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Populism: A Way Out

Images of migrants pouring in from conflict zones flood our televisions and smartphones.  Frustration over economic inequality is rampant in both developing and developed countries. These are but two crucial reasons for the rise in populism; a fear that is ultimately deep-seated.

Image courtesy of John Hain © 2019

The current rise in populism is mostly due to an identity crisis brought about by rapid globalization (seen for many as an unsettling and almost emergency-like situation). This identity crisis triggers the natural instinct to fear the “other.” Armed with this knowledge, world leaders should counter populism by prioritizing and funding programs that promote intercultural exchange.

The changes brought by globalization have stoked global identity crises because these changes have unearthed the ground many have always stood on. Their identity, forged within a homogenous culture, can be undermined by globalization, and when identity is undermined there is a greater potential for a populist reaction. Adding to these external factors, human beings are hardwired for binary thinking. In his book, Factfulness, Hans Rosling argues that the instinct to divide things into distinct groups is intuitive and served the evolutionary purpose of generating worst-case scenarios when early humans were in the process of confronting emergencies.

Immigration is one of the most salient by-products of globalization. With the influx of immigrants, citizens often blame the effects of globalization (e.g. loss of livelihood) on foreigners, easily marking them as the fearful “other.” A number of world leaders have preyed on the despair of the unknown to advance their own agenda. U.S. President Donald Trump brilliantly tapped into these feelings and obtained power partly by playing on fears of illegal immigration and promising to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Gallup compiled a word cloud depicting everything Americans read, saw, or heard about Trump during the election. It was dominated by the words “immigration” and “Mexico.”

Conversely, world leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have fallen victim to populist elements within their own societies. In October 2018, Merkel announced that she would not seek re-election as party head nor as chancellor, partly due to the populist pushback she received in regards to the refugee crisis. Parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and its growing supporters claim their identities are endangered by the “other”: incoming, Muslim refugees.

Fortunately, some countries have used domestic policies to prevent an increase in populism. Despite pushback from some of its citizens, Sweden has welcomed 600,000 refugees and has created The Introduction Dialogue program, which provides refugees with access to labor markets, general government support, and vocational training. With a strong labor focus, Sweden also introduced a two-year program for young migrants, providing them language training, subsidized employment, and education as well as better recognition of credentials. In the long run, this kind of programming is expected to narrow wealth gaps and provide better (and fairer) social services for both refugee and citizen populations.

Sweden’s policy is a good example of reactive action – it is a measure that is helpful after an event has occurred, in this case increased migration due to unrest in the Middle East. However, there is a need to supplement reactive programs with proactive or preventive policies. Not preventive toward migrants, but preventive toward populism.

Non-governmental organizations, founded on intercultural exchange, prevent populism by generating an understanding of cultures and people that could easily be misconstrued as the “other.” AFS Intercultural Programs and CISV International are two such exchange programs; both the hosts and participants gain an understanding of a culture foreign to their own and upon completion of the exchange, serve as ambassadors of their host countries.

Governmental agencies can also play a large role in preventing populism. For example, the U.S. Department of State’s Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program fosters dialogue between the United States and countries with significant Muslim populations. Founded after 9/11, U.S. participants travel to countries like Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Kenya, and vice versa for an exchange year. The U.S. Senate is currently pushing more of these programs, as seen with senators Dick Durbin, Roger Wicker, and Patrick Leahy’s recently introduced and bipartisan Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act. The act, if passed, will create a grant program for universities to expand study abroad opportunities for American college students. Upon their return, these students will, according to Wicker, “bring the knowledge, language proficiency, and cultural understanding necessary to compete and build ties in our increasingly globalized economy.”

As populism grows and threatens the liberal world order, intercultural competence should be taught to children of every socioeconomic class and every nationality. For this to become reality, governments must include these programs within annual budgets and as domestic policies. Through these intercultural exchange programs, multiculturalism becomes the norm and identities are no longer threatened, thus mitigating populism.


Azira Ahimsa

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