Weathering the Storm: Talking European Populism on the Eve of the U.S. Election
As an ardent xenophile, ideologically committed to the values of diversity and political and cultural liberalism, though happy to have civil debates about economic and foreign policy, the rise of populism across Europe and other corners of the world is a depressing topic for me. Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency, the surprise result of the Brexit referendum driven by attitudes towards immigration, and the rule of the current Hungarian and Polish governments are clear signs that illiberalism, nationalism, and xenophobia are growing in the United States and Europe. Emotional political responses to a status quo that suffers from some very real problems and a search for simple answers to the modern world’s staggering complexities risk sucking the postwar liberal international order and the very real human gains achieved under it in the 20th and 21st centuries into the abyss. Sometimes I joke weakly that eventually we'll all be murdered by fascists and I'm just hoping we can extend the years before that happens.
On November 2, in the middle of the nervous 11 days between the FBI's Late October Surprise and Election Day, with Trump inching ominously up in the polls, the Transatlantic Academy and The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) Europe Program held a lunch discussion on populism in Europe with GMF senior transatlantic fellow Timo Lochocki and Weekly Standard senior editor Christopher Caldwell in Washington, which I moderated. Beyond Brexit, Europe has seen the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) find success in German regional elections as Chancellor Angela Merkel loses support on her right less than a year out from federal elections. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen looms over the French presidential elections next spring as President François Hollande’s approval hovers in low double digits, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has his career at stake in a constitutional referendum next month opposed by the Five Star Movement, which now holds the mayoralties of Rome and Turin.
The focus was on the right-wing populism prevalent in Northern Europe as opposed to the left-wing variant which has had some success in Southern Europe. One of the running themes of the discussions was the relative roles of culture/identity issues and economic pain and anxiety in populism. Lochocki argued that contrary to conventional wisdom, populists need prosperous times to thrive, as their supporters perceive that national elites are united in “selling out” the country. Their voters despise contestation between elites on national identity matters as well as a lack of contestation on economic policy. Populist success is based on voters’ perceptions, not what is really happening. Arguing that it was not inevitable that the AfD would clear the 5 percent threshold to make it into the Bundestag next fall, Lochocki noted that Merkel’s government has reversed its refugee policy in accordance with public wishes, but hasn’t yet communicated that vividly. He argues that the center will hold in Germany, which will maintain a stable center-right-led government, and that if Alain Juppé wins Les Républicains’ primary in France, the European Union’s Franco-German tandem could be strengthened.
Caldwell said that while economic changes in the 1980s and 1990s hurt people too, societies had greater offsetting resources i.e. “to build a hospital in a town that loses a mill,” which is no longer the case. He argued that while the United States is rhetorically polarized, Trump was a reaction to, not a product of the Republican Party, perceived by Trump’s supporters as unable to stop Democratic policies. He said Trump’s “build a wall” argument may sound stupid, but the previous U.S. elite discussion has focused on “comprehensive immigration reform,” supported by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Marco Rubio alike and boiling down to getting tough on illegal immigration while actually increasing immigration — not exactly what the right’s voters want.
Citing Princeton University professor Jan-Werner Müller’s argument that populists are antipluralist, claiming “they and they alone represent the people” and “other political competitors are essentially illegitimate,” I asked whether Europe’s prominent populist groups such as the AfD and FN were a threat to democracy. Lochocki said the answer to that question tended to depend on one’s political views. Most conservatives would see right-wing populists as threats to liberalism but not democracy — democracy should respond to people’s views.
Both Lochocki and Caldwell noted that populist and right-wing parties failed when they failed to keep steady media access — like Die Republikaner in Germany, which drew about 10 percent support in polls in 1989. Caldwell noted that AfD chairwoman Frauke Petry has explained that when she says outrageous things (sound like anyone?) she is sometimes then asked to explain. Lochocki said common refrain of AfD voters was “you don’t listen to my demands, you call me a Nazi.” This echoed a point made by George Mason University professor Justin Gest, who recently spoke at another Academy event on his latest book The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. Gest notes that respondents “often preface their most candid thoughts to me by stating ‘I’m not a racist, but…’… Racism is perceived to be a ‘mute button,’” the disclaimer an “exhortation to listen and not dismiss or invalidate the claims of a group that feels marginalized.” The media’s power to legitimize or delegitimize grievances — which are, of course, based on perceptions as much as reality — is indeed a lesson of this election season.
The close U.S. race also raises the question of what happens when populists win? Hungary and Poland are troubling examples, as is the post-Brexit referendum rise in hate crime in the United Kingdom. During the discussion, Transatlantic Academy fellow Yascha Mounk questioned whether “illiberal democracy” was a stable state or bound to be a transitional step on the way to authoritarianism, as in Russia and Turkey. The tensions between rights-based liberal democracy on one side and popular sovereignty on the other are an old story, but of renewed relevance in our interesting times. Mounk posited in a recent article that “Over the next decades, much of the world will face a tragic choice between illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, and undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy.”
This is a tragic choice indeed. In my view at least, both political liberalism and democracy are requisite for political legitimacy — and for a society which enables its people to thrive with their fundamental rights protected. Populists threaten both. And their success, whether by gaining dominance or simply playing a significant role as spoiler in any given country, has very real human costs.
Photo credit: Blandine Le Cain
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