The rise of populist leaders throughout the world since the turn of the 21st century has emphasized the existing problems between the different sectors of society. Recently, democracies have seen the likes of Donald Trump of the United States, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey ascend to the Presidency of their respective countries behind the support of the disgruntled masses wanting an immediate, radical change in social order.
Leaders capitalize on the populist sentiment by appealing to the worst fears of the electorate. They take advantage of the growing separation between the rich and the poor, which is caused by phenomena that they themselves have either participated in or benefited from. They present themselves as alternatives to the establishment by emphasizing only their unconventional characteristics, whether it is their dramatized rise to fame and power or use of unconventional language. This culture has given populism a negative reputation in the eyes of the middle class and the elite.
Unfortunately, these style-over-substance tactics win over the masses, who are looking for instant relief over their undeserved suffering. They feel they have been alienated for years by institutions led by men and women they chose to represent their best interests, which is indeed the case in several nations. Such is the severity of this status quo that when a candidate presents himself/herself as "anti-establishment" or an outsider to the traditional mold of a politician, the masses latch on to these candidates like ants on a piece of candy.
No matter how flawed the candidate may be, populists will support the actions of these men and women for a chance at self-advancement as much as their desire to see the existing order changed, if not destroyed. Common sense and reason are thrown out the window when they defend even the most painfully obvious violations of social or legal rules committed by their leaders in their misguided hope to attain socioeconomic equality.
As much as these leaders have taken advantage of the plight of the masses to obtain political power, part of the fault also lies with the middle class. While globalization has undoubtedly created a more dynamic modern way of life, it also has created a culture of a strong emphasis on self-development.
The intellectuals, who mostly belong within the elite and middle class, are trained to think under liberalistic ideals through universities and colleges, which includes the need to contribute to societal well-being. However, access to more information (i.e. other cultures, latest gadgets) from electronic media and a culture of materialism makes them more inclined to pursue individualistic goals. As a result of these developments, intellectuals are more exposed to opportunities for improving their socioeconomic standing, such as high-paying jobs and relatively affordable housing.
The growth of social media has also created a form of pseudo-activism, an indicator of the current problems with modern intellectualism. While social media provides an unprecedented avenue for voicing out opinions to a larger audience, it has also misled some to overestimate its true reach and impact. A majority of the people worldwide still have no access to either the Internet or social media, especially in parts of Asia and Africa.
Too often are media such as Facebook and Twitter used to popularize trends that provide a form of entertainment yet ultimately have little to no impact on the quality of life. When it came to campaigning for issues of national or regional importance, some intellectuals are satisfied with posting their opinions on their social media accounts. They settle for fancy words on hashtags, opting to go along with the hip trends rather than having a genuine argument regarding the issue. Consequently, this creates an environment where intellectuals falsely believe they have done enough or made a difference.
So many issues such as armed conflicts, poverty, and climate change are dividing people across and within countries at a time when only a unified effort can solve them. As such, is there a way to reconcile populism and intellectualism, two seemingly opposing movements at the center of conflicts in the modern world?
Only by intellectuals and populists engaging in meaningful interactions can they create a harmonious relationship vital for the rebirth of modern society. Intellectuals need to orient their skills and resources towards the genuine betterment of the masses as much as their self-development. As they have had the opportunities to improve their socioeconomic status, they need to take up the responsibility of leading the movement for genuine change.
Most importantly, they need to see through the perspective of the populists and understand where they are coming from instead of enforcing their opinions and coming across as arrogant or elitist. People fear what they don't understand, which is the philosophy used by leaders such as Trump to emerge victorious. Intellectuals need to find a way to communicate their ideologies to the populists. While social media is an important avenue, posting comments on Facebook or Twitter is nowhere near enough.
Intellectuals need to become more active participants in their governments and implement policies that benefit all sectors. They have to speak in such a way that evokes an emotional response from those with opposing views, to sway them to their side. Numbers and statistics may only turn away the populists; instead, they should communicate how their ideas may benefit even those with rivaling opinions.
Meanwhile, the populists, especially the poor, need to stop falling for the vicious cycle of dishonest, self-serving leaders masquerading as their saviors if they want a true chance for economic and social advancement. History tends to repeat itself, but only if we let it happen. Furthermore, they should be open to engaging in discussions with intellectuals based on logic rather than emotions. They need to mobilize their numbers for causes worth fighting for instead of issues made up or exaggerated by populist leaders for personal gains.
In a similar manner, populists need to initiate action within their own communities, either by supporting or constructively opposing implemented policies and offering their own ideas and solutions. They cannot simply wait for their perceived "saviors" to alleviate their plight, especially with history suggesting that these men and women seldom prioritize their needs.
A new world order is currently established, where authoritarian leaders are taking over democracies and looking out strictly for their own countries, if not their self-interests. Only through our unity, regardless of social or economic status, can we ensure that this potentially destructive order will be a brief period in history, a prelude to a stronger modern society for future generations.