Welcome to the populist decade
Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images   

We are now in the third year of our populist era. Brexit, Trump, and the continuing political appeal of political parties and figures who barely would have registered two decades ago have convinced most observers that something is going on across the Western world. Yet, despite that recognition, most observers remain rooted in their pre-populist political paradigms. They rarely expect populists to win, and when they do they rarely expect serious change to result.

It is time for the West to wake up. The something that is going on is not transient, nor will it be silenced by avoiding or ignoring the challenges these populists represent. Their concerns – slow and unequal economic growth, radical social change, and widespread institutional corruption – won’t go away without a concerted effort. And if the establishment’s leaders find they cannot, or will not, successfully address them, then people will embrace radical figures who say they can – as the victories of Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, and Andrej Babis demonstrate.

What would a heavily populist influenced, even dominated, next decade bring? Has the West been strengthened? Or is it headed downhill fast?

Of course, while all populist parties agree that change is necessary, they differ on exactly what that means, and how it should be achieved. Can that change be realised without fundamentally changing the West’s liberal democratic capitalist order? Or are some populist strains seeking a new settlement which is incompatible with liberalism, capitalism, or democracy.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of China, India, and much of the developing world to Western ideas and investment raises serious challenges. The rapid decline in Christianity and the concomitant revolution in social and sexual behaviour across the West poses a separate – and in the minds of many, equally dramatic – challenge. The rise of non-Western nations poses a third, related challenge. Populist parties and figures interact with each of these issues differently.

Further reading

The centre-left will never defeat European populism if it fails to first understand it

By Henry Olsen

Regardless of those differences, it’s not unreasonable to think, given the failure by mainstream parties to grasp the strength of feeling among their electorates, that the populist wave will continue. What, then, would a heavily populist influenced, even dominated, next decade bring? That is the question UnHerd is exploring this week. Our contributors are imagining a world in which populist figures, mainly of the blue-collar right-wing variety, have increased their influence in Europe and America. Has the West been strengthened? Or is it headed downhill fast?

We don’t aim to present a comprehensive analysis of every conceivable outcome. Rather, we seek to spark discussion by doing what remains virtually unthinkable in most precincts: taking populism seriously.

In many ways, the opening of this century resembles the opening of the last, with economic, social, and geopolitical changes creating pressures that fundamentally change the world

What will America look like if Donald Trump wins a second term? Chris Buskirk, editor of the pro-Trump American opinion website American Greatness, argues that Trump has indeed made America great again. Michael Warren, a writer at the Trump-skeptical magazine The Weekly Standard, disagrees. What happens to Europe if the populist sweep continues? John O’Sullivan, former speechwriter to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and head of the Budapest-based Danube Institute, can see positives. James Bloodworth, in contrast, sees disaster. And what of the geopolitical structures and relationships? Peter Franklin considers the likely outcomes.

In many ways, the opening of this century resembles the opening of the last, with economic, social, and geopolitical changes creating pressures that fundamentally change the world. But unlike the failures of the 20th Century, today’s pressures need not lead to death, destruction, and desolation – I will be exploring this in an essay to conclude the series.

“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” Harold Wilson’s aphorism is no less true today than it was when he uttered it in 1967. Populism is a call for change. How the West answers that call will determine how it changes and whether it retains its unique character after it does.