A weak Left has lost space to leaders like Modi, Trump, Netanyahu and May | columns | Hindustan Times
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A weak Left has lost space to leaders like Modi, Trump, Netanyahu and May

Right-wing populists are successful because they are better at building an emotional connection with voters, while the Left makes nuanced arguments. The Right shows clarity of purpose and a determination to succeed. Naturally, the Right is going to win

columns Updated: Mar 22, 2017 14:15 IST
Donald Trump
The likes of Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, Theresa May and others are popular because they offer reassurance and national confidence at a time many feel uncertain about the world(Reuters)

Was there ever a time when the political leadership on the Left was so weak and hopeless? The recent state elections have gone against the Congress and Rahul Gandhi, and the uncomfortable truth is that he has plenty of company across the world. The same scenario is playing out in countries from Britain and France to Israel, Turkey, Russia, the Philippines, Japan, Australia and of course the United States.

Right-wing politics dominates the world today with a confidence perhaps unparalleled in modern history. In Britain, since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the UK Labour, the party is near its worst showing ever. In France, the socialist president is so unpopular even the candidate hoping to succeed him didn’t want his blessings. For eight years only former US President Barack Obama was a bright spot on the horizon. Now he has been replaced by Donald Trump.

I don’t wish to depress my Left-leaning readers but this is a problem we need to address. It isn’t just demoralising, it is a betrayal of the millions of people who need representation. Important ideals that our forefathers fought for — like secularism, minority rights, equality and anti-poverty — are being undermined and stripped away everywhere.

So, why is the Left failing so badly all over the world? It would be wrong to generalise but there are a few unmistakeable trends. The likes of Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, Theresa May and others are popular because they offer reassurance and national confidence at a time many feel uncertain about the world. They make voters feel good about their country, and themselves, even if that involves personal hardship.

Right-wing populists are successful because they are better at building an emotional connection with voters. They do this by wrapping themselves up in their flag and employing nationalism as a weapon against their opponents. In this way criticism can be dismissed as anti-national if needed. But more than that, they also build an emotional connection with people by promising them military security and protection from terrorism.

Many of us on the Left see their claims as ridiculous of course. We point out that criticism is vital to any democracy and that their actions make us more unsafe. But this is a waste of time. Building an emotional connection with people is not a matter of making rational arguments. It’s about making people believe you have their basic interests at heart and will get the job done. The Left makes nuanced arguments, the Right shows clarity of purpose and a determination to succeed. Of course they’re going to win.

Instead, the Left is embroiled in arguing about policy positions and whether someone is radical enough or not. But voters rarely pay attention to such distinctions. Right-wing populists have thrown away the traditional Left-Right distinctions and freely spread themselves across the ideological spectrum. We saw this when Modi framed demonetisation as a strike against the corrupt rich and also when Trump said he would protect the benefits for America’s poorest.

So how do we change this dynamic? For a start, the Left has to take leadership seriously and pick candidates who are able to communicate and connect with people. Without those basic building blocks any candidate is going nowhere.

Furthermore, we have to take seriously the language of patriotism with progressive ideals. People don’t want to hear a list of policies from politicians, they want to know how much we want to make the country better. They want to know if we love the country as much they do. Only if they believe that will they be persuaded to change their mind on other issues.

This isn’t to say that there is only bad news out there. Across Europe at least, Trump-clones are going out of fashion, as I said in my column last month. They still remember that the last time Europe flirted with Right-wing populism in the 1930s, it led to World War II. In national elections last week, the Dutch held back the populist tide and instead support for Left parties increased. In France, the charismatic liberal-Left candidate Emmanuel Macron has surged ahead of others and has the best chance of beating the far-Right. If he wins, the Right-wing populist wave is essentially over.

But a sprinkling of good news does not solve our wider problem. Left-wing leaders have forgotten how to talk to the people in a way that came naturally to their predecessors. Unless they ask why this has happened, and change their ways, the Left will continue to fade into obscurity.

Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London

The views expressed are personal