Manufacturing Discontent: The Perils of Populism, Part 1

Polarization in Poland. The success of Sweden's far right. Brexit threatens Britain's economic and social order. But populism got an early start In Turkey, where "the supremacy of the people" reigns. Everywhere, populism is winning big. The question is why. Part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 airs Thursday, February 21.

Elif Shafak says Turkey holds valuable lessons for other countries who wish to elect populists

Supporters wait for Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to speak outside the entrance of Huber Presidential Palace on June 24, 2018 in Istanbul. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Elif Shafak is a public intellectual, novelist, feminist and a staunch opponent of populism. Turkish by birth and now a British citizen, she believes Turkey holds valuable lessons for other countries who wish to elect populists.

In an 18-year period, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has held various positions in Turkey. During that time, Elif says, he has attempted to "restore Turkey's golden Ottoman past because imperial nostalgia holds great appeal and is a signpost of populism."

Like Trump's slogan, Make America Great Again, Turkey's leader harkens back to earlier, supposedly better times. Populist politicians peddle similar aspirational messages in Sweden, Hungary, and Britain, to name a few. 

In populist and authoritarian regimes, the first thing that is curbed is humour. You should be able to laugh at your culture, at your leaders. Once that is lost, it indicates the loss of democracy as well.- Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak says one of the problems with populist parties is that some have xenophobic origins, and points to the Sweden Democrats: "Originally this party had neo-Nazi roots, but it has rebranded itself over the past fifteen years". The Sweden Democrats won about 18 per cent of voters in the last election, despite breathless coverage by The New York Times that the far-right party would form the government. Overall, the party has gained ground over the past decade. 

In Turkey, populism has settled in and Elif Shafak has felt the consequences herself.  When her novel The Bastard of Istanbul was published, nationalist groups in Turkey spit on European Union flags and burned her book in the streets.  She was then put on trial.

In Instabul, a protestor reacts in front of a poster of Turkish novelist Elif Shafak during a demonstartion outside the court during Shafak's trial in September 2006. (Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images)

Elif Shafak says she was: "charged under Article 301 of the Turkish constitution, which protects the state against insults towards Turkishness, even though nobody knows what exactly that means. The whole thing was very Kafkaesque."   

Larger ripples across Turkish society continue to be felt. Liberals feel under siege and are leaving the country in droves. 

In 2017, almost 250,000 Turks left – a massive brain drain. There's been a severe crackdown on the independent media, and academics have also been jailed.

Elif Shafak feels the idea of who a Turkish person must be is narrowing. She wonders: "Why can't I have a multiplicity of identities? I'm deeply attached to my motherland of Turkey, I'm in love with Istanbul, I'm a British citizen, I'm attached to the Greeks and Romanians. Elements of my soul come from the Middle East. Why do I have to be reduced to a singular monolithic identity… which is an illusion in the first place?" 

Elif Shafak is an activist, public intellectual, co-founder of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the author of 16 books, 10 of which are novels. Her books have been published in 49 languages. She is the 2018 Weidenfeld Visiting Professor in Comparative European Literature at St. Anne's College, Oxford University.

Further reading:

  • Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain by Robert Winder, published by Little Brown UK, 2004. 
  • The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, published by Penguin Books, 2008. 
  • To Fight Against this Age: On Fascism and Humanism by Rob Rieman, published by W.W. Norton and Company, 2018. 
  • Can Democracy Work?: A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World by James Miller, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 
  • Populism and the European Culture Wars by Frank Furedi, published by Routledge, 2017. 

**This episode is Part 1 of a 2-part series called Manufacturing Discontent. Part 2 airs Thursday, February 21. It's produced by Mary O'Connell.



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