A new wave of radical right wing politics known as Populism has being sweeping across western democracies, turning conventional politics on its head and challenging the established order. With Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, this trend has got its hands on the levers of power, but the pattern can also be seen in France, Italy, the Netherlands and other western democracies. With the rise of authoritarian regimes in other countries too, comparisons are being made with Fascism and Nazism in the 20th Century. Others would see it as part of an emerging trend in politics as we adjust to new developments across the world. Many make the mistake of dismissing Populism as some confused, backward-looking reaction to change by hillbillies and has beens, a “basket of deplorables” (Hillary Clinton) exploited by ruthless demagogues from the elite. How might we try to understand what’s going on?
What is populism?
Populism as a political term is viewed as a movement of “the people” against a remote, over-powerful or corrupt elite, often led by some charismatic leader or demagogue. It is a phenomenon seen in many democratic countries at different times, often occuring as a reaction to some major change in a country. Today, Le Pen’s Front National in France, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, Brexiters in the UK, Trump in the USA all share certain classic features of Populism.
One definition of populism is that it is “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people“. (Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist“)
Many academics see the term as a rather loose one, and even question its use given that Populists themselves don’t use the word, and also say that populist movements can be too varied for a single term to be useful. This article will use the term as it is popularly being used at present.
Some key features of today’s populism
A central theme in today’s populist revolt is reaction to the forces of globalisation and technological change. In the UK, a major feature of the Brexit vote in the 23 June 2016 referendum was that usually loyal Labour-voting working class areas of the Midlands, the North, and South Wales refused to follow the pro-EU lead of the Labour Party but voted for Brexit. These are the areas subject since the 1980’s to massive decline in traditional industry, with high unemployment, benefit dependency and insecure low-paid service industry work. People like Rob Ford have named them the “left behind“, with strikingly different values to the “political class”. Similarly, in the US Presidential election of 2016, it was the “rust belt”, usually Democrat states that swung so decisively to Trump, where formerly large and powerful traditional industry had closed down and moved work south to Mexico or to China. In France in the North East, former industrial heartlands have been moving over to the FN.
Thus populists advocate change in trade policy, in some countries a move to protectionism, the raising of tariff barriers against imported goods and services, in others like the UK a shift away from what is seen as a restrictive, bureaucracy-dominated EU, to a liberated UK able to agree its own free trade deals across the world. In the US there has been talk of repatriating industry back to the US, punitive tariffs on Chinese imports and the scrapping or change of major trade deals.
Much of the populist backlash has come after the Great Recession of 2008, when unemployment surged. However the trends have been going on a long time. Wages have stagnated or fallen, housing has been harder to obtain or of poor quality, home ownership falling, education limited and access to health services deteriorating. With living standards declining, there has been a parallel rise in inequality. The “metropolitan elite” by contrast have greatly increased in prosperity. Those in high-skill work, college graduates, younger on the whole, in banking or high technology industry, working globally, enjoying overseas holidays, living in prosperous suburbs, typically voted to remain in the EU.
Immigration and the white backlash
Many people speak of the rise of “identity politics“, of who you see yourself to be in terms of where you come from and see yourself as belonging. Thus people associate themselves in terms of ethnicity, religion, locality, or nationality. This cuts across traditional, broad-based political parties, and undermines old party “coalitions”. Thus across Europe socialist parties are in decline as they lose their working class base to populism, or what is in this context also called “nativism”.
Immigrants are seen as a threat to jobs and regarded as benefit seekers and at odds with traditional white culture. In the UK, the most Brexit-voting areas were those with little immigration and saw with alarm the changes happening further afield. While the reality was that most immigration was from outside the EU, it was the influx of cheap labour from Eastern Europe after 2004 that became a major sore after the 2008 slump. In France, large numbers of Arabs have entered the country from North Africa and settled in ghetto areas with limited integration into French culture, and have been the source of unrest.
Islamic extremism and violence, and the Syrian civil war, has added to the mix of antagonism across Europe, with eastern European countries erecting physical barriers and emergency powers being taken in several western countries. Pictures of boatloads of migrants crossing the Aegean and Mediterranean and the Calais migrant camp were appearing daily on TV screens.
In the US, Trump promised to stop Muslims from entering the US, and also to build a wall along the border with Mexico to stop Hispanic illegal migration and “make Mexico pay” for it. The Trump vote was overwhelmingly white, with many voting who didn’t normally vote.
It was noticeable that in the Brexit campaign, and shortly afterwards, there was a major spike in hate crimes in the UK. People in the US commented on how they felt Trump was encouraging racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia. Some even said there was an uncomfortable linkage made between Clinton and New York Jewish high finance. His campaign was endorsed by the Klu Klux Klan. It was reported that attempts were made in several states to keep minority ethnic groups off the voting register.
The French FN under Marine Le Pen’s father was anti-semitic, although she has worked to distance her party from that stance. However, the FN has promised to restrict Arab migration and to assert French secularism (Laïcité) against Islam.
Parallel to immigration concerns has been a rise in nationalism. Trump’s key slogan has been “Make America Great Again”. The sense was that the US had relatively-speaking declined, her industries decimated, her trade limited by globalisation and “unfair” trade practices, prey to illegal immigration, “political correctness” and other features supported by what was regarded as a Washington DC “liberal” elite.
The Brexit campaign was intended to “take back control”, to restore Britain’s control over her affairs as opposed to an interfering, remote and corrupt “Brussels” bureaucracy. France’s FN belongs in a long tradition of nationalism dating back to authoritarian politics of the 1920’s and 30’s, to opposition to Algerian independence and now to favouring leaving the EU.
Populist movements in a number of other countries have also been nationalistic in tone, such as in Italy and the Netherlands. Other countries which have switched to more authoritarian governments have also made a big play of nationalism, often to divert attention from internal problems, as in Hungary, Turkey and Russia.
Nationalism interacts with anti-immigration and protectionism to heighten the sense of “us against them”, dividing country from country, and stigmatising groups within a country. This in turn also overlaps with increased international tension, as seen in Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and intervention in the Ukraine, Chinese occupation of South China Sea islands and disputes with Japan, and the spread of war and Islamic extremism in the Middle East.
Authoritarianism and the cult of the strong man
In some countries, populism has often in the past been linked with demagogic leaders, powerful individuals who exercise a strong control over their movements and once in power proceed in less democratic ways. One has to be very careful about over-stating this pattern in Western Europe and the US today, given the current perceived strength of democratic institutions there. However, while not necessarily populist, those in Hungary, Poland, Russia and Turkey have eroded certain pillars of democracy in favour of a “strong man” style of government. In Russia most of all freedom of the press, freedom of association and the rule of law has been radically diminished. Commentators in the US have warned however that Trump’s presidency could see a shift to a more authoritarian version of US democracy in so far as it can be constitutionally exercised. Support for Bexit in the UK are thought to be linked to an “authoritarian populist” tendency embracing roughly half the electorate. Recent research across a number of European countries has found a similar pattern.
Trump is constrained by the elaborate system of checks and balances in the US Constitution, deliberately designed to prevent a demagogue from abusing power. However, his election could be said to have strained American democratic principles. For example he implied that he might not accept the result of the election. One of the key ways democracies fail is through a disputed election. One must accept the rules of the game, including the outcome of the vote. Another feature was that he urged people to “watch” the poll, alleging that the system was “rigged”. This is said to have eroded trust in the democratic process. It was suggested that vigilantes might intimidate voting in certain areas through turning out to “watch” the vote. He described his opponent as a criminal, and his supporters at meetings would chant, “Lock her up!”
Populists regard the existing political establishment as remote, corrupt and self-serving. Trump would say in his campaign, in relation to Washington, that “We’re going to drain the swamp”. The Brexit campaign similarly treated “Westminster” as a self-serving cosmopolitan political class, distant from “ordinary, decent people”. Brexiters fear that their pet project of leaving the EU could be undermined by such politicians. Thus the referendum result cannot in their eyes be questioned, even though the result has produced policy chaos by not defining the terms of departure (“Leave” could take many forms, for example). Somehow, despite the referendum being advisory not mandatory, the result is treated as one that can by-pass the will of Parliament. This sleight of hand is achieved despite their objective of seeking to “restore” the sovereignty of Parliament.
Thus, while so far democratic practice in Western Europe and the US has not changed in an authoritarian direction, there are ways in which the system is under stress. Campaigns in both the US and the UK strained principles of truth to their utmost, for example the claim that £350m a week allegedly paid each week to “Brussels” could instead go to the NHS, a claim disputed as totally inaccurate at the time and while not dropped during the campaign was dropped soon afterwards.
Populism and Fascism
There is arguably a danger in calling Populism “Fascism”. Firstly there is no agreed definition of either tendencies, which can make the whole process of comparison problematic. Secondly Populist movements have often been used to reinforce democracy, or at least one version of it, rather than, as with Fascism, to destroy it.
One of the characteristics of the rise of Nazism, admittedly not actually called “Fascism” at the time, was the use of myth, lies, and bullying to win over an desperate and impoverished German population in the Great Depression of the early 1930’s. Democracy was conflated with Communism and Socialism and with a mythical international Jewish conspiracy (the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion) to rule the world. The enemy of the German people was said to be not merely Russian Communism, but really their so-called masters, the hapless Jews, who were to be exterminated. German’s true destiny, the Reich of a Thousand Years, was to be built through obedience to an all-powerful Führer or leader of the Volk, in a totalitarian system of government, work provided for all, autarky as regards trade, and an aggressively nationalist foreign policy leading to the creation of Lebensraum or living space for the German people by conquest, and mass murder, of the “inferior Slavs” of Eastern Europe and European Russia.
The Populism we have discussed here is rather different in its current manifestation in the West. This is a very different age, particularly as democratic practice today is well-established, unlike the very disturbed period after World War One when, for example, the post-First World War Weimar Republic was Germany’s first struggling attempt at genuine democracy.
Crisis of legitimacy
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious issues that threaten the effective functioning of democracy in the West and in particular the crisis of legitimacy referred to in this blog. Populists and their opponents are both holding up the democratic model to scrutiny as not before for a long time. For example, for populists, government is not being sufficiently accountable to “the people’s” interests. This brings us back to the age-old question of the ability of democratic government to embrace the myriad range of different and often conflicting interests in our society and still govern effectively.
Footnotes on recent research
Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell in a recent book (2018) help correct some misunderstandings about who or what we are dealing with in fighting Brexit. National Populism, as they call it, is not nascent Fascism, an abberation before a reversion to the norm, a movement of the deluded, a creation of shadowy plutocrats, a result of the 2008 Great Recession or austerity, for example, but a long-term pattern that has exploded across the developed world and is, as they say, a serious revolt with long-term potential. They argue that it is about the “4 D’s”, (1) a distrust of a remote, unrepresentative “political class” and institutions, and a reassertion of a people’s democracy, (2) a belief that unresticted immigration is destroying a nation’s historic identity and way of life, (3) how neoliberal globalised economics is creating a sense of relative deprivation witnessed in economically declining communities, income stagnation and rising inequality, (4) de-alignment of voters from established political parties, making politics volatile, fragmented and unpredictable. This isn’t going away any time soon and could well frame our politics for the next few decades.
Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin: Revolt on the right: Explaining support for the radical right in Britain. (Routledge; 2014)
Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin: National Populism, The Revolt against Liberal Democracy. (Pelican Books; 2018)