The false narrative of populism’s “worldwide” rise

Contrary to popular belief, populist nationalism is not becoming “the new norm.” President Donald J. Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and a few others are unique in that their personality compliments their power to make headlines. But an executive like Rodrigo Duterte, of the Philippines, gained notoriety in 2016 firstly because of his political alignment. His campaign brought worldwide attention to the Philippine election, yet focus was only on him, his policies and his nationalism. The media would not have hyper-analyzed any other establishment politician halfway around the world. Our view of populism’s rise is tainted by agenda and we can take this case as a prime example.

At the same time, no one can deny the significance of continuously increasing support for populist leaders in the west. Shouldn’t a populist realignment of our policies—as the world leaders in democracy, justice and human rights—create a vast ripple effect across the world?

I think we need to return to the idea of a media agenda to answer this question. Perception of world dynamics is shaped by how information is consumed. As we have seen in America, the media turned vicious against Trump the night his victory was called. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a pro-Trump article without seeking one out. The information bias leans heavily against Trump and similar leaders—and yet—every new nationalist seems to make news. Every election, where a populist victory may be possible, is scrutinized to the highest degree. It seems fear of these processes has brought them unprecedented attention.

Time will tell us how lasting this trend toward nationalism and anti-globalism is, but my hunch is that what we see in the news is the whole of the argument. The U.S., France, Hungary, Russia, Philippines, Mexico, Germany and a handful of other nations in Europe are supposed to represent a worldwide trend.

Let’s get out of our western-centric view for a moment—what about the other 150 plus countries not accounted for? In reality, they are not all subordinating themselves to the few stronger, populist western countries. We need to think of the world as independent of our sphere of perception. Just because May and Le Pen preach isolationism, does not mean all of Europe will unequivocally go in that direction; just because Duterte was elected in the Philippines does not mean Asia is destined to disintegrate into nationalism, anti-globalism, populism or whatever else the media may label it.

We have totally bought into this false narrative. International relations literature is currently consumed with predicting the direction that populism may take the world in. In the interest of not suggesting a global conspiracy, I won’t say that strings are being pulled across the media to orchestrate our thought processes. But fear has been generated and it is being propagated throughout our country and others in the west. The rise of populism applies only to a very narrow view of the world. Africa, Asia, South America, the Middle East and most countries in between are being forgotten in the frenzy.

The world exists beyond our and our allies’ borders. To forget the rest is to cloud our vision and our judgement.

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