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Making Civil Resistance Work against Rightwing Populism

The following analyses appears in Volume 4, Issue 1 of the Peace Science Digest.

Citation: Sombatpoonsiri, J. (2018). Rethinking civil resistance in the face of rightwing populism: A theoretical inquiry. Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, 13(3), 7-22.

Key Words:  nonviolent/civil resistance; rightwing populism; neoliberal economic order; nationalism; identity

There is real urgency to this political moment. Around the world, people are anxious to find a way to confront the rise of leaders and movements espousing dangerous far-Right ideologies vilifying cultural minorities and foreigners. Yet, when progressively minded protesters take to the streets, they are often met with rightwing counter-protesters. Rather than galvanizing a broad-based movement, civil resistance seems to be only entrenching polarization between the Left and Right. 

Conceived largely as a strategy for toppling authoritarian regimes, civil resistance can be limited in its ability to confront creeping rightwing populism. This is especially the case when the problem is framed as a particular populist leader rather than the conditions that make that leader’s message resonate. In light of these shortcomings, the author considers how civil resistance might be reconceived to effectively counter rightwing populism. First, civil resistance needs to more adequately address the “demand side” (supporters and motivations for support) of rightwing populism rather than simply the “supply side” (leaders). Second, civil resistance theorists and practitioners must develop their thinking both on power and neoliberal economics and on culture and identity. 

The first step is to examine populism and how it normally operates, drawing on contemporary examples from the U.S. and Europe. While leftwing and rightwing populism share a discontent with the current neoliberal economic system and its negative effects for broad swaths of the population, rightwing populism incorporates an additional cultural element where cultural, religious, or racial “others” are blamed and represented as a threat to the “people.” The two main “demand side” motivations for people’s support of rightwing populism are economic grievances—in light of labor outsourcing, declining wages, and/or growing inequality—and cultural backlash—against a perceived sudden shift away from “traditional values” to cosmopolitan values that celebrate “cultural and gender diversity.” The “supply side” entails populist leaders’ manipulation of popular resentment by capitalizing on economic grievances to propagate victimization narratives for the majority that scapegoat cultural, religious, or racial “others.”

Next, outlining recent forms of civil resistance—including mass nonviolent demonstrations, boycotts and noncooperation, and more traditional legislative strategies for influencing populist leaders and policy-making—the author explores the theoretical foundations of civil resistance theory that might limit its potential to counteract rightwing populism. Most crucially, civil resistance theory is closely aligned with liberalism and focuses on strategies for achieving political freedom. Although it provides a powerful means of challenging authoritarian regimes through the strategic withdrawal of cooperation, civil resistance theory is not as well equipped to recognize or address other forms of oppression, particularly those tied up with the neoliberal economic order. Furthermore, the bias towards targeting authoritarian regimes/leaders means that the approach taken towards rightwing populism is focused on populist leaders instead of on the motivations for supporting populism, with counterproductive results. Such an approach simply strengthens populist leaders by playing into rightwing populist narratives claiming that anyone protesting against such leaders and policies must be against the “people.” It also hampers efforts to gain broad-based support by setting up a protester/counter-protester dynamic, further entrenching polarization and “demeaning stereotypes” between supporters and detractors of rightwing populism. 

The article recommends that civil resistance scholars and practitioners develop their thinking in two key areas to better address the motivations (or “demand side”) of rightwing populism. The first task is to develop a more nuanced analysis of power, one that recognizes that not all oppression is dismantled when an authoritarian regime is overturned and that more insidious forms of economic, cultural, and political power can persist even in liberal contexts. This reorientation will help civil resistance better address the injustices wrought by the neoliberal economic order, providing an entry point for connecting with supporters of populism who may not buy into the cultural arguments of rightwing populism. The second task is to engage in cultural work so as to not cede discussions of culture and identity to rightwing populists. Civil resistance theorists and practitioners should proactively “reinterpret[ ] [ ] what it means and how it feels to belong to a nation,” devoting more attention to how protest and other methods of civil resistance can “be designed to stimulate national solidarity,” while also “broaden[ing] the racially and religiously exclusive components of the nation.” In short, addressing these “deeper economic and cultural crises” will help civil resistance movements confront rightwing populism and become more broad-based and effective. 

Contemporary Relevance: 

With rightwing populism sweeping through Europe and the United States, activists are eager to stand up against it. A critical assessment of the capacity of civil resistance is timely, to say the least. It may not be effective to use a model developed primarily against authoritarian regimes to confront injustices at the heart of today’s populist discontent. The problem of rightwing populism is not only a problem of populist leaders like Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán. It is a deeper problem of economic grievance and of an unmet yearning for identity and community. Simply taking to the streets in mass demonstrations against a leader and his policies can reinforce populist narratives that represent the “people” as besieged and the leader as safeguarding their interests against so-called “liberal elites.” Indeed, the emerging pattern over the past couple years in the U.S.—and particularly in the Peace Science Digest’s home city of Portland, Oregon—has been a host of protests and counter-protests, with leftwing and rightwing activists squaring off against one another in the street—and sometimes escalating to violence. Cementing polarization in this way makes it difficult to build the kind of broad-based movement necessary to real success in uprooting rightwing populism. If the kind of civil resistance currently practiced is counterproductive, then it makes sense to reassess our activism in a way that welcomes in those who might otherwise find a rightwing populist message alluring.

Talking Points: 

  • Civil resistance needs to more adequately address the motivations for supporting rightwing populism (the “demand side”), namely, economic grievances and cultural backlash, instead of only confronting rightwing populist leaders (the “supply side”). 
  • The focus of civil resistance movements on ousting rightwing populist leaders is counterproductive because it plays into narratives of “us vs. them” and hampers efforts to gain broad-based support by polarizing supporters and detractors of rightwing populism.
  • Civil resistance theorists and practitioners need to address the motivations of rightwing populism by 1) better identifying and confronting economic and social injustices and 2) engaging in the cultural work of what it means to be a part of a nation—one that defines national identity inclusively. 

Practical Implications: 

The author’s two recommendations—developing a more nuanced analysis of power to better confront the injustices wrought by the neoliberal economic order and engaging in the cultural work of “reinterpret[ing] [ ] what it means and how it feels to belong to a nation”—are meant to make civil resistance more responsive to the motivations people have for supporting rightwing populism. The first of these entails recognizing that those who support rightwing populist leaders may have legitimate economic grievances, conceiving methods for resisting harmful neoliberal economic policies, and simultaneously building alternate economic institutions that meet the needs of those currently being cast aside by the global economy. Attention to these economic grievances builds a more just world while creating common cause with those would otherwise be susceptible to rightwing populism. 

The second recommendation is equally insightful: civil resistance should not only be about a rational dismantling of unjust power structures but should also respond to the emotional need for identity and community, a sense of being part of something bigger than oneself. In other words, civil resistance movements need to put more energy and focus into the cultural work of providing an alternate national identity that is more inclusive and expansive and by doing so reclaim national narratives that have been expropriated by rightwing ideologues. 

How can “language, symbols, religious contents, and myths” be repurposed in a protest setting to reimagine what is meant by the “people”? Clearly, there is a thirst for a strong sense of national identity; better that that thirst be quenched with symbolism and narratives that emphasize the welcoming ethos of the nation. This should not be such a difficult task, especially in the U.S. where prominent national symbols like the Statue of Liberty call out for “your tired, your poor| Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and where everyone who is not of Native American heritage is descended from immigrants, whether enslaved or free. One open question, however, is precisely how this U.S. national narrative should deal with the twin—but perhaps conflicting—histories of diverse immigration and white supremacism: one pointing to the U.S.’s welcoming ethos and the other to its foundational racism and exclusion. The answer is certainly not to ignore the latter but rather somehow to make it part of a national narrative where Americans see themselves as learning from their mistakes and growing stronger for it. In other words, instead of forming an exclusionary national identity that looks back to a fictional, culturally homogeneous past, civil resistance activists can cultivate a more dynamic and inclusive national identity that emerges resilient yet changed and more enlightened through challenges and transgressions of all kinds (whether racist violence, economic depressions, or world wars). 

Continued Reading: 

  • Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right—and How We Can, Too By George Lakey. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2016.
  • Lessons in Viking Economics: George Lakey’s New Book Explains How the Nordic Countries Have Achieved Their Egalitarian Society and High Standard of LivingBy Chuck Collins. Inequality.org, July 15, 2016. https://inequality.org/great-divide/lessons-viking-economics/
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