Populism in politics means pushing policies that are popular with “the people,” not the elites and the experts.
The United States'' Donald Trump, Britain''s Boris Johnson and Brazil''s Jair Bolsonaro, as well as India''s Narendra Modi and Mexico''s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have surged to power in democratic countries, challenging the old order by promising social benefits to the masses and rejecting the establishment.
But it turns out that when it comes to battling a new disease like COVID-19, the disruptive policies of populists are faring poorly compared to liberal democratic models in countries like Germany, France and Iceland in Europe, or South Korea and Japan in Asia.
Academics have been fretting about whether liberal democracy — the political system that helped defeat fascism in World War II, set up international institutions like the World Health Organisation and seemed to have triumphed in the Cold War three decades ago — can muster the stuff to take on the new populism and address complex 21st-century challenges.
COVID-19 has crystallised that dilemma.
“This is a public health crisis that requires expertise and science to resolve. Populists by nature...have a disdain for experts and science that are seen as part of the establishment,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. He was discussing Brazil, where at least 81,000 people have died.
“Brazil has a wealth of expertise and the US does, too,” Shifter says. “But the problem is, the populist politics makes it very difficult to implement rational policies that really resolve the issue — or at least manage the crisis more effectively.”
The US, Brazil, the UK and Mexico all are led by leaders who have been sceptical of scientists and who initially minimized the disease. These four countries account for half of the 618,000 COVID-19 deaths worldwide so far, according to statistics tracked by Johns Hopkins University.
India, meanwhile, is coming on strong. It just passed the mark of 1.2 million confirmed cases.
In the US and Brazil, Trump and Bolsonaro at times have minimised the disease, touted unproven remedies and sparred with and sidelined scientists and health officials. Instead of framing and implementing a consistent anti-COVID strategy for their nations, they often have seen state and local leaders leading the fight.
In Britain, Johnson was slow to order closures when the disease was raging on the European continent. But he became much more serious about fighting it after his own serious illness left him fighting to breathe.
In India, Modi addressed the disease aggressively in terms of closures and lockdowns.
When it comes to the coronavirus, Jishnu Das, an economics professor at Georgetown University, sees common strands between India and the US, the world''s two largest democracies.
“What the virus looks for is any weakness in our system. And it hones into it and pries it open," says Das, who studies health and has been working with two state governments in India to tailor their pandemic responses.
He says the virus exposed in both countries a distrust of science and data, the systematic weakening of key institutions and a lack of legitimacy of state institutions.
The questioning of accepted facts is one characteristic of populist leaders. Another is to risk alienating their bases — such as by telling people to stay at home or to wear masks in public.
A third characteristic is the sowing of division to gain power along ethnic and national lines or against those deemed elite. Such divisiveness makes cooperation elusive, internally and internationally. Finally, a fourth frequent trait is a leadership style that favours bombast and crowd-pleasing antics.
After the pandemic hit Brazil, the world''s sixth most populous nation, Bolsonaro downplayed it repeatedly, calling it a “little flu” and saying the cost of shutdown would be worse than the disease.
Before he contracted COVID-19, Bolsonaro''s administration provided monthly cash payouts to informal-sector workers. His government paid out a total $22 billion, benefiting more than half of Brazil''s population directly or indirectly.
And similar to President Trump printing his signature on the $1,200 coronavirus rescue checks that went out from the US Treasury, Bolsonaro''s government worked to make sure recipients in Brazil knew who to thank — part of what Shifter calls a populist leader''s playbook of adulation and the projection of power.
In Mexico, where 41,000 people have now died, López Obrador pushed to reactivate the economy while infections were still rising.
As the deaths spike in populist-led countries, it is an entirely different world in most of Europe, where the disease is now on the wane, though not yet defeated. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at the European Parliament last week, cited the need for consistent leadership, community spirit and “democratic cohesion".
“In a democracy, facts and transparency are needed," she said. The results of that approach: With a population of 84 million, a quarter of the size of the US, Germany has suffered just over 9,000 COVID deaths. In the US, the number is 142,000 and rising. (AP) SCY