The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The political trend that’s more important than ‘populism’

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Relations between the United States and Turkey are at a low ebb — and that's an understatement. Anti-U.S. and anti-Western diatribes are now stock in trade for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and anti-American feeling in Turkey appears to be deepening. Meanwhile, Ankara has launched a military operation against Kurdish militias in northwestern Syria, raising the risk of clashes with U.S.-supported groups — and potentially U.S. forces.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Turkey on Thursday for discussions that were probably rather difficult. In recent weeks, Erdogan fumed over American support for the Syrian Kurdish groups his government deems terrorist organizations. And, invoking the sort of nationalism that increasingly defines his rule, he warned the Americans that they risked the might of an “Ottoman slap.”

Erdogan deploys such language for a reason. He may have entered politics as a religiously minded liberal, but he has transformed his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, into a vehicle for expanding his increasingly authoritarian control of Turkey.

“One of the overarching stories of Turkish politics in recent years has been the retrenchment of the AKP into the populist party of Erdogan,” noted a new report on Turkish nationalism from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. “Gradually, a party that defined itself as against state interference in society and culture began to orchestrate that dominance, advancing social conservatism in many walks of life.”

The CAP study draws from interesting new polling conducted in partnership with a respected Turkish firm. Some of its findings were predictable: Turkey is deeply polarized between Erdogan and his political opponents. A considerable segment of Turkish voters harbor negative attitudes toward Western powers — 83 percent of the 2,453 people interviewed said they had an unfavorable view of the United States; 73 percent said the same of the European Union. But the study also found a curious confluence between religiously minded Turks and secular nationalists.

More than 80 percent of those polled agreed that “Islam plays a central role in my own life and is essential to my understanding of Turkish identity.” But 70 percent also agreed that Turkey should be “a secular state that respects the rights of people from all religious backgrounds to practice their faiths with no official state religion.” In a deeply polarized country, the sentiments reflect the platform through which Erdogan has built a majority to buttress his rule, bringing together Turkish ultranationalists and more pious conservatives who, in a previous generation, would have been unlikely political bedfellows.

“He achieved a sociological miracle by fusing these two blocs,” Michael Werz, one of the co-authors of the study, told Today's WorldView.

“The cocktail of Islam and nationalism is easily observed in the slogans and social media accounts of the Turkish forces taking part in Turkey’s three-week-old offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in Afrin,” wrote Al-Monitor's Amberin Zaman, referring to the enclave in Syria under Turkish attack. “Evocations of the country’s Ottoman past punctuated with cries of 'Allahu akbar' and assertions of Turkish superiority are de rigueur.”

Readers of this newsletter are at this point all too accustomed to reading about “populism.” Politics in the West — and elsewhere — draws profoundly from a well of public disaffection and rising nationalism. You could, in a way, describe Erdogan's platform as “populist,” steeped in appeals to the industry and patriotism of the common man. But it is more usefully seen as “majoritarian,” an ideology that manipulates cultural animosities in a democracy to achieve power — and then maintain it at all cost.

Turkey is far from alone in this. Werz pointed out similar dynamics in illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland, where politicians have melded Catholic devotion with “post-Stalinist patriotism,” as well as the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi in India.

This underscores another significant point: Erdogan's Islamism, like Modi's Hinduism, is simply a cloak for his nationalism. “As revolutionary as President Erdogan’s leadership has been, a large part of his success has derived from framing his reforms around shared basic assumptions about the nature of Turkish identity,” wrote Howard Eissenstat, a professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University, in commentary accompanying the study. “His invocation of religion is done in a new tone and with new accents, but it plays upon long-standing Turkish nationalist rhythms.”

The net result is a dangerous undermining of democratic norms. “Majoritarianism insists on different tiers of citizenship. Members of the majority faith and culture are viewed as the nation’s true citizens,” wrote Indian historian Mukul Kesavan. “The rest are courtesy citizens, guests of the majority, expected to behave well and deferentially. To be tolerated at the majority’s discretion is no substitute for full citizenship in modern democracies.” (The CAP study, too, found that an overwhelming proportion of Turks were angry about the presence of Syrian refugees in their country, while other ethnic minorities are getting more and more worried by the nationalist climate.)

Kesavan made this observation in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, focusing on the anger of Buddhist majorities in countries such as Burma and Sri Lanka against Muslim minorities in their midst — grievances that were gruesomely laid out last year in the ethnic cleansing of Burma's Rohingya communities.

The perceived grievance of the majority — whether in Burma or Turkey or, indeed, the United States — is a powerful tool of political mobilization. President Trump built his political brand on the quest to restore a mythic past, to uplift the “forgotten” people and purge the land of its enemies. But the weaponizing of such angst has obvious dark sides. In other countries, it has turned all too deadly. “The cultivation of this sense of injury is the necessary precondition for the lynchings, pogroms, and ethnic cleansing that invariably follow,” Kesavan wrote.

In Werz's mind, that majoritarian style of rule could be more dangerous to liberal democracy than the populism that dominates headlines. “This,” he said, “might be the model for much of the world.”

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