Return of Historicism in the Rise of Populist Leaders? The Case of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan

By Thomas Krumm
Submitted to Session P6176 (Ottoman Revival and Return in Turkey, 2020 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The rise of authoritarian regimes poses a challenge of understanding the logic of legitimacy claims in the rhetoric of 'strongman' not only in the Middle Eastern region. In the paper, we aim to explore the hypothesis that crucial elements in the legitimacy claim of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey are based upon 'historicist' assumptions. Historicism as outlined by Karl Popper can be understood in a broad sense as 'cultural engineering' with the aim of reinstating (elements of) a past (Ottoman) order, from which state and society have deviated during the Republican period. As in Plato's depiction of the democratic period, the republican period in Turkey is characterized by Erdogan as one of disorder and decay, while the 'New Turkey' (Yeni Türkiye) aims at reinstating (imagined) values of an old order by socially re-engineering state and society. However, in contrast to 'first generation' political Islam in Turkey (Erbakan and Milli Görüs), Erdogan developed a new brand of historicism which combines utopian social engineering (the 2071 vision for instance) with a gradualist approach of (Popper’s favorite) piecemeal social engineering. The paper applies the concept of historicism to analyze how references to the past, especially to some aspects of (late) Ottoman history are used in Erdogan’s rhetoric to drive and legitimize his claim to power. In contrast to Popper’s rigid distinction between utopian and piecemeal social engineering, the results point at a mindset that can be labeled as 'smart historicism'.
Methodological we combine a single case study with elements of content analysis (using MaxQDA) and hermeneutic interpretation of Erdogan's public speeches (formal rhetoric) as well as phrases used at party gatherings and in the media for his critics (informal rhetoric). For instance, the slogan of a 'New Turkey' is used in formal rhetoric, while informal rhetoric such as 'know your place' and 'pay your price' very well match Plato's rhetoric of a closed (tribal) society. The paper will show that both the formal and the informal rhetoric refer to a historicist mindset of an ideal state, in which change is arrested and the well ruled individuals know their place and limits, or have to pay a price. Thus, while in general Popper’s concept of historicism in the case of Turkey’s Erdogan offers a useful framework for analyzing authoritarian claims to power, we suggest making it more flexible and up to date by using the concept of smart historicism.