Authoritarian Populism

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Biko Agozino:

"“Authoritarian Populism” was a concept that Stuart Hall coined to help explain what he termed “Thatcherism” in the UK and, by extension, “Reaganism” in the US. According to him, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were able to mobilize the popular votes of the British and the US working classes primarily because the Labour Party and the Democrats offered no convincing alternatives to the neo-liberal capitalist policies of the Tory Party and the Republicans against the “corporatist state” and in favor of smaller government, against organized labor, for zero-tolerance policing, for tighter immigration control, and for restricted social welfare programs.

Attempts to explain the repeated victories of the Conservative Party and the Republican Party at the polls with reference solely to racism, homophobia, or xenophobia among the working-class supporters would fail to account for the popularity of authoritarianism among the general electorate.

According to Hall, the concept of hegemony as developed by Antonio Gramsci adequately accounts for why the passions of working-class voters tend to be won over by radical right-wing politicians who, unlike some left-wing parties, appear to offer them intellectual and moral leadership, or by hegemony that promises to dominate or liquidate antagonistic interest groups.

According to Stephen Pfohl, the work of Charles Wright Mills focused on the way in which changes to the American power structure come about without “ideological struggles to control the masses”. However, Mills failed to account for the agency of the masses to change the course of history even while capitalism remains intact. Althusser’s notion of “Ideological State Apparatuses” suggests that even families, educational institutions, places of employment, the media, religion, etc., function as domains of struggle over hegemony. This struggle is why elections tend to divide families, congregations, colleges, and communities.

The Brexit vote, which narrowly rejected the continued membership of the UK in the EU, and the election of Donald Trump as the US president appear to support Hall’s thesis regarding Authoritarian Populism although Trump lost the popular vote while winning the Electoral College vote. Populism is not always the absolute majority tendency in a polity but rather the tendency capable of mobilizing enough support to prevail over opponents.

W.E.B. Du Bois questioned why poor whites, who did not enslave Africans, were the ones at the forefront of the anti-social activism against black freedom during the reconstruction and the Jim Crow eras. The abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the anti-apartheid movement were examples of left-wing Authoritarian Populism with mass participation.

Critics may suggest that the concept of Authoritarian Populism is flawed because the working class fought both for and against the Nazis in Germany and both for and against the fascists in Italy, just as millions of the working poor voted for and against Trump. Authoritarian Populism can be ideologically left-wing or right-wing just as there can be ruling-class or working-class hegemony. However, left-wing or right-wing authoritarian programs do not have much chance of success if the working class is mobilized to resolutely oppose them." (