Populism is not a political phase or one-off. It’s here to stay

Italian populist politician Matteo Salvini seems to relish confrontation between Italy and the European Union.

Liberalism is not a given, but the real threat to a civilised polity is when a populist government fails and millions are left embittered, says John Lloyd.

Populist nationalism is here to stay. Many still believe it to be 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 National Populism, a book by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, and which is published this week. 

The two British academics — in contrast to their cheerful surnames — go to some pains to warn that anti-liberal politics is likely to grow.

Unlike other authors — such as Yascha Mounk, in his The People vs. Democracy — they do not write to warn and condemn, but to understand, even sympathise with, a movement that 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 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 urgent, 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 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.

Failure 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 €100bn economic stimulus and selective nationalisation; and in the United Kingdom, where Labour has rediscovered its radical socialism and plans nationalisations 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 that has increasingly been felt as senseless by the millions who see themselves as its victims.

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, that had been regarded as outside of a right-left consensus. 

Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron

Failure by the populists could be catastrophic.

In Italy, 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 that the Union insists contains a far higher figure for the deficit, 2.4%, 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.

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.

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 salary 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 the embittered would be directed, by the formerly governing populists, to international institutions, with the EU in first place.

Something of this kind would happen wherever populists took and lost power. 

Matteo Salvini

In the United States, Democrats could win control of the House of Representatives in the November 6 midterm elections, with a net gain of 23 seats out of the 435 up for election.

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.

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

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