Kevin Clements' "Authoritarian Populism and Atavistic Nationalism: 21st Century Challenges to Peacebuilding and Development"

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Newsletter 96 —  March 21, 2023

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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion


This is an article that came out in 2018 in a special issue of the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development.  But its lessons are still very much relevant, so we wanted to share some of Kevin's key ideas here. (And thanks to Kevin for sharing this with us!)


An Editorial from Kevin Clements on Authoritarian Populism and Atavistic Nationalism

By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

March 15, 2023

Kevin starts his article (which, we should note, is called an "editorial") by noting how many of us were optimistic for the future at the end of the Cold War, but had our hopes for world (and national) peace were quickly dashed by the rise of authoritarian populism and atavistic nationalism. (I will admit—I didn't know the word "atavistic" before reading this article. For others who do not, it means "characterized by reversion to something ancient or ancestral." ) Kevin explains in his definitions section that "Atavistic nationalists . . .retreat behind metaphorical and actual walls and seek a return to a romanticised and idealised past when the nation was reputedly great and its culture homogenous." (p. 2)

Kevin explains the core dilemma that authoritarian populism and atavistic nationalism pose to peacebuilding and development as follows:

Development and peacebuilding processes build on globalist assumptions that focus on postcolonial global solidarity, interdependence and an egalitarian, pluralist conception of world order. Both authoritarian populism and atavistic nationalism directly challenge these assumptions . . .Populist leaders like Donald J. Trump,Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte and others engage in‘ culturally repugnant othering’ oft heir national and international political enemies and in doing so drive division, dehumanisation and demonisation. Further, they subvert the rule of law, concentrate power,and undermine social and public media, all dynamics that are problematic for sustainable development. This special issue, therefore, not only seeks to understand the root causes of these populist and nationalist movements, but also explores how global and local efforts at peacebuilding and development are impacted by these trends, and what promising practices are arising to address the divisions and inspire new pathways. (p. 1)

After his definition section, Kevin explores drivers of authoritarian populism and atavistic nationalism.  These include economic inequality both within and between nation states, and the "disillusionment with the capacity of state systems to provide adequate social safety nets." (p2). Another driver is a shift away from class-based politics towards identity-based politics, which easily becomes "tribal," Kevin observes, because it is based on group membership, values, and beliefs rather than negotiable interests. A third driver he points to is deep anxiety about immigration, cultural liberalization, and changing social norms, along with anxiety about losing national sovereignty to either the E.U. or the U.N. (which, of course, was a major driver behind "Brexit").

We were most interested in his next section about ways to address the causes and dynamics of authoritarian nationalism and atavistic populism.  This section was a brief summary of the other articles in this volume, as this was an entire special issue devoted to this topic.  The suggestions made in these articles, reviewed by Kevin include:

  1. eradicating the negative consequences of the neo-liberal agenda, particularly growing inequality
  2. developing a better understanding of what "the people" means to those with a more radical progressive agenda. 
  3. developing a notion of "power" in collaborative, rather than domination terms
  4. identifying values and beliefs capable of unifying rather than dividing states and societies. (These first four came from an article by Janjira Sombatpoonsiri.)
  5. Paul Porteous concurs, suggesting that a "communitarian" orientation can help counter prejudice, bias, and ethnically-based populism. "community based problem solving models that examine ' shared dilemmas' help generate inclusion rather than division and collaboration over competition." (p.4)
  6. Mike Klein suggests that nonviolent pedagogies that develop critical consciousness, social movement leadership, and democratic culture...provide an antidote to radical disagreement, contradiction, and polarization.
  7. Liz Hume suggested that conflict assessment tools an help plan responses to the U.S.'s deep political divisions and 
  8.  Lisa Schirch suggests people avoid "trauma triggers" in their own narratives as a way of stimulating higher levels of empathetic awareness about that rights and needs of all parties. 

In his conclusion, Kevin adds that "there is a very urgent need to develop institutions and mechanisms for the development of respectful civil discourse across all boundaries of  difference.  He also says that it is "vital to have some fundamental debates about whether liberal, democratic capitalist states operating under the rule of law are capable of meeting the economic, welfare, and identity needs of citizens in the 21st century.  If they are not, some very urgent conversations are needed about what might replace them." (p. 5) In addition, he asserts the center left needs to focus more attention on what sort of international order it wishes to advance. Otherwise, the void is likely to be filled by authoritarian populists.  

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