Demystifying populism

Reaffirming loyalty to democracy as a problem solver can be a good starting point

By Bilal Mustafa
April 20, 2024
The picture shows journalists protesting for media freedom. — AFP/File

In 1985, American writer and educator Neil Postman wrote a book titled ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’. In his book, he analyzed politics, journalism, and all social upheavals in the age of media. He assessed the impacts of media on different aspects of life.


He predicted that all political and social ideas and thought processes would originate from ‘entertainment’ in the future. He added that this rise of ideas and debates backed by entertainment and amusement would result in the formation of a new political celebrity class that would shape contemporary socio-political structures. The predictions made by Postman are evident today.

It is essential to understand that the primary aspect of all kinds of populism – majoritarianism, ultranationalism, and mass appeal – is to disable an individual’s ability to think critically. This means it deals with the psychology, mentality, and social behaviour of people in any society. Several instances in history signify the relevance of mass thinking. Post-Hitler Germany and Denazification are the most accurate examples in this context.

The Allied forces captured the remaining regions of Nazi Germany after triumphing over Hitler and his comrades in 1945. The most arduous and concerning conundrum they faced was the reincarnation of post-Hitler Germany, which included the eradication of all existing extreme elements that threatened their legitimacy over the region. The Western bloc inaugurated a process named ‘Denazification’. This operation was designed to evolve the cognitive reality and mass psychology of Germans regarding Hitler and Nazism.

Instead of killing all the remaining Germans, Western powers decided to change the social settings that were formed because of Nazism. Hitler had a deep impact on German psychology and social ethics. He manipulated and abused the Germans to achieve his grand objectives. All cult and fascist leaders always have certain common traits that assist them in advancing their agendas.

These traits help identify all populist and fascist leaders. Jeopardizing and manipulating the emotions of the apolitical middle class is one of their significant traits. A populist would always focus on something glorious that happened in the past and present himself as a savior. He would label himself as the central figure who would lead those emotionally driven people to that past glorious era. Extreme right-wing religious slogans, ultranationalist types of nationalism, and radical ideologies would act as catalysts in promoting his narratives.

Polarizing and dividing people is going to be one of his primary aims. Glorifying various aspects of culture and religion plays a crucial role in popularizing them among people in a polarized society. Simplifying/generalizing all the complex problems and appealing to people emotionally, characterized by right-wing slogans, are important for a cult to survive.

Today, where a combination of fake news, disinformation and misinformation is playing a critical role in dividing communities and shaping their worldview, one can observe a noticeable rise in populism. Leaders like Trump in the US, Javier Millie in Argentina, Narendra Modi in India, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Imran Khan in Pakistan have disrupted their societies like never before.

These personalities have several shared traits. All of them try to appeal emotionally, present simplistic solutions to complex problems, and deploy hate speech mostly against vulnerable groups of society. Almost all of them have charismatic personalities. Millions of people follow them blindly without even realizing their intellectual limitations.

As the world grapples with populism, mainstream politics is exploring ways to neutralize this challenge. Critical thinking and intellectual abilities to counter their narratives are some of the ways to fight back against these figures and the mindset they represent. Relying on logical reasoning without getting emotionally manipulated is the most effective way to challenge their legitimacy. Reading books, understanding counter viewpoints, and analyzing the historical context before formulating any hypothesis are essential activities to conclude any political judgement.

The key purpose of this process is to create a better society where everyone can express their opinions without being threatened, de-legitimized and dehumanized for holding on to a certain viewpoint. For countries to survive the scourge of populism, mainstream political players need to focus on strengthening constitutional democracy aimed at offering solutions to the problems.

Changing mindsets is a Herculean task. However, it is important to take the first step. Reaffirming loyalty to democracy as a problem solver can be a good starting point.

The writer lives in New York and is studying language and diplomacy. He tweets/posts ft_billal