It’s not about immigration, the financial crisis, globalisation or inequality, but evidence of a broader, older social fragmentation
Thu 8 Nov 2018
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 fueling the rise in populism.