Why national populism is here to stay

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Offline the leveller

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Why national populism is here to stay
« on: October 11, 2018, 02:07:56 PM »
Those yearning for a new liberal centrist politics are going to be disappointed – but can they offer an alternative?
We are living through a period of profound upheaval in the West. Across Europe, national populist parties and movements are sweeping through our democracies, reshaping them from below. National populists have enjoyed record election results in Italy, Sweden, Austria and elsewhere, while support for social democratic parties has slumped or collapsed. An assortment of radical left or green parties have also made notable gains, although their impact on policy has been less pronounced.
What characterises national populism? Each national populist party has its own local particularities but there are common themes. In the aggregate, national populists oppose or reject liberal globalisation, mass immigration and the consensus politics of recent times. They promise instead to give voice to those who feel that they have been neglected, if not held in contempt, by increasingly distant elites. (This is distinct from left-wing populism, which typically prioritises class allegiance over national attachment.)
The rise of national populism has been especially difficult for the mainstream left, many of whom misdiagnosed the cause and were far too slow to adapt. It is revealing that even today many social democrats shun movements that offer a fusion of economic and cultural protectionism. Calls for a reboot of the Third Way or the emulation of Emmanuel Macron conveniently ignore the fact that social democratic parties have now sunk to historic lows in Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden, while socialists in France and the Netherlands were almost wiped out. The evidence suggests that in both party politics and policy terms, Europe is shifting right.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is an outlier – because the radical transformation has taken place inside rather than outside the party – though it too is out of power and weakened by internal tensions. Still, by promising to respect the EU referendum result and at least reform migration, Labour is closer to acknowledging the new reality than those MPs who cling to the status quo. The lesson some took from the political revolts of 2016 is that what citizens really want is more globalisation, more immigration, more economic deregulation and more cultural liberalism. That would be the position of Tony Blair, and those in Britain who support the creation of a new centrist party.
Some on the left continue to think and act as though they are still in the “golden era” of mass party politics, when voters were tribally loyal and the agenda favoured the left’s traditional focus on redistribution and public services. Yet today, the allegiances between voters and the established parties are breaking down, political distrust is on the rise and so too is volatility – the willingness of people to switch their votes from one election to the next, as happened in Britain in 2015 when Ukip polled 3.8 million votes.
Meanwhile, the priority list for the electorate has been completely overhauled. When YouGov recently asked voters across Europe to name their top two priorities, every state but one gave the same reply: immigration and terrorism (Italians, the exception, said immigration and unemployment). The economy is usually a distant concern.
It is hard to see how we return to elections that deliver a commanding share of the vote for the older, established parties. It is also hard to see how social democrats – who have watched their socially conservative workers defect to apathy or national populism, and the liberal middle class flirt with radical left or green parties – can reverse their decline. A toxic mix of angst over inequality, migration, security and unresponsive elites will continue to have unpredictable effects for many years to come.
National populism will have a much longer life expectancy than many assume. On the left there has been a collective failure to identify, grasp and respond to the underlying causes. Influenced by Marxist theories, many remain wedded to the view that the likes of Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy, the Sweden Democrats and even Brexit and Donald Trump are either by-products of competition over scarce economic resources or reflect ephemeral outbursts among old, white, racist men who, to be blunt, will soon die.
These are seductive arguments for the left but they are wrong. For one thing, they run counter to the growing evidence that we have on what is pushing people into the arms of national populists. Amid societies that are characterised by persistent inequality, falling numbers of dignified, secure and well-paying jobs and a declining share of national income going to workers, only a fool would claim that economics does not have a role. “Income inequality,” the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently concluded, “has been growing in most wealthy countries in recent decades, raising questions about the stability and sustainability of our social and economic systems.” The lower middle class and blue-collar workers have good reason to feel angry. Life is getting harder.
But it is also true that many on the left routinely exaggerate the role of economics while ignoring or downplaying the more important role of culture, and framing anxieties over ethnic change, immigration and integration as outbursts of irrational bigotry or racism. The problem is compounded by rallying around thinkers who share these views while avoiding those who challenge them. The end result is that confirmation bias wins the day.
A more productive approach might be to consider how calls for greater equality, tighter control of borders and an end to large-scale, low-skilled migration can co-exist, as they do in Germany and Scandinavia, where social democrats tend to lean to the centre right on immigration and have been more willing to experiment with alternative appeals to voters.
Some on the left blame cuts to council budgets and the effects of the Great Recession for the success of national populists. But much of the current generation of parties began their rise in the 1980s, including in some of the most stable and highly developed economies in the West. The right populist Freedom parties in Austria and the Netherlands enjoyed major successes amid some of the lowest unemployment rates and highest living standards on the Continent, joining governing coalitions in 2000 and 2002 respectively.
The idea that this is all about economic losers also sits uneasily alongside the fact that economic hardship was a stronger predictor of support for Hillary Clinton than Trump in 2016. Fears about cultural displacement were dominant for Trump voters, while those who said they were in poor financial shape were 1.7 times more likely to back Clinton than those who were better off (although even here, economic grievances had only weak effects). In Italy, the unemployed embraced not Salvini’s League but the Five Star Movement, which backed some policies traditionally espoused by the left such as universal basic income.
Indeed, the majority of academic studies over the past three decades have found that objective economic indicators such as income have only a weak effect or none at all when it comes to explaining the appeal of national populism. As one review of more than 100 studies concluded recently, when it comes to how people think about the contentious issue of immigration, which lies at the core of national populism’s appeal, arguments that focus on economic self-interest “fare poorly”. Those who claim otherwise are, at best, driven by motivated reasoning or, at worst, ignorance. This is not to say that deprivation does not matter but it is relative rather than objective; large numbers of people across the West believe that both they and their wider group are being left behind relative to others and share intense fears about the future. And this, in turn, is intimately wrapped up with their anxieties about how immigration and a new era of rapid ethnic change are transforming their nations, threatening established ways of life and identities. Some assumed that the “left behind” thesis was only ever about economics when, I think, it was more to do with feelings of social and national loss – although these are often entwined. Britain’s vote to leave the EU averaged 76 per cent among people who felt things had “got a lot worse for me compared to other people” but just 25 per cent among those who felt things for them were “a lot better compared to other people”. Trump partly tapped into the same sentiment, drawing support from people who felt that the past was preferable to the present and that the future would be worse. People not only feel left behind but also left out by a political, media and cultural elite that holds a fundamentally different set of values.

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