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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 8 February 24, 2024

Folk Politics and Populism: Pedagogy of Leadership | Sunita Samal

Saturday 24 February 2024, by Sunita Samal


Abstract: The discussion about the problem of past and vision of future come together in debate of what is not done in present. Here is the dream of protest as an expression of politics. It may be personal or collective; organized or unorganised. Trait research leaders and behaviour research leaders did not consider situational influences that might moderate the relationship between leader behaviour and leader effectiveness. If that seems to be a deflating idea, it only goes to show how entrenched self-expressive protest becomes political identity. This is cultural expectation that accelerates as a genuine project that pick up the tools of modernity to liberated end.

Introduction: Leaderships in populism make people passive while in folk politics they try to make people active. Populism occurs at regular interval. But folk politics is updated in seconds. The emergence of internet gave rise to much expectation about a potential reconfiguration of public sphere. Many observers hoped that internet communication would have effect on folk Politics and populism that grants actors easier access to public sphere than old media such as TV and newspapers. Observers also hope that internet communication would lead to more inclusive public debates with diverse evaluation and arguments. In long run, the internet might democratize the public sphere and lead to strengthen political interests and participation among citizens1 [1]. Dissemination of information and control of people’s mind will go side by side in digital age that influences right to information and freedom of deliberation. For pedagogy of leadership, it is not only providing supplementary facts about chosen story but also offer ideas for the whole new stories from around the world. If it is deviated from its own path, then the digital democracy will be a dream.

Situation from Ground Zero: For most, folk politics has been a series of marginal successes as the best and outright defeat at worst. Without rejecting the contributing factor of objective changes in the self-understanding of class, gender and race, we try to add another explanation based upon a widespread common sense amongst the people. It is what we call ‘folk politics’—an intuitive set of beliefs that lead those instinctually turn towards ‘immediacy’ as solution to human rights approach. Our argument is that this folk political common -sense solution to participation tends to lead movement to organize and do politics in a way which constrains the possibility of escaping a global capitalism. This does not mean that folk politics should be rejected or dismissed rather simply try to point its wide circulation. In folk politics, people will be going to be sovereign if it succeeds. Populism is many times used to suppress folk-politics. But from the very beginning, populism employs the understanding of ‘the people’ is in the idea that the people are ‘sovereign’. If they are ignored, then they might mobilise or revolt and that takes the form of folk -politics and threaten the existing leadership.

According to Stanley, in folk-politics, the distinguishing feature of what the elites and their adversely relationships with the people. The political scientists Paul Taggart proposed the term ‘the heart land’ to better reflect what populists often mean in their ‘rhetoric’. Although populist leaders often themselves as representative of ‘the people’ they often come from elite strata in society. The conception of populism as a political strategy through which the personality of leaders seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated an un-constitutionalised support from large numbers of mostly unorganised followers. It may rely on the belief that the ‘anomie’ which followed industrialization which has resulting in fragmentation and differentiation. It weakens the traditional ties of civil society and increasing individualization2 [2].

Protest and Nostalgia: The difficulty is that the left despite of pride in being progressive, is subjected to nostalgia. A nagging question in folk-politics is how to get the people going when there is no leader like Gandhi to lead the change. America culture by embracing leaderless or horizontal movements shows the hardest aspect of it. Srnicek and Williams argue that folk politics are insufficient to tackle global capitalism and specifically neo-liberalism in achieving global cultural hegemony3 [3]. The strategy is that the left need to offer a positive vision of new modernity embracing the importance of dismantling hierarchies of gender and race while accepting and promoting universal human values.

Folk politics aims at bringing politics down to the human scale. It is a bottom-up thin ideology. Populism aims at how leaders pursue politics from top to down level. Folk politics tends to privilege reacting to change through personal involvement over institutional processes. It is single tactics over complex strategies and horizontal over hierarchical. The question is that whether this action is more a habit than a solution. A common framework for interpreting folk politics is an ideology which presents the people as a moral force and contrast them against elite who seems to be corrupt and self-serving. But in populism, there is no such contrast of ideology is found. The term populism came into use in the late 19th century alongside the promotion of democracy. It is often used to democratise institutions-such as legislature and judiciary4 [4].

Does Government use the method of populism to contain folk politics? Populism has often been responsible for de-democratization as they undermine independent institutions like media or judiciary which he considers hostile to the will of people. Both Srnicek and Williams emphatically reject Nick Lands hypnotizing belief that capitalism speed alone could generate a global transition toward unparallel technological singularity. Instead, they analyse post-work global crisis of surplus population and the challenges to rebuild the contemporary left. American culture by embracing leaderless and horizontal movement show the hardest aspect of it5 [5]. It is argued that how in West, the ‘post-work’ politics—providing a clear vision of a future where people work less – should appeal to a broad enough range of different interest groups to be the basis of a populist movement. It sketches how populism needs to be harnessed to get post-work politics in to mainstream media and intellectual life6 [6].

Folk politics is basically leaderless in nature. Although academic definitions of populism have differed most of them have focused on the idea that it should refer some form of relationship between ‘the people’ and the ‘elite’ and takes an anti-establishment stance when human rights in danger. The political scientist Ben Stanley noted that although the meaning of the term has proven controversial in regard to folk politics, the persistence with which it has recurred suggests the existence of at least an unalienable core that is referring to a distinct pattern of ideas7 [7].

There has been no-self-conscious international populist movement which differs from other political terms like ‘socialism’ and ‘liberalism’. It has often been applied to movements that are consider to be outside the political mainstream or threat to democracy. Anti-establishment understanding conceives of populism as an ideology and world view. Populism is viewed as a thin ideology while folk-politics may lead to anarchism. Populism which on its own is seen as not too substantial to provide a blue print for social change. It thus differs from thick central or ‘full’ ideology such as fascism or liberalism or socialism that provides more far-reaching idea about social transformation. According to Stanley Ben ‘thin-ness’ of populism ensures that in practice it is a complementary ideology. It does not so much overlap with as diffused self throughout full ideology8 [8].

Encounter with Leadership: Leadership can be defined as a process by which one individual influence other towards the attainment of group or organizational goals. Three points about the definition of leadership should be emphasized. First, leadership is a political influence process. It cannot exist without a leader and one or more followers. Second, leadership elicits voluntary nature of compliance separates leadership from other types of influence based on formal authority. Finally, leadership results in follower’s behaviour that is purposeful and goal directed in some organized setting. Despite this, the precise nature of leadership and relationship to key criterion variables such as subordinate satisfaction, commitment and performance is still uncertain to the point where Fred Luthans in his book ‘Organizational Behaviour’ (2005) said that ‘it (leadership) does remain pretty much of a ‘black box’ or unexplained concept9 [9].

Three main theoretical frameworks have dominated leadership research at different points in time. These included the trait approach (1930s-1940s), the behavioural approach (1940s and 1950s), and the contingency or situational approach (1960s and 1970s). The scientific study of leadership began with a focus on the traits of effective leaders. The basic premise behind trait theory is that effective leaders are born—not made. Thus, the name sometimes applied to early version of this idea of ‘great man’ theory.
The assumption of the leader behaviour approach was that there were certain behaviours that would be universally effective for leaders. Unfortunately, empirical research has not demonstrated consistent relationship between task-oriented or person-oriented leader’s behaviours and effectiveness. Like trait research leader and behaviour research did not consider situational influences that might moderate the relationship between leader behaviour and leader effectiveness.

Introduced in 1967, Fiedler’s situational approach was the first to specify how situational factors interact with leader traits and behaviour to influence leadership10 [10]. This theory suggests that the favourability of the situation by-

First is the respect and trust that followers have for the leader,

Second, is that to the extent to which a subordinate’s responsibility can be structured and performance measured,

Third, is the control the leader has over the subordinate’s rewards.

The situation is most favourable when followers respect and trust the leader, the task is highly structured and the leader has control over rewards and punishments. Fiedler’s research indicated that task oriented and leaders were more effective when the situation is highly favourable or highly unfavourable. But person-oriented leaders are more effective in moderately favourable or unfavourable situations.

The ideology with which populism can be paired with that can oppose each other. For instance, in Latin America, during 1990s, populism was often associated with politicians like Alberto Fujimori of Peru who promoted neo-liberal economies, while in 2005, populism was instead associated with those like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez who promoted socialist programmes. Groups like Turkey’s Justice and Development party have been described as combining populism with Islamism. Left-wing populism are presenting themselves as the voice of the people more widely. We can take into account the Vietnam protest of 1971, when twenty-five thousand people blockaded bridges and intersected around Washington D.C. A manual describing the demonstration tactics allowed Nixon’s Attorney General to summon the police, military and National Guard pre-emptively. The last major national protest against Vietnam war also a crucial experiment with new kind of radicalism. It was less about moral leadership than about the fact of obstruction. History provides an especially sharp rejection of those who doubt the sustained power of protest. The Civil Rights movement in USA from mid-fifties to mid-sixties activists successfully worked to roll back school segregation or more. It happened under politically entrenched and physically threatened conditions.

An example of Folk politics in modern times is the Tahrir Square of Egypt revolution. Modern network movements can scale up quickly and take care of all sorts of logistically tasks without building any substantial organization before first protest. Instead, people hailed down volunteers in the park or called for them on Twitter or What’s App messages. In past, just to getting people to show up required top-down coordinator but today anyone can gather crowds and strangers through tweets and up-date in seconds. Folk-politics prefer that action can be taken by participant himself in its emphasis on direct action. It observes decision-making as something to be carried out by each individual participation rather than by any representative. To the extent that such projects make political arguments, they are expressed through what is often called a ‘pre-figurative’ politics11 [11].

Populism is based on a propaganda imposed by authority. Folk politics is the voice of grass root people. The decentralized nature of internet makes it the most effective tool to uphold democratic values. The question is that whether the internet represents the social responsibility model of the media or the libertarian model. Social responsibility model aims at bringing consensus in society. Libertarian model aims at compromising hierarchy of typical corporate business.

In contrast to other mass media, the internet is seen as a force for radical democracy. It is seen as the helping hands of marginalised groups—those groups associated with discourses excluded from mainstream public sphere. It develops their own deliberative forums and subsequently contest the dominant meaning and practice.

In case of populism, leader disseminate their opinion through internet and it played a significant role and this means that their ideals can be spread faster and reached to more people. It in turn widens the opportunity for social and political change. The emerging communication system has profoundly transformed Arab public sphere by increasing citizen’s ability to document and share the anti-Aznar protest in Spain that gain momentum so quickly and precisely because millions l of people spreading the massage were not part of hierarchical organizations. The anti-Estrade movement in Philippines used the technique of forwarding text massage to organise a massive group. For Political movements one of the main forms of coordination is that the majority people not only know the subject but also, they have shared awareness of knowing each other.

Digital Divide and Public: Sir Harold Evans, former editor of ‘The Times’ London, has observed that opinion rather than facts is the commonest traffic in cyber space. The most alarming part of such stories, is that they have the capacity not only the mis-informed public but also to false increment. The digital divide is as real as the fact that the internet has changed and continue to change –the human society in ways few would have imagined in the early 1990s. The influence of internet has undoubtedly created the need for some kind of regulation but the rapidity of its growth renders it difficult. In internet, the manner of actors and content selection might be even inferior compared to the old mass media, because the later at least employ journalistic norms and balanced statements and thereby provide a better communication.

The nature of virtual community is different from physical communities and hence, it would be erroneous to assume that the same set of social values can be transposed on both communications—internet and other media. The internet user sometimes has to share information to acquire information12 [12]. The public sphere in the work of Jurgen Habermas13 [13] conceived as a neutral social space for critical debate among private persons who gather to discuss matters of common concern in free and rational ways. For him, public sphere is deteriorated because liberal model is controlled by bourgeoise. New form of public space is required to institutionalize democracy. Can Internet fill the space which populism does not address and folk politics yet to acknowledge?

In populism, elites are organised in making opinion. But in case of folk politics, the forces are basically unorganized in nature. Here the challenges lie at the core thinking by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri14 [14]. Gone are the days when a political vanguard could successfully take power in the name of masses. Hardt and Negri also work in the Marxist tradition and sometimes they seem to be less than the ‘art of possible’. As capitalists under the rule of finance, lose their innovative capacities, are gradually excluded from knowledge of productive socialization. The ‘multitude’ increasingly generates its own forms of cooperation and gain capacities for innovation. According to the classical model protest strategy (the big idea), the master plan falls to movement leaders while tactics fall to the people on the ground.

Our current radical action on culture, really started in early nineteen-seventies when a new generation of green shoots rose up from ash. No movement can generate without making tactical decisions. Kauffman sees the end that decades as a kind that strive left radicalism atomized, chaotic and fractured. He portrays direct democracy as a scrap’s passionate enterprise. The oppressed are dissatisfied and got together and strengthen by number that forces change. Generally, movements those are succeeded are actually strategically flexible and proto-institutional. Changes do arrive through mainstream power but this just mean that their right to revolt should be threatened through culture of institutional structure. Folk politics tracing a year of anti-establishment trend flatters a certain idea of heroism, the system must be fought by authentic people. Yet, that outlook is widely held. It may be in the end is the powerless person’s best bet.

Is Movement Politics Over? Folk politics may be at the first instance seems almost absurdly wide but later qualified as being implicit within political positions. For this reason, folk politics must be displaced from its position as primary political practice and instead be treated as a supplement practice. In the book ‘The Once and Future Liberal’, Marl Lilla urges a turn back toward the governmental process. What he wrote was that the age of movement politics is over; at last, for now, we need no more marches. What we need more mayors. This is an area of potential controversy since a significant portion of critical theory produced over last few decades has focused precisely on honours inherent in modernity. Given the global weakness of the left during this period, the argument presented here holds considerable appeal15 [15].

Democratizing technology may now give the voiceless a means to cry in the street, but the real results come to those with some old privileges, time, money, infrastructure and ability to call in favour that shapes mainline politics. The challenge is to make folk-politics up-to-date. When populists take governmental power, they are faced with a challenge in that they now represent a new elite. Chavez in Venezuela retains their anti-establishment rhetoric by making changes to their concept of ‘the elite’ to suit their circumstances, alleging the real power is not held by the government but other powerful forces who continue to undermine the populist government.

In various instances populists claim that the ‘elite’ is working against the interest of country. In European Union, for instance, various populist groups allege that their national elite put the interest of EU over the interest of nation-state. Similarly, Latin American populist often charge their political elites are championing the interest of USA over their own country. Muddes suggested that this phenomenon is better described as opportunism rather than populism16 [16]. Populism has often been responsible for de-democratization as they undermine independent institutions like media or judiciary which they consider hostile to the will of people.

Concluding Observations: Both folk-politics and populism are most widely used but poorly understood political concept of our time. In digital age, movement tends to be organizationally toothless but goods at barking at power and forcing ultimatum through complex negotiation. It is commented that populism gives rise post-work politics and folk politics is past-time politics. Far from speaking ‘truth to power’ successful protest leaders seek to speak ‘truth through power’. Authority in the new tactical model arose from the number of people who showed up the need for common principle, but the choice behind public protest could be personal and private. In transformation of public sphere, the cultural critique becomes political through self-imposed house arrest. Their objection to folk-politics and populism is that it defies generation of radical zeal ---the people united will never be defeated’.

(Author: Sunita Samal is a political commentator)

[1Duhlgren, P. (1991) ‘Introduction’, in P. Duhlgren and C. Sparks eds. ‘Communication and Citizenship’ London, Routledge.p-1-26

[2The Oxford Hand Book of Populism.

[3Srnicek and Williams (2015) ‘Inventing the Future: Post-Capitalism and A World Without Work’ Verso, London.

[4Mudde, Casi Rovira, Kattwasser, Cristobol (2017) “Populism: A very Short Introduction: Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5Kaffman, L.A. ‘In Direct Action’ Protest and Reinvention of American Radicalism’ Verso.

[6Review of ‘Investing the Future: Post-Capitalism and World Without Work’ By Ben Rosamond, New Zealand, Sociology, Vol.3, No.6

[7Ben, Stanley (2008) ‘The Thin Ideology of Populism’ Journal of Political Ideology’


[9Luthans, Fred (2005) ‘Organizational Behaviour’, Boston: MA: McGraw Hill Irwin

[10Fiedler, Fred E. (1967) ‘A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness’, New York: McGraw-Hill.

[11Kauffman, L.A, (2017) ‘Direct Action’ Protest and Reinvention of American Radicalism’ Verso

[12Larry Leslie Z. (2004) ‘Ethics: Decision Making in Post-Modern Culture’ Houghton Miffin Company, Boston, USA.

[13Habermas J. (1989) ‘The Structural Transformation of Public sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society’ T. Berger and F. Lawrence trans. Cambridge M.A. MIT Press.

[14Hardt Michael and Antonio Negri (2004) “Multitude’, Penguin, NY.

[15Lilla, Mark “The Once and Future Liberal’ Oxford, 2018.

[16Mudde, Cas and R. Katwasser, Cristobol (2017) ‘Populism: A very short Introduction, Oxford University Press.

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