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Five reasons why populism isn’t up to the job

Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

October 24, 2018   7 mins

The surge in support for populist parties and movements is one of the most important stories of the last decade. Arguably, it is the most important – which is why UnHerd spends so much time documenting and analysing the disruption of the established order.

The near-total failure of the political and media establishment to anticipate Brexit, Trump and other profound shocks to the system is why UnHerd exists. And it’s an ongoing raison d’etre – because many liberals still refuse to see what’s happening.

Last week, Peter Hurst took apart the idea of ‘normalisation‘ – the argument that the main reason why populism surged was the media, and (especially) social media, allowed populist arguments to be heard and therefore normalised. In other words, the populist surge caused itself (and for no other reason than it was permitted to).

The counter-narrative, and the truth of the matter, is that the success of populists is a symptom not a cause – a backlash to a ruling establishment that can no longer distinguish between its own interests and the common good. Obviously this is not what liberals want to hear because whether in political, economic or cultural spheres they are the ruling establishment. The fundamental problems facing western societies are the result of their mistakes, their assumptions, their ideology.

But if populism is a symptom not the cause of what ails us, it is equally important to understand that it is not the cure either. The populist parties and movements currently disrupting politics as usual are not up to the job of putting right what’s gone wrong.

This is a non-exhaustive list of the reasons why populists don’t – and can’t – provide the solutions we need.1

1. Populism has an extremism problem

Is the populist surge of the 21st century a re-run of the rise of fascism in the 20th century?

The short answer is no, because actual fascist parties still exist and, in most countries, their popularity hasn’t surged. Indeed, they’ve often found themselves buried by the surge in support by less extreme anti-establishment parties.

The long answer, though, is more complicated. Trace the history of some populist parties and you’ll find associations with Europe’s fascist past. For instance, in the 1950s the first leader of the Austrian Freedom Party was a former Nazi minister and SS officer. Its second leader was also a former SS officer.

In more recent years, even those parties with the dodgiest back-stories have moved closer to the mainstream; their growing popularity depends on it. Almost all national populist parties publicly reject racism and fascism – and, indeed, present themselves as the true democrats in opposition to an unaccountable and politically correct establishment.

Just how deep the rebrand goes is a debate reopened every time a party activist or official is caught saying something rather less than moderate. It is true that some of the most egregious offenders are suspended or expelled. For instance, Marine Le Pen, leader of the then French National Front (now the National Rally), expelled her own father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the previous leader. However, one can also point to controversial, provocative comments made by the likes ofΒ Nigel Farage, Matteo Salvini and Donald Trump that come straight from the top. Populist leaders should not be too surprised if they find themselves embarrassed by those most attracted to such language.

But perhaps the best guide to the extremism issue is what the populist parties think of one another. One might think that they’d be keen to join forces against the hated establishment. The cross-border ideological groupings within the European Parliament give them the opportunity to do so. Instead, the populist parties are split between at least four different alliances. 2

The most moderate of these parties sit with the British Conservatives in the ECR grouping, which was founded by the aforementioned David Cameron, but which also includes the Polish Law and Justice party and most of the Nordic populist outfits – such as the Sweden Democrats. Somewhat more populist than the ECR is the EFDD group which includes UKIP and Italy’s Five Star Movement. Moving further to the edge, there’s the ENF, whose most important members are Le Pen’s National Rally and Matteo Salvini’s Lega. And finally, there’s the outer darkness of the ‘Non-Inscrits‘ where one finds Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik.

The reason why the national populists don’t sit together as a united movement is that some populists consider other populists to be too populist (or, depending on perspective, not populist enough). If they can’t trust one another, why should we trust them?


2. Populism is a shambles

Moving on from ideology, let’s look at organisation and competence.

Populism is a challenge to the establishment, a force for disruption. Populist parties are about protest not government – and populist leaders are natural demagogues not administrators. Indeed, they revolve around the personality of a long-term leader – often to the extent of falling apart in his or her absence. For instance, UKIP descends into chaos every time that Nigel Farage steps down as leader; the French National Rally is less of a party and more of a family feud; and the Dutch PVV would be nothing without Geert Wilders – literally, because he is its only official member (a cunning means of ensuring he gets his own way).

The reason why they can get away with so much eccentricity and dysfunction is that the disruptive mode of politics requires neither normality nor stability. A populist party doesn’t have to look like a government in waiting; a populist leader doesn’t have to have a grasp of the policy detail. They succeed by channeling and articulating public anger, which involves a different skill set.

Perhaps the ultimate example of personality populism, and the chaos it leaves in its wake, is provided by Donald Trump. A property developer and TV celebrity of no fixed political allegiance (and no record of elected office for any party), he mounted a hostile takeover of the GOP as a path to the Presidency. From the highest office in the land he has presided over a shambolic administration, while pursuing a series of personal vendettas via social media – including an exchange of anatomical insults with a porn actress.

And yet it doesn’t seem to matter. He was elected as a disruptor and his, ahem, unimpeachable record of disruption may yet get him re-elected. That’s what happens when enough voters give up on the ‘hopey-changey thing’ – they settle for wreckage in place of reform. Indeed, if one believes the system to be unreformable then a wrecker is the only plausible agent of change.


3. Populists don’t usually win

Still, Trump won (sort of). This is more than can be said for most national populists west of the old Iron Curtain.3

Unlike Americans, it would seem that western Europeans still believe that their systems can be reformed, which is why most of them don’t want the wreckers in.

Clearly, there’s an angry minority that does want change at any cost – and a growing minority at that. The issue, though, is whether it can ever get big enough to win power as it has in America. Recent general elections – most recently that in Sweden would suggest not.

In seeking a path to power, populists need to make up huge voter deficits among women and graduates. This would require a more compassionate and thoughtful approach to change than the angry gesture-politics of populism is capable of.

Of course, in one western European nation – Italy – the populists have won. That, however, is thanks to some very specific factors.

Trapped and deeply damaged by its membership of the Eurozone, the Italian situation appears every bit as unreformable as America’s – a situation in which populism thrives. Then there’s the fact that Italy has not one, but two, major populist parties. The first is Five Star, which is a ‘broad-tent’ populist party with populists capable of winning across the political spectrum. The second is Lega, a more typical national populist party that did well at the last election, but not significantly better than equivalent parties elsewhere in western Europe. It is only since entering government, in coalition with Five Star, that Lega’s support has risen well above par.

These are circumstances unique to Italy and not a path to victory for populists elsewhere.


4. Populists are unwitting agents of the status quo

And now we come to a supreme irony: even while disrupting the system, populists also help to keep things the same. They may not mean to, but they do.

For instance, in countries like Germany the advance of populist parties (on the Right and the Left) has forced the parties of the centre-Left and centre-Right into grand coalitions and other power-sharing arrangements. This weakens the checks and balances that come from the regular alternation of power (such as having capable, mainstream parties in both government and opposition). It also creates the impression (and, indeed, the reality) of establishment collusion and the permanent exclusion of everybody else from the corridors of power.

In other countries, the populists have gained a share of power and influence – either directly, by taking part in coalition governments (as in Austria), or indirectly by prompting mainstream parties to modify their policies – for instance, by taking a tougher stance on immigration (as in Sweden or France). However, this is just the establishment changing to stay the same. It does not address the deeper challenges of our time – such as the need for the fundamental reform of capitalism or the preparations required for the huge technology-driven changes heading our way.

Finally, we have to look at what happens when populists get full access to power. It is too early to come to a judgement on the Italian government, but the the record of the Trump administration is instructive: tax cuts for the rich, aΒ liberalised regime for polluters, and no curb on the ever-growing power of the tech giants.Β 

Nothing for the business-wing of the establishment to worry about there!

5. Populists are in the way of real change

To various extents populism has succeeded in giving the establishment the punishment it deserves, but not in giving voters the government they need.

True reform requires a positive vision, a patient determination and a grasp of detail that is alien to the populist way of doing things. Rooting out entrenched vested interests, unlocking wasted potential, disentangling decades of bad policy is not achieved through crude gestures and ugly words.

What liberals have got wrong will not be undone by repudiating what they’ve got right. With care and wisdom and good judgement we can have the best of what both tradition and progress have to offer. But with the politics of the short-cut and the cheap-shot, we could end up with worst of both worlds.

If we are to have reform, not reaction, then we need post-liberalism not anti-liberalism. But, of course, the latter is what gets the attention.

And that is the biggest problem with populism. It is the wrong answer to the right question. The fire to the frying pan. Heat without light. Anger without righteousness.

And, of course, the best excuse the establishment could hope for.

  1. My main focus is on the ‘national populists’ of the Right, though some of these points also apply to the populist Left.
  2. Actually, it’s five thanks to the anomalous position of Hungary’s ruling party in the pro-Brussels EPP group; or even six if you count the presence of the Czech Prime Minister’s party in the ALDE group
  3. In central European countries, like Poland and Hungary, populists win elections not as enemies, but defenders, of the established order – guardians of national tradition against the attempt to impose western European values.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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