Following the US elections, the Brexit vote, and the rise of non-conventional parties throughout Europe, the populist wave is sweeping both sides of the Atlantic. Populism is a revolutionary movement, but unlike its 20th century predecessors, such as communism or fascism, it eschews violent rebellion and favors a democratic replacement of incumbent governments.
Traditional and mainstream political parties need to learn lessons from the rise of populism rather than simply condemning the phenomenon and bemoaning their election losses. Ultimately, populism can contribute to democratic development by exposing the fissures, frustrations, and failures in Western societies, by involving new players in the political process, by reconnecting politicians with the populace, and by energizing the electorate to view politics as the responsibility of every citizen.
In its essence, populism has two main components: ant-elitism and nativism. The first element is manifest in an anti-establishment movement of rebellion by political formations claiming to represent the disempowered ordinary citizens. The second element places the narrowly defined interests of the nation above all international commitments.
Populism is usually protectionist economically, by seeking to strengthen the national economy and challenges the principles of globalization and free trade. It veers toward political isolation, in seeking to ensure and defend national sovereignty from the restrictions of international institutions and regional alliances. And it is commonly conservative culturally in claiming to defend national traditions from the global multi-cultural melting pot.
However, beyond these basic commonalities, populism can blend with various ideologies and its policies differ between European countries. Populism can be authoritarian or democratic. Modern rightist populists, unlike their radical right predecessors, claim they are defending popular democracy from a corrupt and elitist government. They can either campaign against liberalism by opposing state-imposed secularism and what are viewed as deviations from traditional social norms. Or conversely, they can claim they are actually defending liberalism by opposing immigrants who are intolerant of liberalism, such as ultra-conservative Muslims. The Dutch Freedom Party and its equivalents in Austria and Denmark assert that that they are promoting human rights against an anti-democratic Islamic onslaught.
Populism can be ethno-nationalist domestically or primarily xenophobic against foreigners but not necessarily against various long-resident ethnicities. Contemporary rightist populists tend not to racially scapegoat ethnic minorities but focus on recent immigrants who are supposedly taking jobs and government benefits away from natives and subverting the nation’s identity. For instance, one of the key actors in the Brexit campaign was the UK Independence Party, which seeks comprehensive restrictions on immigration but does not have an explicitly racist platform in a multi-colored British society.
Economically, populism may have either statist-leftist or laissez faire rightist prescriptions. Both varieties tend to rally against the economic establishment, particularly big business and multi-national enterprises that are depicted as either restricting domestic competition or damaging the working class by moving industries abroad.
Leftist populism seeks a more extensive redistributive economy with high taxes for the wealthy and a more intrusive government role, while rightist populism seeks tax breaks for business and deregulation to stimulate the national economy. Such commonalities and differences were visible during the US presidential election campaign between the leftist Bernie Sanders “progressives” and the rightist Donald Trump “America firsters.”
On the international arena, populism in Europe may be anti-American and pro-Russian or the exact opposite, or it may oppose both American and Russian influence and veer toward national neutrality. Several West European populist parties, whether leftist or rightist, seek to limit US engagement, viewing this as a form of economic dominance and “cultural imperialism.” Nevertheless, several of these groups supported a Trump presidency, not only because this has made populism more electable but also because they believe Trump’s White House will curtail US involvement in European affairs and support EU dissolution.
Populists may be anti-EU and pro-NATO, or they can reject both international alliances, viewing them as expensive and unacceptable constraints on national sovereignty. In Central-Eastern Europe populist-veering parties in Poland and Hungary may seek a lessened EU role in domestic affairs but they do not support leaving NATO. In contrast, nationalist populists in Bulgaria and Serbia view Russia as their patron and oppose the NATO alliance.
During a period of widespread anti-establishment sentiments, the durability of the populist wave in Europe and the US cannot be forecast. However, any government that is elected on an openly populist platform will ultimately be judged by its economic results rather than its political rhetoric. Indeed, if it is to retain power, its vehement anti-elite positions and expansive economic promises issued during election campaigns will necessitate greater achievements than a non-populist administration.
Without significant economic successes some populists may increasingly veer toward ethno-nationalism and divisive racism. In such instances, populism can be transformed into an outright danger to democracy and to inter-ethnic coexistence. The lessons of populism for democratic development need to be heeded or they may be repeated in a more revolutionary and destabilizing form.