. The tragedy is that when either side radicalises in response to the other, the “progressives” turn out to be smaller in numbers.

The rational thing to do, then, is not to respond by implementing similar political radicalisms, but to show that cultural differences are not as explicit as the other side argues they are. It is rational to set the agenda rather than to follow your opponent’s. It is necessary to connect with people’s everyday problems rather than their moral puzzlements. And all of this, especially in times of great division, does indeed require the audacity to unite rather than to divide.

After endless years in a vicious cycle, the Turkish opposition learned its lesson, at which point victory became a possibility. In the mayoral elections of 2019, Erdogan’s opposition formed a coalition, putting a single name against Erdogan’s reigning Justice and Development Party’s candidates – and those names were not political radicals, but moderates seeking to unite. During their campaigns, they did not follow the divisive talking points Erdogan put forward. They talked about people’s jobs, the economy, and their families’ livelihoods. They did not enter a war of values, but a clash of policies. Erdogan had the losing hand – and he lost. The opposition now runs the cities which generate more than half of Turkey’s economy.

America’s response to Trump was similar to the Turkish experience in this regard, only they learned their lesson much faster. It was not the Democrats or the Republicans that gave Biden his victory. It was not the natural “enemies” of Erdogan that won Istanbul. In both cases, coalitions of people made up the majority against the dividers in chief. To enlarge the victories against other figures of division, as Biden said, we indeed need to “see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbours”.

Clearly, the fight against populist, incompetent, and dangerous demagogues is far from over. Although Trump’s victory was obviously a microcosm of similar surges around the world, his defeat can only be a shiny new beginning. It is the job of opposing movements to bring victory home. It is our job in Turkey to learn from Biden and defeat President Tayyip Erdogan whenever a ballot approaches. It is the job of the Brazilian opposition to face the Portuguese-speaking Trump. A similar fight needs to be internalised in Europe against Polish populists and the nightmare named Viktor Orban. Even one in power is one too many.


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