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Manochehr Dorraj: Nationalism and populism from a regional political perspective

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

Manochehr Dorraj, Professor of Texas Christian University

Manochehr Dorraj is a political commentator and professor at Texas Christian University. His research interests include international relations, international affairs, Middle East politics, energy and global geopolitics. His representative works include "From Zarathustra to Khomeini: Populism and Dissent in Iran"; "The Middle East at the Crossroads: Changing Political Dynamics and Foreign Policy Challenges"; "Iran Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Islamic Republic"; "Perspectives on Race, Ethnicity and Religion: Identity Politics in the United States, Energy Relations between China and developing Countries, the Global Impact of Unconventional Energy, etc.

Nationalism and populism from a regional political perspective

1.In your article, you analyzed four cases of populist revolutions, and found that charismatic leaders appeared in all of them, but the results of revolutions were unsatisfactory. Dictator leaders always maintained power by means of carrots and sticks. Do you think soft power can play a role in the populist revolution? How much? Can this avoid totalitarianism?

Yes, soft power, the power of ideas, ideals and lofty moral values can potentially inspire and entice people to take political action and resist political authoritarianism. Soft power is also the source of legitimacy and longevity for all political systems, and the lack of it often implies that the regime has to resort to repression and force to maintain power. This general rule also applies to populist regimes. Political authoritarianism is not an inevitable outcome of populist movements or revolutions. The most important factor deciding this outcome is how politically engaged the vcvil society is in post-revolutionary era and how committed the political leadership is to upholding the democratic rights of its people.

2. In addition to democratic tendencies, could you elaborate on the similarities and differences between populism in Latin America and populism in the Middle East and North Africa? In addition, the Western society is facing the deepening of the series of crises, the rise of the populist trend, what is your view on this?

In order to answer this question, it is important to make a distinction between democratic Vs Authoritarian populism, as well as right-wing vs left-wing populism. While in Latin America we have witnessed the examples of both democratic and authoritarian populism, in the Middle East, populist regimes have been decidedly authoritarian so far. While populism in South America has been imbued with more of a social democratic ideological bent in countries like Chile under Michelle Bachelet, in Brazil, under Lula De Silva and Argentina under Kushner for example. In contrast, in Central America, where there exists deeper pockets of poverty, we have witnessed the rise of authoritarian populism, exemplified by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Eva Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. One of the major differences of populism in the Middle East vs Latin America is that the role of religion in Middle East politics figures more prominently than its Latin American counterpart. Secondly, electoral politics are more prevalent in Latin American populism than its Middle Eastern counterpart. In terms of similarities, we should note the prominent role of charismatic leadership, mobilization of lower classes, and the important ideological impact of nationalism and anti-imperialism. Regarding the rise of populism in Europe, several issues must be noted. First, most populist manifestations are right-wing populism and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments play a large role in ideological make up of these populist leaders. Le Pen in France and Orban in Hungary provide some examples.

3. As you say at the end of your article, "With the rise of social media, the central role of charismatic leaders in the success of these movements has diminished." To what extent do you think social media and the Internet will influence policy making in the Middle East and North Africa in the future?

The role of social Media is two fold. It can be used for political education and mobilization to induce democratic social change as we witnessed during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010-2013, the most successful example of it being Tunisia. It can also be used for misinformation and counter - mobilization of right wing groups, as we saw in the United Staes under the right wing populism of Donald Trump. Social Media and the emergence of citizen- journalist can also challenge the monopoly of state's narrative on current events and raise consciousness and entice political action by opposition groups. The emergence of social media and citizen- journalist has somewhat diminished the role of charismatic leaders.

4.Nowadays, the trend of globalization is unstoppable. What role do you think the Middle East and North African countries will play in this?

Middle East and North Africa regions are a part of the global system and are integrated into the global economy and global social and political networks. So far the United Sates and Europe have been in the driver seat of globalization because they have provided much of the capital, technology, networks and the institutional frameworks that have propelled globalization forward. One question to ponder is , now that China has risen as a significant economic player on the global stage and its ambitious Belt and Road initiative is designed to expand China's global economic reach and partnership; are many countries in the Middle East and North Africa going to be integrated into the global economy under China's economic Orbit, specially those countries that have frayed relations with the US. This is an important issue, because as trade war and economic rivalry between US and China intensifies, increasingly, it looks like that we are going to have a global economy with two systems, one led by US and its European allies , and the other one , led by China. The future ramifications of this trend is going to be profound for global power transition and the new configuration of wealth and power globally.

Editor Assistant Research Fellow: Xianglin Gu

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