Na­tional pop­ulism is un­stop­pable – and the left still doesn’t un­der­stand it

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Matthew Good­win

For a num­ber of years Europe has been in the midst of a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge from na­tional pop­ulism, as a suc­ces­sion of re­cent elec­tions have shown in Italy, Aus­tria, Hun­gary and Swe­den. Yet this is a move­ment that re­mains poorly un­der­stood. Par­ties on the rad­i­cal left and Greens are also mak­ing gains in some coun­tries, but they are hav­ing noth­ing like the elec­toral or pol­icy im­pact of the far right. It has emerged in democ­ra­cies that were al­ways thought to be im­mune to this po­lit­i­cal force. When I first started work­ing on the sub­ject in the late 1990s, an un­writ­ten law of sorts was that there were four democ­ra­cies that would never suc­cumb. They were Swe­den and the Nether­lands, be­cause they were his­tor­i­cally lib­eral, the UK be­cause of its strong po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions and civic cul­ture, and Ger­many, be­cause of the stigma left by the events of the se­cond world war.

But fast for­ward only 20 years, and each of those coun­tries has now ex­pe­ri­enced a ma­jor pop­ulist re­bel­lion. Pim For­tuyn and then Geert Wilders in the Nether­lands. The Swe­den Democrats, who re­cently reached a new record share of the vote. Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many, which has more than 90 seats in the Bun­destag and seats in 15 of Ger­many’s 16 state par­lia­ments. And in the UK, Nigel Farage and the UK In­de­pen­dence party forced a ref­er­en­dum on Bri­tain’s EU mem­ber­ship which voted for Brexit. Some­times we for­get how quickly rad­i­cal change in pol­i­tics can oc­cur.

The left has al­ways strug­gled to make sense of na­tional pop­ulism which seeks to pri­ori­tise the cul­ture and in­ter­ests of the na­tion, and prom­ises to give voice to a peo­ple who feel that they have been ne­glected, even held in con­tempt, by dis­tant and some­times cor­rupt or self-serv­ing elites. And to­day’s

thinkers, writ­ers and groups on the left have sub­scribed to a num­ber of the­o­ries, all of which are in­cor­rect. They claim this volatil­ity is sim­ply a short­lived back­lash against some­thing – whether im­mi­grants or “the sys­tem” – rather than a pos­i­tive vote for what na­tional pop­ulists are of­fer­ing, not only more re­stric­tive im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies but also a more re­spon­sive po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and more equal eco­nomic set­tle­ment.

An­other mis­con­cep­tion, build­ing on Marx, is that the likes of Don­ald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Mat­teo Salvini are driven by peo­ple’s con­cerns about eco­nomic scarcity, com­pe­ti­tion over wages or jobs, and, par­tic­u­larly to­day, by the ef­fects of the post-2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis and aus­ter­ity. A third is the mis­taken be­lief that all these awk­ward and trou­bling move­ments are es­sen­tially a re­flec­tion of lin­ger­ing racism in so­ci­ety, and per­haps even la­tent pub­lic sup­port for fas­cism. Oth­ers ar­gue, again wrongly, that vot­ers are be­ing ruth­lessly ma­nip­u­lated into vot­ing for the pop­ulists by dark and shad­owy right-wingers who con­trol the me­dia or big tech.

These ideas are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive, but they have dom­i­nated much of the left’s think­ing about pop­ulism. Yet there isn’t much ev­i­dence to sup­port any of them. Clearly, only a fool would ar­gue that things like the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, so­cial me­dia and racism are not im­por­tant. But they have been given a level of in­flu­ence in the de­bate that is wholly dis­pro­por­tion­ate to their sig­nif­i­cance, and they dis­tract from deal­ing with the ac­tual griev­ances that are fu­elling the rise in pop­ulism.

The idea that Brexit can be ex­plained away via ref­er­ences to big tech firms, that Trump is merely a byprod­uct of racism, or that the dra­matic po­lit­i­cal shifts in Europe can be re­solved by re­dis­tri­bu­tion and tack­ling in­equal­ity, are mere com­fort blan­kets. What we need to fo­cus on in­stead is how in most western democ­ra­cies the rise of na­tional pop­ulism has co­in­cided with the fall of so­cial democ­racy. Na­tional pop­ulism has recog­nised how the foun­da­tions of pol­i­tics are mov­ing while the left, for the most part, has clung to out­dated the­o­ries.

The cur­rent wave of na­tional pop­ulism ac­tu­ally be­gan decades ago, in the late 1970s and 80s, a “back­lash” to the 60s lib­eral revo­lu­tion that never truly went away. Since then it has been most suc­cess­ful in some of the most pros­per­ous and sta­ble economies, in­clud­ing those with strong rates of growth and low un­em­ploy­ment.

Even in Bri­tain we con­ve­niently ig­nore the fact that Farage and his self­anointed Peo­ple’s Army first en­joyed ma­jor suc­cess at the 2004 Euro­pean par­lia­ment elec­tions, after 48 con­sec­u­tive pe­ri­ods of eco­nomic growth, and drew much of their early sup­port from af­flu­ent con­ser­va­tives (it was only later when Ukip be­came more suc­cess­ful among blue-col­lar work­ers). The ten­dency to dis­miss these move­ments as a po­lit­i­cal home for old, white racist men ig­nores the fact that Le Pen picked up much of her sup­port not only from young men but young women in France, while in Aus­tria, Ger­many, Italy and Swe­den, na­tional pop­ulists are strong­est among the un­der-40s or draw their sup­port fairly evenly from across age groups. And, when it comes to racism, stud­ies have shown that this is fall­ing, not ris­ing.

So what is re­ally go­ing on? Na­tional pop­ulism is re­volv­ing around four deep-rooted so­ci­etal shifts: the “three Ds”. First, there are high lev­els of po­lit­i­cal dis­trust, which are be­ing ex­ac­er­bated by pop­ulist lead­ers who paint them­selves and their fol­low­ers as vic­tims of a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that has be­come less rep­re­sen­ta­tive of key groups. Se­cond, many peo­ple have strong and en­trenched fears about the per­ceived de­struc­tion of na­tional cul­tures, ways of life and val­ues, amid un­prece­dented and rapid rates of im­mi­gra­tion and eth­nic change. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing this dis­trust and fear are anx­i­eties about the loss of jobs and in­come, but also a strong sense that they and their eth­nic and so­cial group are be­ing left be­hind rel­a­tive to oth­ers in so­ci­ety.

Fi­nally, many po­lit­i­cal sys­tems in the west are hav­ing to grap­ple with a new era of dealign­ment, in which bonds be­tween vot­ers and tra­di­tional par­ties are break­ing down, and hence the path for new po­lit­i­cal chal­lengers is much more open.

When you take a closer look at these four cur­rents it be­comes abun­dantly clear that there is noth­ing ephemeral about na­tional pop­ulism, and we will be liv­ing in an era of height­ened volatil­ity for many years to come.

• Matthew Good­win is co-au­thor of Na­tional Pop­ulism: The Re­volt Against Lib­eral Democ­racy

To­day’s thinkers, writ­ers and groups on the left have sub­scribed to a num­ber of the­o­ries, all of which are in­cor­rect

Sup­port­ers Jair Bol­sonaro cel­e­brate in Rio de Janeiro after he won Brazil’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion on 28 Oc­to­ber. Pho­to­graph: Buda Men­des/Getty

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