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How to understand the rise of national populism A post-liberal reading list

How did these men get where they are today? Credit: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

How did these men get where they are today? Credit: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

August 12, 2019   6 mins

Every summer, bookshops lay out stacks of blockbusters designed to be devoured in an afternoon and forgotten in a week. But at UnHerd we prefer books that leave a lasting impression. In this series of Summer Reads, our contributors recommend overlooked books that will engage and enrich you, not just distract you.


One of the frustrating aspects about my job as an academic is that I have little time to read. It’s a funny thing to say, but between teaching, administration and writing research articles for obscure journals, there are not many hours left in the day to actually sit down with a book.

This is especially problematic in my area of research, which includes populism, Brexit, Europe and anything that can be lumped under the header ‘political volatility’. There is simply too much to read. Trump, the 2016 referendum, the rise of national populism in Europe and the looming 2020 election in the US not only triggered a tsunami of public interest but also a rapidly growing pile of books.

This is one reason why non-fiction sales have been surging in recent years, easily eclipsing fiction: non-fiction audiobook sales are also growing. It is also why we have seen a parallel explosion in research monographs and articles on the same topics. Plug ‘populism’ into Google Scholar and since 2016 alone there are more than 37,000 entries. Stick ‘Trump’ in and there are already more than 100,000. All of this is why I find myself trying to relax on holiday while reading books that are way too serious, dark and close to ‘work’.

Before getting to my picks, I wanted to say that I have both enjoyed and learned a lot from several books that tell us much about the current era of volatility. Many were well ahead of the curve.

Justin Gest’s The New Minority (2016), through meticulous research and interviews with hundreds of voters, tells us much about the appeal of populism among the white working-class in both the UK and the US. In some ways, it is a reboot of Christopher Husbands’ Racial Exclusionism and the City (1983), a classic on why people were drawn to the earlier National Front, especially in the East End of London.

Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift (2018), which explores how demographic change is reshaping the world around us, is one of the most important books to be published in recent years. I have also revisited Karen Stenner’s The Authoritarian Dynamic (2005) – which predicted the populist surge and shows why it is unlikely to disappear any time soon – and looked ahead with Ivan Krastev’s After Europe (2017), a realistic take on the many challenges that are facing the European Union.

When thinking about how we react to populism, and how our political cultures are changing, I have also enjoyed Mark Lilla’s short book on identity politics, Once and Future Liberal (2018), in which he argues that many on the Left are losing their way and focusing far more on what separates people when they should be talking about what brings them together. This should be read, in my view, alongside Francis Fukuyama’s Identity (2018), which makes similar points.

I also learned a lot from Bradley Campbell’s and Jason Manning’s The Rise of Victimhood Culture (2018), alongside Jon Haidt’s and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), both of which point to worrying developments in our wider culture that look set to increase rather than curb populism and polarisation.

And I’d recommend a few books from across the spectrum that explore how deeper shifts laid a foundation long ago for our current era of political turbulence, including Robert Putnam’s Our Kids (2015), which explores educational divides; Paul Morland’s The Human Tide (2019), which like Eric Kaufmann’s book looks at demography; Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (2012), which shows how America society was fragmenting long before Trump; and Cultural Backlash (2019) by Norris and Inglehart, a book that explores how conflicts over values lie behind the populist turn.

But this year I enjoyed three books in particular, not necessarily because I agreed with them, but because I found them stimulating.

If you buy the argument that a key faultline today and in the future is geographic – between big cities and the periphery – then you should read the polemical Twilight of the Elites (2019) by the French geographer Christophe Guilluy. In this book the author, who has already made a name for himself by writing about ‘periphery France’, or ‘forgotten France’, takes aim at the big cities (the ‘new citadels’) but also the bourgeois bohemians (‘BoBos’) who appear more interested in sharing hashtags and preaching about the wonders of diversity than delivering serious economic reform and controlling the winds of globalisation.

Twilight of the Elites extends some of Guilluy’s earlier arguments to discuss how supposedly ‘open’ cities are actually not that open at all, how the economic system is rigged against those who have been pushed out of the new citadels and how immigration is now part of the mix. Guilluy, I suspect, would not have been the least bit surprised by the eruption of the yellow vest protests in France.

Another book that explores where liberals went wrong is Patrick Deenan’s Why Liberalism Failed (2018), which made it onto Barack Obama’s summer reading list last year. It’s not an easy book to read but, like Guilluy’s, it does ask good questions. Deenan’s central thesis is that liberalism has ‘failed’ because it has been so successful:

A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation and undermines freedom.

Liberals, he argues, have failed to reflect seriously on how the many contradictions within their creed have alienated citizens and cleared the path for the likes of Trump (though he wrote much of the book before the 2016 election).

Why Liberalism Failed is better on diagnosing where liberalism went wrong than pointing to where we should head next. It talks about the need to sustain things that are often lost through liberalism’s individualistic society – like social bonds and culture – through “forms of self-governance that arise from shared civic participation”. It’s all pretty vague. The call is for a return to the politics of virtue and for the creation of “civic polis life”. But it’s still worth a read for the diagnosis if not the proposed course of action.

My final pick is much stronger when it comes to thinking through how we might actually respond to some of these social challenges, one of which is our rapidly ageing societies. If you buy the argument that one reason why we are witnessing all of this political turbulence is because of unprecedented rates of demographic change, then I would recommend one book that asks us not to think about why we are here but rather where we are going in the future.

As Camilla Cavendish points out in Extra Time: 10 Lessons for an Ageing World (2019), by next year, and for the first time in history, there will be more people on the planet over 65 than under 5. More grandparents than children. Our ageing societies not only reflect the fact that we are all living longer but also that many of us are having fewer children. There are now 83 countries where fertility rates are below the ‘replacement rate’, while sub-Saharan Africa will see its population quadruple to 4 billion people by 2100, with Nigeria most likely overtaking America as the world’s third most populous country.

We really have not even begun to think seriously about how these shifts will impact on our societies and politics. As Cavendish writes:

Shrinking populations will soon alter the balance of power between countries, and change the politics of immigration. Longevity is bringing back multi-generational households and creating age-diverse workforces. A dramatically changing ratio of older to younger people will force governments to rewrite the social contract … We are not ready.

Though she does not explore it directly, it seems likely to me that one of the more immediate beneficiaries of these changes will be populist politics. One of the peculiarities of our modern age is that many of the nation states that are most strongly opposed to immigration – including some of those in Eastern Europe or Japan – also happen to be the very same ageing states that are going to need it the most. Without large-scale demographic change it is hard to see how these societies will raise the tax revenue and human resource that will be required to care for rapidly ageing populations. Technology will help but perhaps not as much as people think.

Either way, the good news is that Cavendish is full of ideas about how to meet this challenge – from giving free accommodation to university students in exchange for their help with elderly co-residents, to how each of us, as we get older, can find what the Japanese call ‘ikigai’ (a reason for being that gets us to jump out of bed each morning). We can only hope that somebody out there is listening to her suggestions.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.


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