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Why national populism is here to stay

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.

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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.

 
Carry on: liberals such as Tony Blair argue the solution to populism is more globalisation, not less​. Credit: Kalpesh Lathigra for New Statesman

Many on the left underestimate the scale of this angst and overestimate the size of their own tribe. In 2017 Ipsos Mori surveyed nearly 18,000 voters in 25 countries. It found that 43 per cent of the British, 54 per cent of Hungarians and 63 per cent of Italians believed that “immigration is causing my country to change in ways that I do not like”. The percentage of people who agreed that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me” ranged from a low of 44 per cent in Sweden to 61 per cent in Poland and 67 per cent in France.

This helps to explain why many of those who turn out for national populists were non-voters who finally felt as though they could have a seat at the table. The main source of votes for Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in 2017 – an election that saw them win 94 seats in the Bundestag, becoming the largest opposition party – were those who did not vote at the previous election. In Britain, the EU referendum drew in around two million who had not voted in the 2015 general election. Meanwhile, the same Ipsos poll found that only one in five thought immigration was having a positive overall effect on their nations.

The Blairite narrative was always that, once they were sitting on the bullet train hurtling into a globalised and more liberal future, voters would find it impossible to get off. National populism partly reflects an attempt by voters, if not to throw themselves off the train, then at least to slow it down and grab the controls for themselves. Social democrats used to argue that this was an impossibility. But with Trump, Brexit and national populists governing states such as Italy – none of which has so far produced the much promised Armageddon – this claim too has lost some of its earlier potency. Many voters have learned that an alternative is possible.

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On the left, the default position has been to frame these worries over migration and change as racism, a weakness amplified by identity politics. Yet the paradox is that widespread concern about the scale and pace of demographic change has emerged as measures of racism continue to document a decline. Today, nearly 90 per cent of Americans approve of interracial marriage, as do an overwhelming majority of Britons. Liberals sometimes forget their achievements. Our societies are less racist, not more.

Too many on the left are talking about what differentiates groups rather than the common bonds that they share. This has left an open goal for national populists who define those common bonds as ethnic ones, whereas we should be defining them along the lines of shared (civic) obligations to the wider community, and common values.

Some of those voting for populist movements are undoubtedly racist, though many are not. As the Pew Research Center and others have found, most voters (including many of those who vote for national populists) disassociate themselves from conceptions of citizenship that stress ethnic ancestry, and put much greater importance on speaking the language and sharing national customs and traditions. Yet many voters conclude that these obligations are not being fulfilled while the mainstream, in their eyes, appears uninterested in supporting the social contract. In the quest to rebuild bridges, some social democrats in Europe support more assertive policies on integration. It may be that this becomes the norm.

In Denmark social democrats have given their implicit support to a pledge to end “parallel societies” by 2030, including by making radical changes to welfare and mandatory mixed schooling for children from minority communities. In Sweden, social democrats have rowed back on their previously liberal stance to demand reductions in the number of refugees, strengthen identity checks and remove welfare for failed asylum seekers. Such measures will be tough for many on the left to accept, but short-term concessions might ensure longer-term gains.

The charge of racism also sits uneasily with how national populist electorates are changing. Revealingly, we now have the first evidence that some of these voters are at ease with life in modern liberal societies. They may accept LGBT rights but also feel anxious about the role of Islam in the West, including the extent to which it can accommodate with Western ways of life. Trump won over significant numbers of Hispanic men and a majority of white women; Brexit was endorsed by one in three black and minority ethnic voters and had no significant gender gap; most of those who support national populists in countries like Austria and Hungary are under 40 years old; and Marine Le Pen won just as much support from young women as young men. All of this points towards a possible future coalition for national populism and one that looks fundamentally different from many of the stereotypes about angry, old, white men.

It has been said that the task of responding to populism is a waiting game: demographic trends favour liberals. But there is compelling evidence that the narrative of generational change, popular on the left, is helping the populists. One study found that when white Americans were reminded that their group will be outnumbered by non-whites by 2042, they became even more anxious and more supportive of Trump.

These divides are being exacerbated by other long-term currents. Increasing rates of higher education, the corresponding spread of liberal values, and the tendency for political and media elites to congregate in the big cities all mean they are increasingly detached from the everyday life experiences of blue-collar workers, non-graduates and small-town or rural inhabitants, who tend to be socially conservative and provide the fuel for national populism.

These voters are correct when they say that the West’s political systems have become less representative of their views because, on balance, they have. The proportions of degree-holders and affluent politicians who sit in legislatures are at record highs, while the proportions of politicians with working-class backgrounds are at record lows. Ensuring that our institutions are representative of all groups is another helpful response, as is involving citizens in decisions about these issues, for example through greater democratic innovation.

National populism looks set to remain as a permanent fixture on the landscape. It has already started a conversation with voters. The question is whether the left can now offer a convincing reply. 

Matthew Goodwin is professor of politics at the University of Kent, senior visiting fellow at Chatham House and co-author with Roger Eatwell of the forthcoming book “National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy” (Penguin)

This article appears in the 05 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right