Rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated
In Germany, the hard Right AfD has been slipping in the polls — and now looks set to sink even further. This week, they sacked a prominent official after he reportedly made remarks about immigrants that that even his own party couldn’t tolerate.
More generally, the AfD is tearing itself apart. Always riven by factional conflict, the splits are now out in the open as the party’s radicals battle with their more moderate colleagues (these terms are relative). While they came third at the last general election, they’re looking at big losses next time.
Commenting on the AfD meltdown, Jeremy Cliffe of the New Statesman said that the party’s disintegration is “as internationally under-covered as its rise was over-covered.” If, as expected, Donald Trump loses the US Presidency next month, then we can expect a lot more takes of this kind — populism as a flash in the pan.
Here are five reasons why this would be dangerously complacent:
Firstly, populism has not been “over-covered”. Even if it’s subsiding now, Brexit happened, Trump happened, Orbán happened. In Germany, that’s Germany, a party of the hard Right became the official opposition. In other countries — like Denmark and Austria — mainstream parties responded to the populist threat by moving sharply to the Right on immigration and other cultural issues.
Secondly, in times of crisis any government with a grip on the situation tends to gain support. It happened during the global financial crisis, but, as we know, that was just a prelude to the populist backlash of the previous decade. In this decade, winning the war against Covid won’t be enough, mainstream parties will also need to prevail in the recovery that follows it. Or else.
Thirdly, in many countries, populist parties of both Left and Right are alive and kicking. In the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein is now the main opposition. In France, the hard Right is still the main opposition and Marine Le Pen remains the main challenger to Emmanuel Macron. In Poland and Hungary, populist governments retain their grip on power. In Italy, what used to be the centre-Right of politics is dominated by two hard Right parties, who have continued to make gains in regional elections.
Fourthly, populism is, by its very nature, always in flux: surging, collapsing, exploding, imploding. Fighting it is a game of whack-a-mole — just when one challenge has been seen off, another pops-up. In Britain, UKIP all but disappeared after 2016, but then Nigel Farage reappeared with a new party, which won the UK’s last ever Euro-election, forced out Theresa May and paved the way for Boris Johnson. Now he might be appearing again, this time with an anti-lockdown party.
Finally, it’s true that most populist parties are dysfunctional. Their leading politicians are trolls and griefers, not serious candidates for high office. Even when they do occasionally find themselves in government, they are generally diminished by the experience. And yet, despite everything, they’ve still managed to disrupt conventional politics in way that conventional thinkers never saw coming and still can’t explain.
So instead of pointing out the obvious inadequacies of their enemies, liberals should ask why they were so vulnerable to such a shambolic challenge. They might also want to ask what would happen if populism ever discovers competence.