The Rise of Populism
Warning! The rise of Populism – Bells ring from Town Halls across nations, beacons have been lit to warn us danger looms. Yet what do the left fear? Populism? How dare the electorate think they know what is best. Does this tone sound familiar? Warning! The rise of Populism aims at reviewing in depth the lean towards the right of politics that has occurred. Empower yourself and know your mind, only then are you truly free.
“Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.” — Plato1.
2016 was a year that many Americans and Britons would love to forget. This is obviously due to the shocking Brexit referendum turnout and the equally shocking election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. There have been many reasons fronted as to why these events happened, ranging from the economy to the cry of the disenfranchised.
For instance, in Trump’s case, the exit poll data of the November 8th, 2016 election showed that he won the white working class while holding on to a majority of college-educated whites. This translated into a win of states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania2. These were states that had voted for Obama in the previous election and were expected to form part of the ‘Democrat firewall’ that would propel Hillary Clinton to the presidency. The shock on you!
Brexit and Trump – Rise of Populism or common sense?
One of the biggest reasons that most people who have casually gone through the news and read a few articles will tell you is that the key reason for Brexit and Trumpism was economic. The reasoning is that the financial recession of 2008 and the losses due to globalization have made many white working-class whites angry enough to want to lash out at the establishment, which they feel has ignored them. Brexit voters wanted to get rid of a hegemonic body that was curtailing their freedom of trade and taking British jobs away from the UK.
However, a closer look at the data and at recent trends shows that we’ve slowly been wading closer to the deep end, walking every so surely to the precipice. We are in the throes of populism, and the world is leaning to the right in unprecedented fashion.
The State of the West in the 21st Century – Rise of Populism
Something that will make you think twice is the fact that Hillary Clinton lost heavily in counties where unemployment levels had actually decreased in the last term of the Obama Presidency:
This would seem to suggest that economic reasons were not the main driver for the election of Donald Trump, a rise of populism so the speak. A closer examination of the data is required. One would also need to look at the outside world for clues. Europe provides the answer, the seed that will eventually germinate and show us the fruity evidence of what’s going on in the western world.
Started in Europe?
You will quickly note that right-wing political parties have been gaining momentum in Europe over the years.
In 2014, Eurosceptic parties performed extremely well in elections held that year. This should have been a warning call to the rest of the world that something was brewing in the West.
The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, known to be authoritarian and fiercely far-right, attempted to build a wall to keep out immigrants in 2016, pretty much what Trump has been promising to do in America2. In Italy, Matteo Salvini and the Northern League Party tore into the Pope for his suggestion of dialogue with Muslims. The party is now the third most popular party in the country, polling at more than 3 times its popularity level in 2013.
Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front (FN) described Britain’s vote for Brexit as the most important event since the fall of the Berlin Wall. She went ahead to state that Donald Trump’s US presidential victory was “an additional stone in the building of a new world.”3 With the French first round of voting just weeks away, French President Francois Hollande has intimated that Le Pen could win the election. He told Le Monde: “The far-right has never been so high in more than 30 years. But France won’t cave in.”4 When Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe recently revealed that he would not stand in the race to replace scandal-hit Francois Fillon (once thought to be Le Pen’s ‘silver bullet’), the Euro shed more than 0.3%5. This is because Le Pen has promised to table a Frexit vote once she gets elected as President.
The situation is similar in the Netherlands, with Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party, poised to be the next Prime Minister of the country if current polling continues to the March election6. The Dutch often thought of as being pragmatic, business-minded and tolerant are about to be led by a man who has hailed Brexit, Donald Trump and what he calls the Patriotic Spring in Europe. His party’s manifesto has a one-page manifesto that advocates for the closure of mosques, banning the Quran and turning asylum seekers away6.
In Germany, Angela Merkel might have a nasty political fight in her hands if current trends continue. She is politically weak given the anti-immigration fever all over Europe for allowing refugees into the country. With the rising nationalistic, populist driven movements, she could well be on her way out of her Prime Ministerial position.
The Australian Connection
In Australia, Pauline Hanson, leader of The One Nation is making waves after recently backing penalty rate cuts and publicly stating her admiration of Vladimir Putin7. This is despite the claims of Russian involvement in the downing of flight MH17, which led to the death of 38 Australians. She remarked, “Did he push the button? My comments were I respect the man. He is very patriotic towards his country, the people love him, he is doing so well for the country. So many Australians here want that leadership here in Australia.”7
As if that were not enough, Brexit is not the only thing that the EU has to fear. France and Greece might be on the way out as well:
So, What’s Actually Going On?
No one disputes the fact that the state of the economy has contributed to the rise of populism in the Western world. It is the logical consequence of an astonishing concentration of wealth into the hands of a few men and women. When 8 people are worth more than half the world’s human population combined, then there’s a huge problem and the conditions for the brewing of populism have been set.
However, the current political climate in the U.S and Europe show that the state of the economy is a fringe element of the real situation of the ground. Trump may have the worst approval ratings as a recently inaugurated president. A majority of citizens may not support his plans to build a border wall with Mexico. Concern over Obamacare may have risen to unprecedented levels. But Trump tapped into something huge in white people, and this could help explain the rise of populism.
The common threads and values emerging from all this is a rise of a political class that has contempt for the traditional political elite. These are politicians who have authoritarian views on crime and justice. They also harbor deeply negative views on immigrants and believe that Muslims are inherently dangerous. They all support measures that close borders to refugees and economic migrants.2
The collective rise of parties and leaders espousing such values is too quick and too successful for it to be a coincidence. This is especially so when you consider that all the countries in which the far-right has enjoyed a resurgence have different cultures and histories. The rise of populism and the lean to the far right in the Western world can be attributed to anger over immigration and racial and religious intolerance. This is the ‘white lash’8 that cost Clinton the election and has led to the establishment of new political world order, one whose effects will reverberate for decades to come.
The Cause of the Rise of Populism: The Resentment of The Privileged
In his book, Understanding Ethnic Violence, Political Scientist Roger Petersen discusses how a group of society that is privileged begins feeling resentment when the power it held starts slipping into the hands of a group that previously had no power. In past decades and centuries, this resentment usually led to ethnic violence, and that this power shift has been largely ignored. The book, Petersen uses this theory to explain the chaos and destruction in the Balkans in the 1990s. This theory can also help explain communal violence elsewhere in the world.
Interestingly enough, in mature societies where governments are strong and the rule of law is strictly enforced, this resentment will mutate and be channelled into elections and government policies. This is an alternative way of mitigating the loss of status and privilege and preventing the less powerful group from sharing in the spoils that the more powerful group has been enjoying for decades. Petersen remarks, “Dominance, is sought by shaping the nature of the state rather than through violence.”
Know Your History or You are Doomed to Repeat It
There is evidence for this theory. Post-World War II Europe experienced a huge wave of immigration from nonwhite and Muslim countries, there was a backlash from the existing, predominantly white, population. When the United States ended the era of Jim Crow, there was a backlash from the white population which had to suddenly contend with black people being allowed to participate in the country’s affairs as equals. Following a mass wave of Latino immigration into the country, a savvy politician like Trump could harness the anger and backlash of the population and ascend into the oval office.2
Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway with a focus on studying the far-right, remarked, “What unites the radical right is their focus on immigration.”2 In a study paper published in 20089, she discovered that “a person’s support for restricting immigration was “close to a perfect predictor” of one’s likelihood of voting for a far-right party.” This was a study on European politics. She concluded, “This study therefore to a large extent settles the debate about which grievances unite all populist right parties. The answer is the grievances arising from Europe’s ongoing immigration crisis.”
More evidence on what could be causing the rise of populism comes from a study of 12 years of European Social Survey data. This included 294000 respondents. The study, conducted by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart had the goal of figuring out the relationship between economic and cultural grievances and support for the far right.10
The results were startling. In their write up, the duo commented, “The strongest populist support, remains among the petty bourgeoisie — typically small proprietors like self-employed plumbers, or family-owned small businesses, and mom-and-pop shopkeepers — not among the category of low-waged, unskilled manual workers.”
This destroys the theory that support for the far-right comes from the losers of globalization. There is simply no good evidence that could support the claim that economic anxiety has been driving cultural resentment. While the state of the economy on a long-term basis undoubtedly had a role to play in the U.S and Europe in the tumultuous year of 2016, the ‘whitelash’ is more about immigration, race, and culture.
It is no wonder then that hate groups in the USA have increased, and why Trump is expected to deal with terrorism, ISIS and immigration as the top 3 priorities in 2017. This is despite the fact that terrorism kills far fewer people in the mainland US than gun deaths and road traffic accidents, and the fact that there have been more Mexicans going home from the US than are coming in.
Age does it matter? – In the Rise of Populism?
Norris and Inglehart also write that, “[Populists’] greatest support is concentrated among the older generation, men, the religious, majority populations, and the less educated — sectors generally left behind by progressive tides of cultural value change.”
With all this information, it is not hard to see why and how Donald Trump won the election, and why populism is on the rise. Trump basically used the Republican Party as a vessel. He channelled the populism and attitudes that have been consuming the European continent and whipped together a coalition of ‘undesirables’ and ‘deplorable’ to win the oval office.
He started early in 2011 by tapping into the anxiety of white people on having a black president by claiming that Obama wasn’t a natural-born citizen. This enabled him to take over the reins of power in the republican party. Michael Tesler, a professor at the University of California Irvine, notes that “The party’s growing conservatism on matters of race and ethnicity provided fertile ground for Trump’s racial and ethnic appeals to resonate in the primaries. So much so, in fact, that Donald Trump is the first Republican in modern times to win the party’s presidential nomination on anti-minority sentiments.”11
To add insult to injury, Philip Klinkner12, a political scientist at New York’s Hamilton College, found that factors like economic pessimism and income were statistically insignificant to Trump’s support. Instead, his research found that the leading driver was party identification, followed closely by racial resentment.
“Moving from the least to the most resentful view of African Americans increases support for Trump by 44 points, those who think Obama is a Muslim (54 per cent of all Republicans) are 24 points more favourable to Trump, and those who think the word ‘violent’ describes Muslims extremely well are about 13 points more pro-Trump than those who think it doesn’t describe them well at all,” he writes.2
Rise of Populism – Race a factor?
In another study published at Slate13 that surveyed 2000 white Americans, “27 per cent of Trump supporters said the phrase “lacking self-restraint, like animals” describes black people well, compared with 8 per cent of Trump opponents. Trump supporters were also substantially more likely than Trump opponents to say that the terms “savage” and “barbaric” describe black people well. “
With this background in mind, it is hard to see the far-right politicians of Europe failing to win the upcoming elections in France, The Netherlands, and Germany. If Trump could Americanize their European far-right platform and win, why shouldn’t Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and maybe even Pauline Hanson win when the time comes?
Our growth and development as a species have been marked by increased cooperation with each other regardless of race, religion or language. Globalization was the epitome of progress in human cooperation. Populism is a direct threat to the dream of increased human cooperation.
The current rise in populist parties is a wake-up call resembling what the late Ralf Dahrendorf – a major scholar of the 20th century and a former member of the European Commission – summarized a little more than 20 years ago, as a quandary between globalization (as a means towards growth), social cohesion and political freedom14:
“To stay competitive in a growing world economy [the OECD countries] are obliged to adopt measures which may inflict irreparable damage on the cohesion of the respective civil societies. If they are unprepared to take these measures, they must recur to the restriction of civil liberties and of political participation bearing all the hallmarks of new authoritarianism (…) The task for the first world in the next decade is to square the circle between growth, social cohesion and political freedom” (Dahrendorf 1995)15.
- Dahrendorf, R (1995), “Economic Opportunity, Civil Society and Political Liberty”, UNRISD Discussion Paper 58.
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