Credit: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

August 24, 2018   8 mins

A decade of populism will be just the fix for a fracturing Europe and a faltering America, leading to greater peace and prosperity. Or maybe it will deliver darker times, greater social division and economic suffering. The contributors to our series #Populism2025 are themselves divided on the likely outcome. But there is nevertheless a common thread running through the pieces: the battle between the populists and the establishment is about identity, not policies.

There are, to be sure, dramatic differences between the specific policies of each side. Their approach to immigration policy being the most obvious example. The nature of the relationship between a nation and the global, supra-national entities that now wield power comes a close second. But these and other important differences, such as how to think about Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are applications of central principles whose seeming incompatibility are the real cause of the conflict. The real debate is about the meaning of Western civilization itself.

Status quo defenders – ‘global elites’ in the populist parlance; ‘liberals’ in their own – tend to view the West as embracing a theory of solidarity that is universal, inevitable, and inalienable. Their concept of universality finds expression in various ways, such as the belief in an unrestricted obligation to help refugees, admit immigrants, or tackle global poverty. It also finds its expression in domestic affairs, with an emphasis on equality and socially liberal, or progressive, policies.

Their concept of inevitability finds it expressions in two ways, the ‘laws’ of economics and the ‘progressivity’ of history. It is an unquestioned premise that economics operates according to immutable laws and inevitably drives material progress forward. To interfere in the operation of these laws, through limits on free trade for example, is considered not simply wrongheaded but heretical. To even question the idea that trade with other peoples and nations is a matter of public debate, that one could choose to pursue other goods besides the fastest possible accumulation of aggregate wealth, is beyond debate or even polite discussion.

The fact that the application of this identical principle to domestic matters would also destroy the entire social democratic project of labour, wage, and social protections rarely occurs to them. The truth of this observation, however, is not lost on leftist populists such as Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and Pablo Iglesias. Their assaults on neoliberalism and the global order that underlies it are driven by the idea that, if left unchecked, this principle will inevitably impoverish or – to use the words of Marxist theorists, pauperise – the working-class masses.

The final principle of the liberal elites, the inalienability of their positions, is perhaps the least recognised but most decisive of the three

The idea of the progressivity of history, once a hallmark of 19th Century liberal thought, has re-emerged in the context of social relations. The anti-discrimination principle that animates so much of liberal thinking is rarely seen as a choice. Rather, it is something that is as natural as any physical phenomenon. Opponents to elements of this social agenda, such as people who oppose same-sex marriage or abortion, and proponents of traditional values, are viewed as adherents of a bigoted and irrational past. We are all familiar with the epithets levied against them: ‘racist,’ ‘sexist, ‘illiberal’.

In many cases, especially on issues of personal morality, these people are traditionalist Christians, which leads to the modern phenomenon that to express views that once were mainstream is now to be shunned and cast out. Former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron discovered this when he was forced to resign because he would not affirm that he personally approved of homosexuality – despite his lifetime public commitment to the removal of anti-discrimination laws against same-sex practices. Fear of that happening in the United States is a significant reason why the religiously orthodox are Donald Trump’s biggest supporters: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Peter Franklin’s thoughtful contribution to the series puts this conflict, and the debate over the role of Christianity, front and centre. This is the reason for the animus directed towards Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS). An American analog would be the culture wars that have increasingly polarised politics since the early 1990s, political wars that have at their core serious differences over the role of orthodox Christian belief in public life. Franklin persuasively contends that these debates presage, if not mark the start of, the New Populist Era.

If that is true, then the bitterness of the debates raging across the globe over Muslim immigration make more sense. The liberal elites tend to defend large-scale Muslim migration. And why shouldn’t they? Orthodox Muslims may share many cultural values with orthodox Christians, but they are among the most ardent backers of the centre-left. Populists, on the other hand, often obtain support from the religiously orthodox, or at least the socially traditional, and oppose Muslim immigration because they want to affirm the cultural heritage of their homelands. Both sides know that to admit or not admit Muslim immigrants matters for future electoral victories – and both sides are determined to win.

The final principle of the liberal elites, the inalienability of their positions, is perhaps the least recognised but most decisive of the three. It flows naturally from the other two principles, and bears a similarity to the liberal notion of human or natural rights. Since liberals believe that human action is motivated by universal, not particular, concepts, and since the results flowing from these concepts operate according to immutable economic or historical laws, it follows that resistance to these views is resistance to the very idea of human flourishing itself.

Thus, in America much social change has been instigated not by legislation but by court decree, and in Europe national votes against European Union preferences are overridden or circumvented. In this world view, the very idea that a people operating in a democratic capacity might choose to live in another way is unthinkable and unacceptable.

The battle that characterises the New Populist Era is both very deep and very old. It is essentially a battle over both the definition and the possibility of liberal democracy itself

The populist revolt, and the intensity of its backers, can only be understood against this backdrop. For all the specific complaints about policies, the essence of their argument is easy to understand: we too are the people. Their explicit argument is that the nation state is both the appropriate place to decide political disputes and that the good of the nation as a whole is the standard by which those disputes should be judged. As a result, they explicitly deny the universality and inalienability principles, and implicitly deny the inevitability principle.

For populists, democracy is an act of choosing. The people debate competing views and choose to enact laws that are consistent with the dominant view of how to live. If such a debate means that homosexuals cannot marry, that women cannot access abortion, or that financiers are not free to invest their wealth in foreign labour or firms – well, that is the outcome of democracy.

It is thus no surprise that the authors of the two pro-populist pieces in the series emphasise the resurgence of democratic self-determination as a primary good flowing from populist victory. For Chris Buskirk, Trump’s victory will result in a return of power from appointed agencies and unelected judges to elected legislators. For John O’Sullivan, populist power leads to a Europe that looks a lot more like Switzerland in its high degree of decentralisation and less like an “ever more perfect union”. In both cases, the rule of the people is perhaps the greatest good that can come from a decade of populist victory.

There is always a tension between the sovereignty of the people and the dignity of the individual. A people united in its vision of the good can force compliance, even death in some nations, on those who disagree. This is the heart of the drama in Antigone and Plato’s Apology, and why the modern mind sides with Socrates and Antigone against the power of the majority. This tension is also why the liberal elites fear the populists: power unconstrained by a fealty to the notion of individual dignity is often oppressive and terrible. Thus, they may see a Hitler behind assertions of national identity or an Inquisition behind claims of religious influence on public policy.

The battle that characterises the New Populist Era, then, is both very deep and very old. It is essentially a battle over both the definition and the possibility of liberal democracy itself.

Liberal democracy differs from ancient democracies in two important respects. First, it is liberal in its recognition of innate rights the denial of which makes a democracy both unjust and unstable. Second, it differs in the manner by which the judgment of the people is rendered. The principle of elected representation makes the passage of laws less susceptible to wild swings of mood and passion, and the principle of separation of powers makes it harder for a majority to subject a minority to its will. Modern despotism, no matter how democratic in form, always explicitly or implicitly reject one or more of these factors.

The modern populist fears that the prerogatives of democracy are being rejected by the pursuit of the ideas of liberalism. The modern liberal fears that the prerogatives of liberalism are being rejected by pursuit of the ideas of democracy. It seems, then, that the New Populist Era is a de facto civil war between competing camps of liberal democrats – and civil wars are notably both bloody and vicious.

Those who genuinely care for their nation must ask themselves whether the differences between the two sides are so unbreachable that a multi-year political conflict needs to be both fought and uncompromisingly won

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” So says both the Bible and the 16th American President, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln said that such a house could only stand if the division ceased, if it became “all one thing or all the other”. Such a binary choice always leads to war and conflict as each side knows it cannot exist under the other’s rule. That is what followed Lincoln’s speech – the American Civil War flowed naturally from the consequences of such a declaration.

The current conflict won’t likely lead to bloodshed, but it could easily enfeeble and weaken every country affected for years to come. Those who genuinely care for their nation must ask themselves whether the differences between the two sides are so unbreachable, as the question over the morality of slavery was to the America of Lincoln’s time, that a multi-year political conflict needs to be both fought and uncompromisingly won.

To avoid such a harsh result, each side must answer some difficult questions. Liberal elites must ask themselves what role they see in their world for assertions of religion, protectionism, nationalism, and tradition. Populists must ask themselves what role they see in their world for the non-traditional, the non-orthodox, global trade, and multi-national cooperation.

One would think this is eminently possible: few people hold views entirely at one end of each extreme. Populists and liberal elite activists would likely see wider and more durable popular support if they present viable answers to these questions. Failure to do so, however, will force each side to embark on a battle to the death, with no quarter asked or given. It’s hard to see how liberalism or democracy could survive such a contest.

Sides threatened with defeat and extinction also seek outside aid to sustain their cause. The Spartans took Persian gold to stave off the Athenians, and the Americans received French support to defeat the British. For now, this partially explains the populist flirtation (or fascination, depending on the personality) with Putin’s Russia.

Volumes have been written for decades proclaiming the decline of the West or its impending defeat. So far, such predictions have proven at best extremely premature. But Western nations were faced with extremely serious challenges over the past century. At each step – the challenges posed by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, the fascist challenge, the Cold War – Western peoples chose leaders who found a way out, who discovered a way to preserve the freedom, comfort, decency, and wealth that characterise Western civilization, against what sometimes seemed to be impossible odds.

But we should not forget that these were choices, choices that required sacrifice of things many within the affected nations held dear. Accommodating the needs of industrial labour, for example, required the owners of property and capital to cede a significant amount of their power and wealth, while fighting the Second World War and the Cold War required the creation of vast military and intelligence agencies that sapped national wealth and curbed personal liberty. The New Populist Era is forcing Western nations to again make choices, and as with all such choices, the outcome remains unclear.

Past choices were successful in large part because Western peoples and their leaders valued the core beliefs of Western civilization above other considerations. Social reformers were not tempted to dispense with freedom and democracy to achieve greater equality; the threat of defeat by the Nazis or the Communists did not lead to the rise of a police state to suppress agents of dissent. The West won these conflicts by evolving. Where faith in liberalism and democracy was weak, such as in 1930s Germany, Spain, and Central Europe, the choices led to the collapse of the regime itself. If our faith remains strong, if all sides can remain truly liberal and truly democratic, then we can hope, we can even expect, that the New Populist Era will lead not to our downfall, but rather to a renaissance.

Henry Olsen is Editor of’s Flyover Country theme and a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of ‘The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism’.