MADRID – It seems that practically no Western democracy nowadays is immune to right-wing populism. While populist rhetoric seems to be reaching fever pitch, with far-reaching consequences – most notably the United Kingdom’s vote to “Brexit” the European Union – the reality is that the strain of nativism that it represents has long bedeviled democratic politics.
Populist movements tend to focus on blame. Father Charles Coughlin, the 1930s-era Roman Catholic priest from Detroit who promoted a fascist agenda for America, consistently sought to root out the culprits for society’s problems. Likewise, today’s right-wing populists have eagerly turned on the “establishment” and the “elites.”
In Europe, this has meant blaming the EU for everything that goes wrong. Addressing the complex roots of current economic and social challenges – the UK and France, for example, suffer substantially from hereditary privilege and frozen class systems – is a lot harder than decrying the EU as a villainous behemoth.
Beyond blame, populist ideology relies heavily on nostalgia. Much of the current upheaval in Europe evokes Edmund Burke’s repudiation in 1790 of the French Revolution as the product of a misguided faith in ideas that defied people’s attachment to history and tradition.
For the UK’s Brexiteers, the borderless world that the EU, with its commitment to globalization, represents is destroying the nation-state, which better protected their interests. In their referendum campaign, they recalled a past when jobs were secure, neighbors were familiar, and security was assured. Whether that past ever really existed was irrelevant.
The last time European democracies were overtaken by radical political movements, in the 1930s, demagogues based their support largely on the old lower middle class, whose members feared being dispossessed and pushed into poverty by uncontrolled economic forces. In the wake of the protracted euro crisis, and the painful austerity that followed, today’s populists have been able to play on similar fears, again primarily among older workers and other vulnerable groups.
Of course, Europe is not alone in being swept up by populism. The United States, where Donald Trump has secured the Republican nomination to be president, is also in serious danger. Trump paints a bleak picture of life in the US today, blaming globalization (specifically, immigration) and the “establishment” leaders who have advanced it for the struggles of ordinary American workers. His slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is the ultimate display of false populist nostalgia.
Moreover, just as Brexiteers want to withdraw from Europe, Trump wants to withdraw the US from international arrangements of which it is a part, if not the linchpin. He has suggested dispensing with NATO, declaring that US allies should have to pay for America’s protection. He has also launched tirades against free trade and even the United Nations.
As elsewhere, Trump’s protectionism and national narcissism are sustained by the anxiety of those hit by the impersonal dark forces of the “market.” The turn toward populism constitutes a revolt against intellectual orthodoxy, embodied by cosmopolitan professional elites. In the Brexit campaign, “expert” became a slur.
This is not to say that challenging the establishment is entirely without merit. The establishment is not always in touch with the people. Populism can sometimes be a legitimate channel for aggrieved voters to make their frustrations known, and to call for a change of course. And in Europe, there are plenty of legitimate grievances: austerity, widespread youth unemployment, a democratic deficit in the EU, and an overloaded bureaucracy in Brussels.
But, rather than focus on real solutions, today’s populists are often appealing to people’s basest instincts. In many cases, they are emphasizing feelings over facts, stoking fear and hate, and relying on nativist appeals. And, in fact, they are less interested in tackling economic grievances than they are in using those grievances to win support for an agenda that would roll back social and cultural openness.
This is most apparent in the immigration debate. In the US, Trump has won support with proposals to block Muslims from entering the US and to build a wall to keep out those crossing the border from Mexico. Likewise, in Europe, populist leaders have capitalized on the influx of refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East to convince people that EU-imposed policies threaten not just Europeans’ security, but also their culture.
The fact that nearly all of the regions in Britain that voted for Brexit received massive EU subsidies supports this interpretation. So do circumstances in Germany. Though the arrival of a million largely Muslim immigrants last year has not hurt the economy – which remains at full employment – many people are rejecting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s vision of a new, more multicultural Germany.
Simply put, for many Europeans, immigrants represent less a threat to their livelihoods than a challenge to their national and tribal identities. Populist leaders like the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage have not hesitated to capitalize on this cultural anxiety, leading British voters ultimately to vote against their own interests.
And yet the grievances which populists like Farage and Trump manipulate are real. To preserve the principles of openness and democracy on which continued social and economic progress depends, those grievances must be understood and addressed. Otherwise, populists will continue to win support, with potentially severe consequences, as the Brexit debacle shows.
Fortunately, there is also precedent for escaping populist takeovers. In the 1930s, as Europe drifted into the hands of either tyrants or banal democratic leaders, America’s Coughlins and others were overshadowed by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. And a new deal – one that corrects the EU’s yawning democratic deficit and puts an end to self-defeating austerity policies – is precisely what will save Europe today.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
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