Commentary: What if populism fails?

Commentary: What if populism fails?

Failure by the populist parties who have taken their countries by storm could be catastrophic and leave millions of their supporters embittered and looking for someone to blame, says one observer.

People gather to protest against populism, the trend towards the political right and the use of hat
People gather to protest against populism, the trend towards the political right and the use of hate language during a demonstration in Munich, Germany, October 3, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Michael Dalder)

WASHINGTON: Populist nationalism is here to stay. Many still believe it a phase which, like surliness in adolescence, will pass and be succeeded by orderly, thoughtful maturity. 

But they will find that the political world, already changed, will disappoint them. 

Liberalism, however defined, is not politics’ default position: Mainstream politicians are in a fight ring facing young contenders buoyed by a string of victories.

So predicts a book published this week, National Populism by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, two British academics who – in contrast to their cheerful surnames – go to some pains to warn that anti-liberal politics is likely to grow. 

READ: Beware the culture warriors of social media, a commentary

Unlike other authors – such as Yascha Mounk in his book The People vs. Democracy – they do not write to warn and condemn, but to understand, even sympathise with, a movement which seeks to restore “the primacy of the nation over distant and unaccountable international organisations” and to reassert “the importance of stability and conformity over the never-ending and disruptive instability that flows from globalisation.” 

These goals – as Thomas Frank, one of the first authors to explore rising populism in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? writes – are not to be despised, being a lower-class response to decades of social marginalisation and economic stagnation – “populism isn’t the name for this disease; it’s the cure”.

Disease or cure, its present successes in the United States and in Europe prompt the question: What if it succeeds in at least some of its aims, and embeds itself as a governing rather than a disruptive force? 

And more urgently, what if it fails, and the tens of millions who support one or other national form of populism find themselves deprived of Frank’s “cure”?


Success would mean that policies – which include much reduced immigration, repatriation of illegal immigrants and more determined integration of ethnic minorities who remain, together with trade barriers and efforts to reduce the effects of globalisation – would be successful and popular. 

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of the Anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) hold a protest i
Supporters of the Anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) hold German flags during a protest in Berlin, Germany, May 27, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke/File Photo)

Failure, on the other hand, could see debt rising to unsustainable levels, trade barriers and disinvestment by foreign companies causing unemployment, and national businesses suffering from the loss of both unskilled and highly-skilled immigrants.

Success for populist parties would mean that they would displace the left – or would come from the left, since populism is not confined to the right. 

Their “cure” borrows heavily from the left – indeed, controls on trade and foreign investment, preferential treatment for national workers and heavy, and state-led investment in national infrastructure feature in the policy lists of the populist parties, and have all recently been programmes of the left. 

In some cases – in France where the leading left group, “La France Insoumise” (“France Unbowed”) favours a 100 billion euro (US$114 billion) economic stimulus and selective nationalisation, and in the United Kingdom, where Labour has rediscovered its radical socialism and plans the nationalisation of rail, mail and water together with higher taxes on the rich – they still are. 

It’s easy to see populism, whether of right or left, becoming a dominant strain, fighting it out with pro-globalist parties, including left-centre parties like the US Democrats, the German Christian Democrats and French President Emmanuel Macron’s Republique en Marche. 

The latter have on their side the fact of a world in constant, disruptive change. But it’s an option which has increasingly been felt as senseless by the millions who see themselves as its victims. 

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 20
Emmanuel Macron attends a campaign visit in Rodez, France, May 5, 2017. Picture taken May 5, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Regis Duvignau)


The political issue in a world in which populist governments will have been seen, at least partly, to succeed (and no government ever can succeed more than in part) would be to ensure that these policies become part of a reasonably stable political society and not, as now, a centre of constant contention. 

This is possible; something like it already exists, in the adoption by mainstream parties of policies, particularly on immigration and integration, which had been regarded as outside of a right-left consensus

Failure by the populists could be catastrophic. In Italy presently, the Lega-5 Star coalition government has been high in the polls for months – and now faces a direct confrontation with the European Union, on a budget which the Union insists contains a far higher figure for the deficit, 2.4 per cent, than that agreed. 

Matteo Salvini, who heads the Lega and is the effective leader of Italy, seems to relish the confrontation. A tough stance defending a budget aimed to increase growth and jobs against an austerity-obsessed EU would play well in the European Parliament elections in May.

Leader of the far-right League (Lega Nord) party, Matteo Salvini looks on during a meeting with the
Leader of the far-right League (Lega Nord) party, Matteo Salvini looks on during a meeting with the foreign press on March 14, 2018 in Rome (Photo: AFP/TIZIANA FABI)

But almost every economist, in and out of Italy, sees disaster ahead – and thus the government dropping its plans, or losing a fight with the EU. 

READ: Populist electoral gains and its five stages of grief, a commentary

The majority of Italians who voted for one or other of the coalition parties and who have been told to expect shorter working lives, a minimum income for those under a certain income level and a flat tax, would be shorn of their hopes. 

The collapse of the government, and its substitution by a more “mainstream” administration, would leave millions of embittered Italians looking for someone to blame – and would be directed, by the formerly governing populists, to international institutions with the EU in first place, as well as national “traitors.”

Something of this kind would happen wherever populists took and lost power. In the United States, Democrats could win control of the House of Representatives in the Nov 6 midterm elections with a net gain of 23 seats out of the 435 up for election. 

READ: Remember, Americans like divided government, a commentary

Less likely, but not impossible, they could take over the 100-seat Senate with a net gain of two more places. Were the Republicans thus to lose control of Congress then the Trump motor would be slowed.

US President Donald Trump is gearing up for a busy summer of campaigning for Republicans ahead of
US President Donald Trump is gearing up for a busy summer of campaigning for Republicans ahead of November's mid-term congressional elections (Photo: AFP/Nicholas Kamm)


Populism thus remains, win or lose – and is certain to be more disruptive if governments who rule in its name are expelled from office. 

The US Democrats are presently driven, significantly, by Trump hatred. Not only may that not be enough to take back Congress, but it is certainly not enough to produce a civilised polity. 

Populist leaders are confrontational, mendacious and ruthless – but those who follow them need to have their fears, resentments and beliefs addressed, if politics is not to descend further.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. He has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics and Journalism in an Age of Terror.

He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

Source: Reuters/nr(sl)