The term ‘populism’ has been used with great frequency in recent times. Talk of a fragmenting political order seemed to be validated by the election of Donald Trump. But has the shift been as pronounced as some suggest? In this essay, Lindsay Mackenzie examines Europe’s restive political landscape and concludes that bolder, more honest, governance is the surest remedy for keeping populist parties at bay.


2017 had been billed as populism’s year. Elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany would decide the future of the continent. After a 2016 of Brexit and President Trump, the spectre of ‘what if?‘ seemed to haunt every political discussion. Some commentators even appeared to revel in the prospect of a President Le Pen. Armageddon-like scenarios were rolled out to describe a Europe on the brink.

And yet the chaos never arrived. In the Dutch parliamentary elections, the Party for Freedom (PVV) failed to make significant breakthroughs. In France, Emmanuel Macron defeated the National Front’s (FN) Marine le Pen in a presidential election billed as a struggle between pro-European centrism and radical-right populism. The Five Star Movement flopped in Italy’s June municipal elections. While Germany doesn’t vote until this coming September, recent polling shows support for the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) plummeting to single digits. Chancellor Merkel’s popularity is its highest since 2015. If the conversation at the start of the year was whether Europe could survive an impending populist victory, many have now concluded that the threat has retreated for good. Never has a political term whipped up such media fever, only to be discarded in a matter of months.


To announce the quick arrival of a ‘post-populist’ Europe is both tempting and comforting. It would also be mistaken.

To announce the quick arrival of a ‘post-populist’ Europe is both tempting and comforting. It would also be mistaken. The reality is something much messier. Even where populists haven’t been electorally successful, the issues and grievances they campaigned on remain. More worryingly, many established parties across Europe have co-opted their rhetoric (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). While talk of existential crisis is misplaced, it would be naïve to paper over the very real social political problems that exist across Europe. At a time when populism has seemingly shifted from being an unstoppable force to a dormant footnote, it makes sense to take stock and reflect. What is populism? How did we get here? Are there lessons to learn?

‘RETURN THE WORLD TO THE PEOPLE’ 

There is much academic debate on how to classify populism. It has been described as an ideology, a style, a set of ideas and principles. Perhaps, however, it is best to consider it as a limited but distinct phenomenon that exists across the political spectrum – from left to right. While populism’s definition can be a bit loose, we can still identify some helpful core principles. Fundamentally, it is the moral division of society into two distinct blocks; the people (as a homogeneous and pure group), and a corrupt elite which seeks to enrich itself at the peoples’ expense. It is not mere anti-establishment sentiment. Nor is it necessarily anti-democratic, though it is definitely illiberal.

Populism has a certain contempt for pluralism and representative politics. It relies on the political space provided by both to thrive, but regards their complexities, the checks and balances, as unnecessary tools of a self-interested elite. Instead, populists argue for a different model of representation – one based on an interpretation of how politicians are meant to serve the population. This is not about notions of direct democracy, or people power, but rather the belief in the existence of a single common good and a political programme that can implement it. Or, as Jean-Marie Le Pen once said, to “…return the world to the people”.

To these ends, populists claim absolute authority over judging and representing the people. It is a matter of authenticity. There can be no legitimate opposition if there is only one true will. Remember Nigel Farage after the Brexit referendum result? He declared it a “victory for real people…”. The implication being, of course, that those who voted to remain weren’t. In this moralistic political world, populists frame themselves as giving voice to those not just ignored, but deliberately betrayed, by the establishment. Politics becomes reductionist and dominated by stereotypes; a zero-sum game. Even if populists seek to bring marginalised or ignored issues back into the political agenda (which can be a good thing), they tend to do so in a toxic and polarising way. They excel in their ability to define an other; whether it is migrants, Roma, the media, or the intellectual classes. The rallying of the people is defined more by who it is not than by who it is. Populism might not always be xenophobic (in Europe it mostly is) but it is always exclusionary.


Geert Wilders speaking at a Pegida rally in Dresden, Germany, 2015. Image: JouWatch [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Populists rely on a sense of crisis – whether there is one or not – to frame themselves and their solutions. But this is not just about the recent economic or migration crises; populist parties have had success well before either took place. It is also about a crisis of trust, governance and accountability – about the direction of society and the perception of one’s place within it. The socio-cultural environment is just as important as the socio-economic. Not everyone who feels dissatisfaction with the above will be drawn to populist parties. But as long as portions of a population regard establishment politics as not only failing to addresses certain issues, but also as being responsible for a sense of political decline, some will.

Populists feed off this schism – they don’t create it. This means that while populism can come in many shapes and sizes, the division of society into the people and the elite remains constant. It is often assumed that populists can’t govern – or implode when they do. Yet it is worth noting that many are, or have been, significant members of governments across Europe. Regardless of example, the rise in populist support should be regarded an indicator of a failing system. It highlights a crisis of legitimacy for traditional parties and institutions. It reminds us that democracy doesn’t stay healthy on its own without work. But populism is hardly a corrective. It offers almost nothing in the way of solutions.

HOW DID WE GET HERE? 

While there are some fresh faces across Europe, many of the populist parties that have made recent headlines are not new. Some have seen power, been close, or merely heckled from the sidelines, for decades. In the 1999 Austrian legislative elections, the radical-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) won 26.9% of the vote and joined the governing coalition the next year. Marine Le Pen may have been cast as an outsider, but much of France has grown up with her and the FN. While Geert Wilders of the PVV has been treated as a pantomime-like villain, he has been involved in Dutch politics for 20 years. Even Italy’s radical-right Northern League, now rebranding itself as an anti-EU party, has its own long history of secessionism going back to the early 1990s.

It should also be noted that despite talk of populist waves and tides, there is no European-wide revolt, united in core principles, sweeping away liberal democracy. The notion of a domino effect has never been helpful. In many ways it ignores the nuances of what happened both in the UK and in the US, with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Domestic issues, in the main, determine election (and referendum) results. These issues differ from country to country. In fact, many of the populist parties lumped together often disagree on everything from social to economic policy. But they do share a common enemy – the European Union.


In fact, many of the populist parties lumped together often disagree on everything from social to economic policy. But they do share a common enemy – the European Union.

This isn’t surprising. It’s been a difficult few years for EU member states and institutions. 2015 saw a continent unprepared for a massive influx of migrants. Last year, the UK voted to leave the bloc and Islamic State claimed attacks in several European cities. While there have been some signs of a eurozone recovery, problems remain – particularly in southern Europe. For these reasons, it may be tempting to see recent migration, terrorism and austerity as the main drivers for populist support. Indeed, they are often portrayed as such in editorials and newspaper commentary. There is no doubt that these issues have played an important role – a trigger even. For example, justified fears of unchecked austerity since the financial crash have been exploited by the populist radical-right to promote their brand of welfare chauvinism.


A billboard promoting the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in Innsbruck, Austria. Image: Jolly Janner [CC]

But there have been wider, more fundamental, structural shifts which have been active over a far longer period. Europe has changed; economically, culturally, and politically. We have seen it in the emergence of a containerised economy, the boom in secularism, and the convergence of the political left and right towards the centre. This convergence opened up the mainstream to the charge that it has been hollowed out and is one dimensional – disagreeing only around the edges. The political theorist Robert Dahl once referred to this as the ‘surplus of consensus’.

Across Europe, grand coalitions, or merely a few established parties, have dominated politics for decades. They presided over massive economic and societal reordering, from globalisation to immigration, but gave few answers to those who questioned the ‘establishment narrative’. At the same time, the EU has faced accusations of maintaining a democratic deficit; absorbing authority from national governments on issues that parts of the population regard as requiring a national response. Of course, many national governments welcomed the shifting of blame. Instead of offering a positive vision of the EU, we’ve seen years of it being made a scapegoat for an array of domestic political inadequacies.

RE-POLITICISE AND FRAGMENT 

Populists have gained ground because they have been seen to address issues regarded as closed by established parties. In France and the UK, for example, topics such as EU withdrawal and immigration were long overlooked by the political mainstream. While this is no longer the case – immigration is very much now, crudely, on the mainstream political agenda – damage to the main parties on these issues has already been done. Just look at the loss of credibility suffered by the UK Labour Party in recent years on the issue of immigration policy.

Populists have gained the trust of some voters precisely because they are seen to channel various levels of disdain; not just toward specific politicians but toward a system regarded as incapable of responding to public concerns. They have been able to portray themselves as redemptive actors. If the elite is responsible for causing and perpetuating crises for their own gain, then only they (the populists) can right the wrong.

Of course, the perception of what a crisis actually is has also been transformed by the changing role of the media. The monopoly of a handful of newspapers toeing a party line has been replaced by something much more fractured. The rise of independent media, often with niche subject matters and target audiences, has meant individuals have become more knowledgeable about, and engaged with, their politics.


Donald Trump may be known for it now, but Geert Wilders of the PVV has been shaping the Dutch domestic political agenda and moulding his ‘authenticity’ via Twitter for years.

The darker side to this proliferation, particularly with regard to social media, has been the promotion of an adversarial, personalised and polarising political environment. More generally, the culture of 24-hour news has relied on sensationalism to maintain its relevance. The almost obsessive coverage of Marine Le Pen in the run up to the French presidential election is a useful example of this. It also plays into how populists use social media. Donald Trump may be known for it now, but Geert Wilders of the PVV has been shaping the Dutch domestic political agenda and moulding his authenticity’ via Twitter for years.

As the role of the media has changed, so have traditional party loyalties. There is considerable erosion. The collapse of established parties in France was particularly striking. Neither the centre-left or centre-right candidate made the runoff in the presidential election earlier this year. But it was the disintegration of the Socialists that was most remarkable. Its share of the vote fell from 28.63% in 2012 to 6.36%.

This phenomenon isn’t confined to France. Party systems across Europe have lost their centre of gravity. As political identities have shifted and dealigned, social democratic parties in particular have struggled to adapt and carve out a credible response. To fill the gaps, smaller niche parties and movements have emerged. While this has certainly allowed for more diversity and engagement in our politics, it has also led to fragmentation and unstable government. All this is indicative of a new and evolving political divide – one where the ideas of ‘open’ and ‘closed’, ‘national’ and ‘global’, are just as helpful as traditional ‘left’ and ‘right’. This cultural interpretation of identity will continue to reshape our politics.

POPULISM, 2017

The moral division of society into the people and the elite will be used in our politics to disrupt, agitate, and even govern. Despite how they portray their solutions, populist parties have tapped into genuine concerns and a deeper malaise. Emmanuel Macron’s presidential win in France was no doubt astonishing. So was his party’s majority in the legislative elections in June. But the result reveals a stunning lack of trust in what else was on offer. With a record low turnout, there are worries of a much broader political disengagement. The frictions underlying the FN’s support are likely to remain. Its vote share has been increasing since the 1980s. In the Netherlands, the PVV may have been squeezed out but inter-party bickering has prevented the formation of a coalition government, five months on from their election. Geert Wilders won’t be going anywhere.


The reality is that a crisis of Western liberal democracy will not be signalled by the mere election of a populist politician – nor will its salvation be heralded by their defeat.

It would be dangerous to call time on populist parties because of some fractured election results; particularly when their influence is not measured by just electoral success. Yet we must also be wary of another kind of complacency. In this case, of mainstream parties. The reality is that a crisis of Western liberal democracy will not be signalled by the mere election of a populist politician – nor will its salvation be heralded by their defeat. If we become too captivated by a small group of populist politicians who speak only for a small portion of society, we risk not only buying into their vision of the people, but also of overlooking the co-option of their rhetoric by established parties and the erosion of values across our politics.

In the UK, Theresa May’s government has been reduced to invoking ‘the will of the people‘ at almost every moment of criticism. When sections of the British press attacked the independent judiciary (described as ‘enemies of the people‘), the government seemed disinterested in providing a robust defence of the courts. In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte ran an ad campaign in January which told immigrants to “act normally” or leave. In Austria, the foreign minister once suggested setting up holding camps in North Africa for migrants. In July, the Austrian defence minister threatened to send troops to the Italian border to halt a migration influx. Where many populists have gained power – from the Austrian FPÖ to Donald Trump in the United States – it has often been with the approval and support of mainstream parties.

This is more opportunism than anything else; an attempt to find a successful electoral path in a fragmenting political landscape. But the question becomes how far the established parties are willing to go in their efforts to hold onto power. The future of Europe cannot be shaped by self-serving mimicry. Neither can it be shaped by political exclusion, tactical grand coalitions, or cordon sanitaire. Such a strategy would simply reinforce one of populism’s main tenants; establishment collusion. Instead, Europe’s future must be shaped by a principled and honest democratic liberalism. One that owns issues and addresses legitimate concerns, but also understands the importance of identity, and makes a positive, hopeful vision of what that can be.


Lindsay Mackenzie is a European security analyst specialising in Russia. He writes regularly in the national media on this subject area. Lindsay works with the Scottish Global Forum and with CABLE. He is on Twitter at: @l_pmackenzie 


Feature image: Marine Le Pen gives a speech at a Front National rally in Paris., France, 2012. Image: Blandine Le Cain [CC BY 2.0]