The Great Lockdown will create a triple-headed crisis. Credit: Mark Makela/Getty

July 6, 2020   7 mins

The present is pregnant with the future.

I thought of this quote while reading a whole raft of recent pieces on the future of politics — specifically the future of populism. Every few years, the same question rolls around. Have we reached ‘peak populism’, or is there still room for growth?

Your answer is inevitably shaped by your ideological priors. If you think that the world is generally going to hell in a handcart pushed by the populists, then you have probably spent this crisis searching around for any sign, however small, that things are about to shift gear.

Here’s one possible chain of events. Joe Biden defeats Trump in November; Emmanuel Macron is then re-elected in France, while Jair Bolsonaro loses in Brazil. National populists lose support at European elections in 2024, while Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are replaced by a Labour-led coalition. Suddenly the debate is transformed. Ding dong the populists are dead. Liberalism is back. The End of History returns. Francis Fukuyama smiles.

Populists, in general, have not had a good crisis. Trump’s approval ratings are down. Bolsonaro’s have fallen off a cliff. Matteo Salvini’s League has been sliding in the polls. Austria’s Freedom Party is down. Sweden Democrats are down. The Alternative for Germany is down. Spain’s Vox is just treading water. Marine Le Pen’s movement just captured the southern city of Perpignan but her candidate did not use the party brand, while her party stood fewer candidates and saw its number of councillors decline by nearly 600.

Furthermore, the grand coalition in Germany is up in the polls and so too is Macron. Despite suffering losses to the Greens a week ago, his own leadership ratings have improved. Meanwhile, contrary to the prediction that other EU member states would follow Britain by staging their own version of Brexit  — or what I am told would be called Quitaly in Italy, Frexit in France, Leavia in Latvia, No-Land in Poland, Out-stria in Austria and Czech-Out in the Czech Republic — the latest results of the most reputable survey on the continent find strong and robust public support for EU membership almost everywhere (including, um, Britain).

In short, no serious analyst can look at the coronavirus crisis and say that it has been good for populists. Perhaps then we really have reached peak populism?

There is a different and more nuanced view, however. It was put forward last week by Gideon Rachman who agrees that while the crisis might eventually kill populism, not least because Covid-19 demands evidence-led managers over ideology-led amateurs, “there is no guarantee that the populists will go quietly”.

What does he mean by this?

The renewed prospect of culture wars over emotive issues like race and national symbols, the fact that the underlying drivers of populism are deep-rooted and still visible and the possibility that democratic norms could still break down in America (I find this less likely) and Brazil (this is more so) all suggest that while we might soon be getting off the populist rollercoaster there could yet be a few more twists and turns in store.

It’s a perfectly compelling argument, not least because the one thing we know about all big crises, as sure as night follows day, is that they are followed by significant political volatility.

The Great Depression was followed by totalitarianism and global war, while even quite localised crises like the ERM crisis in Britain fed into seismic changes in the polls (John Major’s Conservatives never again enjoyed a lead over the Labour Party that was outside the margin of error). And then came the Great Recession.

Had readers been asked to take a guess at the effects of the post-2008 crisis in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Lehman Brothers, then I think very few would have forecast the sheer scale of the turmoil that was about to unfold.

Ten years ago, a younger you walks into your local bookie and asks for an accumulator bet that the then-host of the US show The Apprentice will become President, that the UK will vote to exit the European Union, and that a far-right party in Germany will win more than 90 seats in the Bundestag. Who’d have guessed that you’d clean up.

It’s only by looking back now, over a decade later, that we can see how the crisis cleared the way for the rise of anti-establishment populism, the fragmentation of Europe’s party systems and much higher rates of political volatility. We can also see how it sparked a general collapse of public trust in politics and a sharp decline in satisfaction with democracy, most visibly in southern Europe — an area that has today once again been hit by yet another crisis.

So, if we accept that political turbulence always lies downstream of crises, then perhaps we can agree that the Great Lockdown will also have seismic effects. I would probably go further than Rachman and argue that this crisis looks set to have a far more profound impact on our politics than we probably realise.

What differentiates the Great Recession from the Great Lockdown is that while the former presented a double crisis that started in the markets and then trickled down into society, the latter has thrown us into a far more complex triple crisis that is unfolding on three fronts — health, economics and politics.

It is already massively reshaping the relationship between the citizen and state. If the 1930s saw the return of the state after the failure of financial markets, and the 1980s saw the return of the markets after the failure of the state, then the Great Recession and the Great Lockdown combined have paved the way for the return of the state after the failure of the markets.

The end result, as we can already see, will be bigger government that is more willing to intervene and spend. The sheer number of private-sector workers who have relied on the state, the bailouts, the sharp increases in deficits and rocketing piles of debt all point to how fiscal conservativism was one of the first victims of this crisis. The ‘neo-liberal’ free market capitalism that ran riot in earlier years is simply no longer in touch with the public mood.

As Fukuyama has pointed out, just try to make the Reaganite argument to voters today that government is not the solution but the problem. It simply no longer sounds credible. We are living in a world where Jack Dorsey donated $1 billion to tackle the crisis while the US congress has so far thrown more than $2 trillion at it. This could help mainstream parties that are more experienced at using the state and government to deliver results.

But it seems to me that this more protectionist mood in politics could just as plausibly chime with the arguments that populists are making. Back in the 1990s it was argued that the winning formula for the populist right was a combination of economic liberalism and cultural authoritarianism. Stay relaxed about the markets but crack down on migrants, basically. But since then many populists have been drifting Left on economics, becoming more critical of globalisation, corporate elites and crony capitalism. It’s Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon and Marine Le Pen mixed together.

Only a few years ago, economic nationalism was widely derided but it’s worth pointing out that today you do not need to look far to find mainstream politicians and governments making similar ‘nation first’ noises. Populists might not need to win power. Things might simply move in their direction anyway.

The sheer scale of the crisis also means that the issue agenda of politics will likely change. It was nearly 30 years ago, in 1992, when James Carville convinced a lot of us that it really is the economy, stupid. But then along came the 2010s with the message that it’s the culture too, stupid. Perhaps, though, the 2020s will see the revenge of Carville as debates over identity make way for a resurgence of debates over the economy. We’ve all grown used to talking about the arrival of a second values dimension in politics that runs from liberal to conservative. But perhaps the ‘Left versus Right’ dimension isn’t finished with us just yet.

Some have argued that it was in the aftermath of the depression of the 1930s and then global war that people found a new spirit of collective solidarity that led to the New Deal, welfare states in Europe and a compromise between governments and workers. But this more optimistic take does not sit comfortably with the fact that Covid-19 has been an asymmetric shock — we have not been ‘in this all together’. And this is especially true in Europe.

I tend to treat all economic forecasts with caution as they are like sausages; when you’ve seen how they are made you don’t want to go near them. But even then, the IMF tells us that while states like Germany will see a 7.8-point drop in GDP next year, in Italy and Spain this will be closer to 13-points. The asymmetric shock was not only visible as we headed into the crisis but will be even more visible as we eventually come out of it on the other side. Growth rates, jobless rates, the scale of debt and the level of investment will all look remarkably different according to whether you are in the north or south of the continent. The clear and present risk facing Europe is also something that will likely produce more of those twists and turns: economic divergence.

This time around it could have a harder edge. Quarantini-sipping professionals spending the crisis on Zoom have had, and will continue to have, a profoundly different experience from the left-behind workers who have, essentially, kept the show on the road.

In the first phase of the crisis, our social isolation was compulsory. Now it is voluntary. And that means that over the longer-term it will become an economic luxury. Excluding ethnic minorities, the groups that are being hit hardest by the economic and health crises are the very same groups that were swapping the mainstream for populists before the crisis. Will they suddenly have a change of heart? Perhaps. But I just don’t find that very convincing.

They could stop voting altogether, of course. Or they could turn to even more radical parties. One recent development that few people appear to have noticed is that whereas national populists overall have had a mixed or bleak crisis, in states such as Netherlands, Italy and Denmark, there are signs that new movements are on the rise. Italy’s Brothers of Italy, the Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands, the New Right in Denmark are a few examples.

If, as Voltaire said, the present is pregnant with the future then there is no guarantee that the populists of tomorrow will look the same as the populists of today. But, either way, even if the rollercoaster might be about to slow down it looks certain to me at least that we will not be getting off the ride anytime soon.

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.