Which of these countries has not seen the recent rise of right-wing populism?
(a) The Netherlands (b) Hungary (c) Germany (d) Norway (e) Spain
In recent elections in Holland, Germany, Hungary and Norway, far-right populist parties gained seats. The answer to the quiz is Spain. Grass roots populism does exist in Spain. However, unlike the trend towards right-wing populism that many other countries are experiencing, Spanish populists have veered to the left over the last decade. While Spain’s current governing party is still centrist-right, the Spanish left-wing populist party Podemos won 20% of the votes in the 2016 election.
Why have so many people in so many developed countries turned to populist parties or leaders in the last decade?
Harvard economist Dani Rodrik argues that populism is a backlash to our 40 year experiment with intense globalization - an experiment that is perceived by many as undermining employment opportunities and cultural and social cohesion.
A growing number of people feel unfairly treated by globalization. Moreover, they are increasingly disenchanted with mainstream political parties who they accuse of being oblivious to their concerns.
That’s the genius of populist parties. They speak to the frustrations and fears of ordinary people and represent themselves as the only real source willing to push back against the powerful forces that have caused the problems.
Populist rhetoric is a return to the emotions of confrontational politics. The adversaries are “Us, the good people” against “Them, the selfish elites” who now control mainstream political parties.
Who are these selfish elites? That answer depends on whether you are a left-wing or right-wing populist.
Left-wing populism is rooted in economic and class distinctions. For many, perhaps the most familiar example is the Occupy Movement with its identification of Wall Street, the international corporations, and the “one percent” as the villains.
Left-wing populist leaders like Bernie Sanders in the US and Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias are avowedly socialistic in that they want a more equitable redistribution of wealth and income. They seek to re-politicize democracy by emphasizing class struggle (big against little, rich against poor). They want to introduce a passion for politics among the people and a vigilant citizenry continuously on guard against elites who would take more than their fair share.
The link between left-wing populism and high inequality
Historically, left-wing populism has been strongest in countries with high inequality. In Latin America, perhaps the most unequal region of the world, left-wing populist parties or leaders have consistently polled between fifteen and thirty percent of votes over the last few decades. In Europe, the hotbeds of left-wing populism have been Spain and Greece, countries in which inequality and unemployment are substantially higher than in northern Europe, and where governments have (on the insistence of the European Commission) imposed oppressive austerity measures.
You might think that left-wing populist movements would be thriving given that inequality is growing pretty well everywhere. They are not. In fact, support for leftish parties (both centrist and extremist) is at its lowest level in seventy years – and falling. Why is that?
Why is right-wing populism now the preferred choice for so many people?
Right-wing populists are less grounded in class conflicts than their left wing cousins. Instead, their frustrations are often rooted in forces external to the nation state.
In Trump’s United States, that manifests itself, not just as opposition to trade agreements, but to countries like Mexico that exploit these agreements to “unfairly” benefit their own people. In Europe, the identified enemy is the EU bureaucracy itself, which is accused of serving the needs of international capitalism and financial elites at the expense of nation states.
Right-wing populists, unlike their left-wing cousins, object also to the increased flow of labour across borders under globalization. Contrary to what you might expect, given ever increasing employment uncertainty, right-wing populists' primary objection to immigration, at least in Europe, appears to be cultural rather than economic. Populists fear that the rising diversity caused by increased immigration threatens national culture and the unity of national community. Citizens, they argue, are losing their sense of who they are.
All of this tends to make right-wing populists more nationalistic than their left wing cousins. They are also more likely to be attracted to strong authoritarian leaders who will strengthen the nation and return to the conservative values of the past.
In its most exaggerated form, right-wing populism encourages xenophobia. It is unjust, however, to tar all right-wing populists as racists.
The link between migration patterns and right-wing populism
To put this BBC chart in perspective, in 2015 Hungary had, per capita, 30 times as many asylum applicants as Great Britain and 56 times as many as Spain. The great majority of applicants have been from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
In spite of having strong socialist traditions, all six of the countries highlighted in the above chart have experienced surges in far-right parties in recent elections. They are not alone.
The sudden surge in right-wing populism across the developed world has reached historic proportions.
Back in the late 1980s voter support for populist parties or candidates averaged under five percent. By 2015 it had risen to over twenty percent of the vote. That increase has been driven overwhelmingly by the growth of far-right nationalist parties.
The Outlier - Regional Separatist Populism
Regional separatist populism is a different kind of populism – one that sets secessionist regions (e.g., Catalonia, Scotland) against their respective national centres. It’s not a new phenomenon but in Europe it has bubbled up to boiling points in the last decade.
Secessionist populists are primarily ethnic in character and cannot be pigeon-holed into right or left wing positions. They want the independence and control of their own destiny that nationhood would give them.
And then there is Brexit, another cross-party phenomenon. According to exit polls after the referendum, the biggest reason respondents gave for voting for Brexit was a desire for greater national autonomy than the EU allowed.
A lot of people just don’t like handing over control to supranational institutions and agreements.
Where do young people stand on populism?
According to a 2016 analysis of the World Values Survey by Foa and Mounk, support for political radicalism in North America and Western Europe is higher among the young than other generations. Perhaps that is the reason why voter turnout among millennials is so much lower than other age groups in our country. Young people simply can’t find a Canadian party that interests them enough to vote. Canadians have not yet gone populist in the 21st century.
So which way are young populists swinging?
It would be misleading to imply that there is not support among young people for authoritarian leaders and right-wing populism. However, it’s also true that:
- In Great Britain 63% of voters under 35 voted for the labour party led by avowed populist Jeremy Corbyn.
- In the United States populist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders received the bulk of his support from young people.
- In Spain, the Indignados protests which led to the formation of the left-wing populist party Podemos were led by young people.
Here are some questions that those trying to understand the rise of 21st century populism are grappling with:
- Should healthy democracies create more space for parties that emphasize “Them” and “Us” antagonisms?
- Are populist parties the only productive form that allows the "politically incorrect" demands of the people to be considered in the political arena? And if so why?
- Could populism force a transition to a new and better socio-political transformation?
- Do we need a resurgence of left-wing populism?
Our centrist parties (both on the left and the right) would, no doubt, respond with a resounding NO to all these questions. So too would the corporate controlled media that invariably portray all populists as simplistic thinkers, while at the same time frequently giving simplistic analyses of their appeal.
It’s arguable that populism is the defining political phenomenon of the 21st century. It’s not going to go away – or at least not as long as people feel their concerns and problems are being ignored by those who hold the power.
We need to start talking about populism. It’s a huge and complicated topic with many dimensions. So, expect more blog postings by Democracy Alert on this topic.
Submitted by Marilyn Reid.