Populism also has several dimensions. It can be used as a means for domination by one group in society to use self-appropriated divine right against rivals. Populism can be fanned by one group of an elite against another to mobilise the masses by portraying it as being made up of crooks who exploit them to get to power.
Populism appears as demagoguery in politics, and in economics it manifests itself in nepotism. Populism can also be used as a strategy to aid and abet a political group in garnering public support to compete against rivals.
Culturally, populism can exhort the public with tales of historical glory to establish the narrative that things have deteriorated because of outsiders who corrupt society.
The reason populism has become the preferred method for dominance by political groups in different parts of the world today is because all the others ‘isms’ and ideologies have been discredited one way or another.
Communism bit the dust in 1989, there was hope that at least Fabian socialism and the welfare state would replace it but that did not happen. Capitalism failed to deliver because of its excesses.
The inability of these ideologies to work in the public interest for equity and justice increased disillusionment in society, and clever politicians exploited populist ideology to use it as a strategy to channel public support. Cultural entrepreneurs used populism to promote religious, literary or linguistic agendas. Also, there is the difficulty that while unmasking one sort of populism we replace it with another.
All these factors have led to the spread of populism around the globe. What makes it dangerous is that there does not seem to be any way to stop this trend because social networks now magnify populist ideologies so effectively. Without media gatekeepers, these networks add fuel to the fire with instant outrage and emotion.
Populism can also be positive. At one point in history, America had progressive populism with leaders who drove socio-economic reform. A Nepali leader calling for the abolition of untouchability would also be called a populist.
Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP in Delhi is a welfare populist when he tries to raise the quality of education or medical care to make it more equitable.
Radical populism can take on an ultra-reformist agenda like, for example, the call to abolish Nepal’s army because we do not really have an enemy to fight.
The problem is with negative populism. Demagogic populism tries to drive home the majoritarian agenda. In Nepal, that would be fear mongering over giving citizenship to the husbands of Nepali women because that would mean we will be inundated with Indians, and this would lead to the country’s ‘Fijification’ or ‘Sikkimisation’.
Then there is charismatic populism, exemplified by Kathmandu’s Mayor Balen. There is no ideology attached, it is not ultra-reformist, or radical. It is just his personality that is driving a public service agenda through a partyless candidacy. Narendra Modi or Donald Trump could also be described as charismatic populists.
To overcome populism with pluralism, political parties have to believe and compete in the marketplace of ideas. For this, the institutions of democracy have to be strengthened to counter negative populism. Leaders should have the statesmanship to speak up for minorities even if they are from a majority community.
If a Nepali from the mountains supports representation and justice for the Madhesi people, it will be more effective than a Madhesi person saying the same thing.