Populism Through Uprooted Truths
The resiliency of Erdogan and the AKP
This is an attempt to tell and explain the “success” story of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its founder Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current President of the Republic of Turkey. They came to power in 2002, following economic and political crises in the previous decade. The party and its leader have won more than ten consecutive elections (local, general, presidential and referenda), changed the political system of the country from the parliamentarian system to the presidential system, purged their adversaries from the bureaucracy, the military, public offices and the media, and stopped a bloody coup attempt and several uprisings around the country. During this long period, they have broken and established several alliances with very diverse, and sometimes opposing, parts of Turkish electorate and political actors –liberals, Gülenists, Turkish and Kurdish nationalists — in order to achieve their populist politics, fundamentally based on Islamism. I will tell the story in two parts. Here, I will focus on the phenomenon of “uprooted truths” that lies behind the resilience that allowed them to rule the country against all internal and external challenges . In the following post, I will show how they acheived success through successive populist transformations of uprooted truths.
The interplay between the AKP’s post-truth politics and their skill at establishing diverse political alliances provides a unique lens for understanding their success in the last sixteen years. Defining contemporary post-truth politics is indispensable to understanding the AKP’s successes because the AKP embodies its essential characteristics, fundamental to which is delegitimizing factual truths and confounding them with non-truths, lies and opinions. I draw upon the theories of Michel Foucault, Hannah Arendt and John Dewey to explain the interplay between the AKP’s post-truth politics and their resilience. It is essential to recognize that electoral behavior is heavily influenced by this post-truth rhetoric, which “induces regular effects of power,” as Michel Foucault put it , over the electorate. I argue that this rhetoric is effective because factual truths, which Arendt distinguishes from philosophical truths , are being uprooted in this contemporary populist moment in Turkey. I propose that these uprooted truths, admixed with non-truths, lies and opinions, create a floating political space that provides the conditions for the party’s successes. Dewey’s discussion of the public in modern societies supports the contention that this floating political space brings about a new form of politics, which is sustained by diverse uprooter rhetoric (more on this in the second post) to the extent that they delegitimize the factual truths and render them meaningless. It is this floating political space which enables the resiliency of the authoritarian and populist AKP government inasmuch as it allows them to easily and repetitiously change their allies, enemies and populist discourse. In fact, this capacity to easily shift their allies, enemies and populist discourse plays the most fundamental part in the AKP’s success vis-à-vis various internal and external challenges.
Writing in 1960s amid examples of modern tyrannies such as the USSR, but also of so-called liberal democracies, Arendt sees how in modern societies “factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted today with greater hostility than ever before” and is “transformed into opinions.” Thus, fact can be discredited as “just another opinion” by opinion-holders, including tyrants. This substitution of the factual truth for either lies or opinions destroys “the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world.” The effect is dire, according to Arendt, as it “pulls the ground from under our feet and provides no other ground on which to stand.” In such floating political space of the uprooted truths, lies and opinions one cannot any longer distinguish the factual truth from the untruth or non-truth. As a result, modern liberal democracy, which Jeffrey Goldfarb reminds us “must be based upon factual truths in order for those who meet in public to share a common world in which they can interact politically,” becomes more and more difficult to be realized. In its place, new regimes of confusion emerge in which civil society movements and actors are caught up in constantly trying to legitimize the truthfulness of their claims to wide-public.
Bringing Dewey’s and Arendt’s discussions of truth together, I stress that it has become almost impossible to sustain the factual truth in the contemporary populist moment “when literally it does not stay in place” as Dewey put it. Thus, there is no longer “a battle ‘for truth’, or at least ‘around truth,’” in Foucault’s terms, but rather a floating political space of the uprooted truths along with non-truths, lies and opinions which cannot be differentiated among each other. This, according to Dewey, renders publics “so confused and eclipsed” that they cannot have “a clear-cut, generally applicable, standard of judgment” which is fundamental for engaging in consequential collective deliberation and action. This also creates a suitable social and political milieu for populist politics to flourish since their critics and opponents cannot distinguish truths from non-truths, opinions and lies in this floating political space. Their opposition becomes vague as they cannot confidently communicate the truthfulness of their claims in this milieu of confusion.
I will explore the effects of this floating political space and how populist politics has been reproduced in Turkey in my next post through analyzing the AKP’s rule since 2002 in three different periods: (1) From their first electoral win in November 2002 until the Gezi Park protests in late May 2013; (2) from the brutal oppression of the peaceful Gezi Park protests in June 2013 until June 2015 general elections; and (3) from the beginning of the PKK’s uprising in the Southeastern Turkey in July 2015 until today.
Can Mert Kökerer is a masters student in sociology at NSSR.