Blue-collar or conservative populists currently hold some share of power in at least 11 Western countries1 but little attention has been paid to what they actually do in office, rather than what they say.
Generally, they have succeeded in implementing many aspects of their agenda, pushing the political conversation toward their direction. They also start to become ‘normal’ political parties, subject to the same types of activities and bargaining found in more traditional parties. Their stances are clearly not to everyone’s liking, but their impact and durability can no longer be denied.
Blue-collar populists have had the most success in their signature issue, restricting migration. Norway2, Denmark3, Switzerland4, and Austria5 have all tightened their policies on refugees since populist parties entered into government, and Italy’s government6 is in the process of following suit. America’s populist president, Donald Trump, is yet again embroiled in a dispute with Congress over immigration policy as he attempts to reduce the number of illegal migrants who enter and reside within America. Poland7 and Hungary’s8 populist governments have also rejected pressure from the European Union to accept Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees as part of the EU’s common policy.
Just the threat that blue-collar populist parties could take power has often been enough to push governments to propose migration restrictions. The Dutch Prime Minister fought off a challenge from conservative populist Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in 2017 when he took a more demanding tone towards migrants, telling them in an open letter “act normal or get out”, and he has played a strong role in reducing African migration into the EU9. Sweden’s major parties both tacked to the right on immigration in this year’s general election to fend off the Sweden Democrats, as did Norway’s Labour and Centre parties in that country’s 2017 election. Angela Merkel’s government followed suit this year in a bid to help her CDU/CSU alliance win two recent state elections. Even French President Emmanuel Macron recently mentioned immigration as a concern to be dealt within his speech addressing the gilets jaunes protestors.
Could the gilets jaunes topple Macron?
Denmark’s blue-collar populist Danish People’s Party’s (DF) two-decade growth in strength has even forced the long dominant Social Democrats to abandon allies on the left in the run up to next year’s campaign. Breaking a twenty-five-year agreement with the Social Liberal Party, Social Democratic leader Mette Frederiksen has led her party to vote with the bourgeois-populist government on a number of immigration restriction measures in the current parliament, including a ban on wearing burkas in public10 and a controversial effort to combat “ghettos” where many Muslim immigrants live.11 The populists have been so successful that there is now a new party to its right, the New Right, which argues that the DF is not tough enough on migration. Polls currently show it is likely to surpass the 2% threshold to enter the Folketing.
Even Hillary Clinton has got in on the act, recently saying that Europe needs to “get a handle on immigration” to stop the rise of blue-collar populism. Restricting immigration and reducing the number of Muslim refugees may remain very unwelcome policies among Western elites, but virtually everywhere else it’s a winning issue, forcing any leader who seeks to form a government to shift with the prevailing winds and endorse policies that would have been unacceptable five years ago.
Conservative populists have had an impact in other policy areas too. Norway’s Progress Party started as an anti-tax protest movement and to this day the party insists it’s more of a classical liberal party than a populist one. In government, its leader, Siv Jensen, took the Finance Ministry and has worked with Conservative (Hoyre) Party Prime Minister Erna Solberg to cut income taxes and eliminate the inheritance tax. The centre-Right coalition has also implemented a long-time Progress Party proposal to finance these cuts by taking money directly from Norway’s large sovereign wealth fund to pay for current spending.
How irresponsible Merkel let populism thrive
In contrast, the Danish People’s Party consciously places itself between the traditional Left and Right on economic matters. In practice, this means the party approves of tax cuts for lower-income workers but not for higher-income earners. Their opposition to this forced a smaller member of the governing centre-Right coalition, the libertarian Liberal Alliance, to abandon its plans to reduce the top income tax rate in the 2018 budget.
Italy’s conservative populists, the Lega Party, has also used its newfound power to push for radical changes in fiscal policy. It had campaigned for a 15% flat tax to replace the current progressive regime that includes rates up to 43%. It had also called for reductions in the retirement age. Its government partners, the more centrist populist Five Star Movement, had campaigned on a 780 Euro a month universal basic income. While a recent budget agreement with the EU forced both parties to scale back their programme, the new Italian budget will include increased spending and dramatically lower taxation, precisely the opposite of what the prior, more establishment-friendly budget had envisioned.
Europe's democratic difficulties
Populist economics has also found a home in the United States. President Trump signed a massive corporate tax cut in late 2017 while also approving dramatic hikes in both domestic and military discretionary spending. The deficit has ballooned as a result, rising to nearly $800 billion (3.9% of GDP) in fiscal year 2018. The deficit is expected to further widen to nearly $1 trillion, or over 4.5% of GDP, in the coming fiscal year. Populist economic policy is spreading and is likely to have as much impact over the long term as its migration programme already has.
For the most part, fears about populism being inimical to democracy have proved ill-founded. Concerns that President Trump would become an autocratic strongman have faded as he acted in accord with his constitutional powers and accepted policy reversals when checked by other branches of government. No populist party in coalition has even tried to move against the press or attempted to criminalise political opposition. While some of these parties did grow out of movements with roots in authoritarianism or fascism, as the parties have grown, those elements have usually been dismissed or checked.
In Eastern Europe, though, the picture is a little less reassuring. Hungary’s Fidesz government has acted in ways reminiscent of authoritarian governments, especially in its use of state resources to mount openly political campaigns. Opposition political activity is not formally restricted, but the difficulty in attracting private advertisement for newspapers critical of the government has drastically reduced the number of openly critical press sources. Polarised between the Fidesz-supporting rural areas and opposition to him in Budapest and with the opposition split, politics is freer than it is in Putin’s Russia, but not as open and fair as elsewhere in the EU. Moreover, the invoking of ethnic nationalist themes in election campaigns is unlikely to be echoed by mainstream Western politicians.
The far right's plans to capture Europe
Poland is another worrying case. The governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) attracted worldwide opprobrium when it overturned a law that had allowed the outgoing Civic Platform party (PO) to appoint a significant number of judges to the country’s Constitutional Tribunal. Since then, PiS has continued to pass laws that give its government greater control over the judiciary and public prosecutors. It has also placed the state media directly under government control, leading to what some opponents say is blatantly biased press coverage. The EU has threatened to suspend Poland’s voting rights as a result of these actions.
We must always be prepared to protect democracy, but we also must avoid the temptation to cast aspersions on the legitimacy of votes that don’t go the way we want, and even to change the rules as a result of them. Those opposed to conservative populism have claimed that both the Brexit referendum victory and the election of Donald Trump might have been fraudulently obtained by Russian state propaganda on social media. Law enforcers will duly reach their own conclusions on those issues. But American opponents of Trump have called for Democrats to expand the number of Supreme Court justices and appoint their favoured judges should they obtain control of Congress, exactly the type of allegedly anti-democratic action PiS has engaged in. Democracy is a fragile flower, and its flourishing ultimately rests on the willingness of the losers to accept results they disagree with.
Western countries have now had some form of democratic elections for over a century. In that time, we have grown used to a Left-Right political landscape, one that developed only over time and only in countries where the primary political dispute was over how to handle the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Communism. If one goes back to the mid-19thCentury, many European countries were divided between Liberals who sought to expand democracy and free markets and combat the power of crowns and clerical gowns and Conservatives who opposed them. The current landscape emerged only when those battles faded in significance and new alliances were drawn to meet new challenges.
Europe's biggest test yet
There were always outliers to this landscape. Irish politics was divided for nearly 80 years along the lines of which side you supported in the Irish Civil War, and Israeli politics was originally divided on the question of how a party related to Zionism. Scandinavian politics has long had room for agrarian parties that did not fit neatly into the Left-Right continuum, as did many Eastern European countries in the interlude between the World Wars. The basic insight is that democratic politics organises around the questions that divide a people at a particular moment in time; parties are not, and should not be, frozen in amber.
Conservative populism represents a growing number of people who want different questions asked and answered. So long as this continues, we should expect these parties and figures to remain strong and active players in their nations’ politics. The evidence so far shows that as unconventional as their policies may seem, they can successfully compete in a free and vibrant democratic playing field and can operate as responsible actors when they obtain government. So long as the problems they address remain unsolved, we should expect to see the issues they champion and many of the solutions they advocate to remain on the Western agenda, and perhaps influence the course of history as decisively as did the rise of social democratic parties in the last century.