Constructively Confronting Right-Wing Populism

By Andrew Fagan

This post addresses what may be identified as some of the more significant implications for human rights contained within two recent Ipsos global surveys. The first survey, conducted in 2018, studied attitudes towards human rights amongst over 23,000 adults in 28 countries. The second survey, conducted in 2019, sought to measure support for populism and nativism amongst over 18,000 adults across 27 countries. Taken together, these two surveys graphically illustrate some of the core challenges facing the human rights project today.

These are deeply troubling, anxiety-inducing times. The greatest cause for concern for many is the ongoing full-frontal attack upon the liberal rights-based paradigm, which, in so-called Western societies, has provided the institutional and conceptual scaffolding for the modern human rights movement. Right-wing “populism” has emerged as the single greatest political threat to liberal democracy and, it seems, human rights. Punctuated by the election of Trump, the manner in which the Leave campaign conducted itself during the UK’s EU referendum and a subsequent series of other right-wing populist electoral and political gains, a politics fuelled essentially by hate and fear seeks to lay claim to truly representing the majority sovereign will of the (no longer) silent majority. 

The 2019 Ipsos global survey into populism and nativism appears to show widespread support for right-wing populism and nativism within many societies, which one now hesitates to refer to as “liberal”. For example, a majority of respondents expressed their support for views, such as, the prevailing political and economic orders are broken, that traditional politics ignores the views of “ordinary” voters, that experts do not listen to the views of “ordinary” people, and that a “strong” leader is required to overcome the many problems and challenges people are experiencing. Disaggregating these findings reveals that 63% of UK citizens and 60% of US citizens agree with the view that their respective societies are “broken”. 67% and 69% of those surveyed in the US and UK respectively agreed that traditional politics and politicians do not address their concerns and interests. 67% and 65% of US and UK respondents respectively agreed that experts do not understand the lives of “ordinary” people. Finally, 52% and 35% of UK and US respondents respectively expressed support for a “strong” leader who was willing to break established rules to fix the country’s problems.

The findings of the populist and nativist survey should alarm many who continue to support a broadly liberal, rules and rights-based order, given that many of the views expressed in the survey point the way towards demagoguery and authoritarianism.

Many human rights defenders are and should be deeply mistrustful, if not fearful, of the spectre of right-wing populism. A substantial component of the right-wing populist’s platform and playbook consists of the systematic targeting of the rights possessed or claimed by a diverse collection of identity and conviction-based minority communities. Right-wing populists’ appeal to a particular form of purportedly majoritarian sovereignty, based upon the manifestly anti-democratic sentiments of hate and fear appears to signal a very real threat to many of the progressive legal gains secured during the previous half century in many liberal democracies. Scare-mongering over the prospects for human rights appears to be well-founded. Or is it?

The second Ipsos survey into attitudes towards human rights presents a contrasting evaluation of popular support for human rights within a very similar collection of countries to those surveyed in the report into populism and nativism.

While the survey into attitudes towards human rights contains findings which will concern some human rights defenders in some countries, the survey’s wider findings demonstrate a far more optimistic account of widespread popular support for human rights in many of those countries in which many also endorse right-wing populist sentiments.

To cite some of the most encouraging findings.78% of those surveyed agreed that human rights law should be supported within their own countries. This support was as high as 83% and 80% for those surveyed in the United States and the United Kingdom respectively. 77% of US respondents and 72% of UK respondents agreed with the claim that human rights are important for creating a fairer society. In response to the stereotypical depiction of human rights as only enjoyed by criminals and terrorists, only 23% of US respondents and 29% of UK respondents agreed. Similarly encouraging evidence of “ordinary” peoples’ broad support for what they understand to be human rights was found in other electoral democracies which have succumbed to hate-fuelled politics in recent years, such as Hungary and Italy.

What lessons should the human rights community take from these two, apparently, conflicting and contradictory survey results?

The responses to one particular question in the human rights survey, I believe, indicates the direction the human rights community should pursue as it seeks to defend its core values and ideals in these troubling times.  When asked if human rights were of any particular relevance to the lives of people surveyed in the US and the UK only 15% and 20% of US and UK respondents respectively agreed that human rights positively impacted their lives.

To extrapolate, one might suggest that, while the survey into populism and nativism presents a widespread perception that many societies are “broken”, the human rights survey illustrates the extent to which “ordinary” people do not identify human rights as having a role to play in confronting the many economic, political and social challenges that beset our current age: human rights are not seen as being able to “fix” what is broken.

Critics of human rights on the Left, rather than the Right, have argued that human rights has too often failed to robustly engage with socio-economic injustice and marginalization which characterise neoliberal societies. I have argued elsewhere that some of the challenges which the human rights community faces in neoliberal societies in which right-wing populism is gaining ground, are due, in part, to an historical failure to robustly identify with many socially and economically impoverished communities, because the plight of these communities is not readily perceived as a human rights injustice. To a certain degree, human rights secured a position as the predominant political idiom within many western neoliberal societies precisely because it neglected to robustly denounce and challenge some of the most visible and damaging injustices which neoliberal policies and actors have caused in recent decades.

The failure to engage with relative socio-economic injustices within neoliberal societies inadvertently adds weight to the right-wing populist depiction of human rights as irrelevant to, or unconcerned with, the lives and interests of many “ordinary” people and communities, who view their societies and systems to be broken and, some of whom at least, are vulnerable to the empty signifying rhetoric of right-wing populism.

The rise of right-wing populism signals that there are many amongst us who have irredeemably succumbed to hate and fear. The resilient and intractable nature of many of these intolerant and anti-democratic beliefs will likely depress anyone who continues to believe that some account of mutually respectful public reason is capable of providing the normative glue which holds otherwise diverse political societies together. No matter how understandable the impulse, it is both empirically inaccurate and politically counter-productive to dismiss all of the current discontent with our modern age as nothing more than intolerable, deplorable prejudice.

Human rights has a vital role to play in seeking to prevent the collective catastrophes which the politics of hate and fear invariably lead to. To achieve this, the human rights community must resist the powerful, but utterly ineffectual, urge to circle the wagons. Instead, we ought to seek to constructively engage with the root causes of some of the conditions driving hate and fear.

A key area we must urgently focus upon is the growing socio-economic inequality and marginalization which characterises so many societies in which right-wing populist sentiments are increasing. In the US, 40 million people live in poverty. The figure for the UK is 14 million. Extreme poverty extends to affect vast swathes of the public and private spheres in these otherwise very affluent countries. Extreme poverty also results in systematic violations of legally enshrined social rights, as the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty has repeatedly shown through his country reports. Poverty connects with a perception that one’s society is broken and, in turn, with the false promises of right-wing populist demagogues who we must all take seriously. It is, of course, wrong to claim that only poor people support right-wing populist sentiments. The populist backlash consists of a very complex collection of constituents, encompassing the affluent and secure and the poor and insecure. As history has repeatedly shown, many poor people have and do passionately support progressive, socially liberal attitudes and causes. Where hate and fear is more decidedly connected with the harms which neoliberalism entails, there is an opportunity and a role for the human rights community to take sides with the many who are hurting in order to unequivocally demonstrate the continuing relevance of the full spectrum of human rights for all of us in these troubling times. The Essex Human Rights Centre is engaged in precisely this effort through our work in the local community and in ways which demonstrate the value and worth of human rights for those who have every reason to think that our society is broken.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.

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