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Politics and power. Buonomo (Lateran Univesrity): Beware of the populism of the leader and of the masses”

Environment, migration, human rights… Many common challenges involve peoples in every part of the world and fill government agendas. The risk is that localism or its degenerative forms - such as populism or sovereignism – could take priority over shared solutions. We broached this issue with Vincenzo Buonomo, Dean of the Pontifical Lateran University

(Foto Siciliani-Gennari/SIR)

“In a post-globalised world populism can be regarded as a negative reflection of globalization.” Vincenzo Buonomo, Dean of the Pontifical Lateran University, thus explains the causes of a phenomenon that has been revived not only in narrative forms but also in the reality of political life, and which is gaining momentum at global level. Vincenzo Buonomo, jurist, with a deep experience in the field of international relations, notably within United Nations organizations and bodies, is the first lay person appointed at the helm of the Pontifical Lateran University.

Professor, what world is a world that sees the resurgence of populism?
We are living in a globalized world. This is true for the economy, for example. Let it suffice to mention the political or geopolitical fragmentation of nation-States.

This fragmentation is precisely where localism and its degenerations – populism or sovereignism, or whatever else we may want to call it – find fertile grounds in terms of clawing back something that certain forms of globalization had stripped us of.

This reaction, that some deem necessary and due after we realized that all the dreams linked to globalization ultimately turned out to be instruments for exclusion.
In fact,

by wanting to bring everyone together globalization ultimately led to exclusion. Those lacking the necessary criteria enabling inclusion in the global process were left out. I see this message clearly expressed by Pope Francis in Evangelii gaudium: exclusion is the result of the inability to participate, but not because of a lack of will. How can this situation be resolved?
On the one side there may be a resort to localism and on the other localism may prompt the emergence of a leader.

Is this the result of a feeling of confusion? Does disorientation pave the way to the belief in a leader  or – according to the words of Pope Francis – to a new “messiah”? It’s a question that deserves in-depth reflection because I don’t think that it will be resolved in the short term.

Does it pose a risk to democracy?
Are we capable of sharing a common vision of democracy beyond sovereignism and populism? It would suffice to make a tour at global level to realize that democracy is expressed in the form of participatory democracy, consensual democracy, electoral democracy…
In 1989, with the fall of Berlin Wall, it was believed that bringing democracy into those countries would naturally correspond to free elections. Yet we came to realize that this did not happen, but we had realized it immediately. The same goes for the claim that democracy is an exportable value: in which contexts? We realized all this in 2004 with the destabilization of the Middle East.

Do populist drives pose a threat to democracy or are they an aspect of democracy?
More than a degeneration of democracy we should interpret them as a phase of our history that must therefore be viewed through the lenses of that “healthy realism”, defined by the Pope. These are facts.
The difficulties we often encounter when seeking to interpret this phenomenon are due to the attempt of linking it to past events. I think that this approach makes us waste precious time that should be employed to cope with these problems. We are also unable to provide real-time responses that are needed today, since globalization has accustomed us to zero time, real time, or rather, to no time at all. What are the repercussions in real life?
For example, we are fully aware of the conditions of poverty, we are informed on global situations of development and under-development or on the environment in real time.

The problem is that we don’t take action on any of these issues, sometimes out of lack of will or interest, other times because we are somewhat excluded from decision-making processes.

This approach also involves the migratory phenomenon…
As regards the question of migration, as compared to the two/three-year efforts brought to completion in Marrakech a month ago, the problem is not who participated and who did not. Let us view this question in different terms: I compare Marrakech to a person who goes to the doctor. The doctor diagnoses the diseases and gives the patient a prescription saying, “this is your treatment plan.” The doctor does not force the patient, all he does is to suggest the treatment to cure the disease. But the patient is free to decide to follow or not follow the treatment plan. The same applies to Marrakech, where the Global compact has adopted two non-binding agreements. It’s a prescription, developed with the contribution of many actors, with – notwithstanding its limits –recommendations to address the migratory phenomenon. Some have decided not to follow the doctor’s instructions. The disease could disappear for many different reasons, but it could also grow worse. This leads to the problem of facing the situation as it stands now, understood not in terms of time but of space.

In this scenario,  is it possible to find the right balance between citizens and power, between the people and the elite groups?
Finding balance is always a challenge, for a very simple reason: balancing reason between individuals and power holders is impossible most of the time owing to their different condition. Those who exert power do so in the name of the people as a whole or just to the benefit of a few? This question is raised in the area of human rights. In this respect an interpretation of the Universal Declaration was proposed that takes into accounts the developments occurred after 1948, yet avoiding the question: are rights the interest of all or of a few? The same situation exists in the relationship between individuals and power holders, or, stated in olden terms, between subjects and rulers. In a political system that revolves around the idea that power corresponds to service we will have a balance, and this will naturally have positive effects. But a system that is unbalanced for many different reasons – for example, an unbalanced system could characterise a given Country in a specific moment in time, even though that balance is enshrined in its Constitution – we will clearly see an unbalanced relationship between individuals/citizens and power holders, to the benefit of the latter.

This phenomenon is gaining momentum worldwide…
To a certain extent it involves every Country. Because

the same recipe is used for every issue – be it the environment, migration, human rights …. – since these are problems with repercussions on all those involved. Yet nobody takes action, even though they could.The relationship between power holders and citizens hinges on this loss of connection. If power holders grow stronger this will result in the populism of the leader, but if citizens are those who grow stronger we will be faced with a populism of a different nature: the populism of the masses.

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