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Right-wing Populism in Eastern Europe

 

1. The modern media play an increasingly important role in the rise of (extreme-right) populism, as both the media and modern populist politicians have one common denominator:   they speak supposedly in the name of vox populi. Their falling back on the vox populi, however, is not most of the time limited to just reacting passively to the majority will, but often involves efforts to manipulate the public with the help of sensitive issues that resonate well with the atavistic side of human nature, such as nationalist feelings, ethnic allegiances, or fear of foreigners.

 

2. Both populist politicians and the mass media are anti-elitist. Modern populism also does not need an active civil society; it appeals to masses. Both the mass culture and political populism are based on mediocrity. In other words, the mass media and populist politicians can thrive only if they are able to identify, and speak to, the lowest common denominator.

 3. The mass democracy of the modern era is based on the conviction that people, understood as a mass, are politically as wise as politicians. Populist politicians, finding support in the anti-elitist attitudes of the mass media, therefore often use the majority public opinion as a reference framework for their policies. One consequence of this trend is the disappearance of real political leadership in most Western democracies.

 4. The notion of “elite” has increasingly negative connotations. Both populist politicians and the mainstream media claim to speak in the name of the people. They frequently criticize various political endeavors and projects as “elitist” and alienated from the people.

 5. As everyday political affairs are increasingly influenced by an anonymous vox populi, it is supposedly the task of mass media to tell us what this vox populi actually says. In some ways, this is a vicious cycle: the majority mainstream media are increasingly engaged in the agenda setting for politics, actively promoting certain points of view and rejecting others. They do so by constantly referring to the supposed wishes of the public, changing public opinion trends in the process. Politicians then react to the public opinion. In other words, the mass media and populist politicians live in a strange sort of symbiosis. 

6. Real political leaders, who offer their personal integrity as a guarantee of their political program, are increasingly being replaced by the vox populi—either in the form of anonymous public opinion or popular figures of mass culture. In other words, in today’s societies of mass culture, politicians are being replaced in the role of political authorities by show talk hosts, entertainers and moderators of mediocre discussion programs, which are held hostage to various surveys of audience shares and readership. The main work method of these new age substitutes for real politics is not rational analysis and informed discourse, but emotions and feelings.

 

7. The fact that politics has become a form of entertainment is an increasingly important phenomenon in the rise of populism in modern democracies. In order for the media to sell political events and developments as one of their products, the politics must be able to entertain. A populist politician is aware of this fact: he or she will say what the audience wants to hear, rather than trying to convince the audience that his or her opinions, although unpopular at the moment, make sense. 

8. It is not an accident that populism, as a political movement, has been on the rise in the age of modern communication technologies, which are used most widely by the media. In the environment, in which it is possible to instantly measure public moods and preferences, political leaders need to have the ability to feel the pulse of society. If they do, it is often easier for them to adjust their views to the public than advocate changes.

 

9. This new dynamic that determines much of what happens in modern democracies is further complicated by the fact that the above mentioned „pulse of society“ is in most cases represented by the media. However, as mentioned above, today’s mass media follow their own, usually business interests, which in societies of mass consumption can be the most effective only if they appeal to  mediocrity.

 

10. Ignacio Ramonet argues, in the age of the electronic media the very notion of information has changed. Informing people by the media was until recently understood as acquiring the most exact description of an event, which meant offering a context. TV, in particular, has changed this. Today, informing means “showing a story, as it happens-that is, live, if possible.” Gradually, the illusion that “seeing means understanding” has prevailed. Ramonet and Peirre Bourdieu argue that television relies on the drama and emotional shock. Right-wing movements (their rallies, outrageous vocabulary, violating rules) are in many ways an interesting object for television, as they offer the drama.

 

11. In the privatized public sphere, the media use dramatic events to increase their audience (which means increasing their profits), but in order to balance their tendency to trivialize important issues, they offer “false moral panic”, as some philosophers, such as Habermas, have pointed out. In other words, they use “false moral panic” to fend off criticism that they prefer stories about events which may be marginal in a larger context, but the dramatic potential of such stories (for example, a rally of an otherwise insignificant neo-Nazi group) is so high from the media’s point of view that TV journalists cannot ignore them.

 

12. Ramonet emphasizes that TV news, in particular, are no longer supposed to merely inform people, but to entertain. The actions of populist and extreme right movements and parties, with their underlying drama, are understood as good entertainment.

 

13. Bourdieu emphasizes that journalists look, by definition, for exceptional stories, as such stories “sell”. The extreme-right politics and populism are exceptional, because they are outside the political mainstream, which is considered boring, unless it produces scandals and controversies.

 

 14. Moderated debates on TV and radio stations also very often look for some drama. Moderators and journalists are, most of all, afraid of being boring. Extreme-right politics are not boring from journalists’ point of view.