The rising tide of parochial populism confounds categories of left and right
by Patrick Webber
Populism is growing across the West. Established political parties are atrophying. Political norms are changing, fast. Traditional parties in Europe and the United States are petrified. The future of the European Union (EU) is in jeopardy. The rise of the nationalist Fidesz in Hungary and the Law and Justice government in Poland have echoes beyond the less established democracies of the former Soviet bloc. The French National Front and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are now major players. Anti-immigrant populists disrupt the traditionally placid politics of the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Germany. Ultraleft parties, equally disdainful of the EU and liberal capitalism, are rising as well, most notably Syriza in Greece, but also Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour Party. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump’s protectionist nativist insurgency has engaged millions of traditional nonvoters and thrown the Republican Party establishment into a nervous breakdown, while the Democrats’ Bernie Sanders has led a charge that is equally hostile to free trade and international engagement.
Why are these parties and tendencies within parties in the ascendant? Many attribute the populists’ success to platforms and policies, but these movements transcend established concepts of left and right. Popular fatigue with the caution and perceived ineffectiveness of mainstream politics and the air of authenticity exhibited by many populists, who dare to say things excluded from mainstream democratic discourse for many decades, partly explain the phenomenon. Rejecting the pillars of post–Cold War liberalism and globalization, they are united by a politics that is, to varying degrees, parochial.
Who are the parochial populists?
The populist worldview champions “ordinary people” over “elites.” Seen through the populist lens, elites are not defined by income or social standing, as they would be by Marxists or liberals, but by opinions and tastes. To be a member of the elite is to hold and promote views seen as scornful of or hostile to those of ordinary people – ordinary people being whoever controls the agenda of a populist movement or party says they are. Political operatives, the mainstream media, career civil servants, bankers and lobbyists, artists, university professors and liberal arts students are all the enemy to most populists. Ultraleft populists, who are allied with the academic elites, excise the last few categories from their enemies list but are otherwise aligned.
There is nothing new about populism: it has long been used by centre-right and centre-left parties to mobilize voters. In Canada populism drove the farmer rebellions of the Progressive Party in the 1920s; the CCF in the 1930s and later its successor the NDP; the rural Quebec crusade against urban modernity launched by the Créditistes in the 1960s; and Preston Manning’s Reform Party campaign against the Laurentian elite in the 1990s. Given the strength of populism in Canadian politics it is surprising that, so far, Canada has been largely immune from the most recent populist wave.
What is interesting about the new breed of parochial populism is that it explicitly rejects the classical liberalism of the centre-right and centre-left and the basis of the post-1945, and especially post–Cold War, consensus. In the process it has become potentially very dangerous.
That consensus was defined by a series of norms and policy directions – what the Swedes call the asiktskorridor or “opinion corridor.” The walls of this corridor included trust in institutions including governments and trade unions, liberalized trade, the dismantling of protectionism, a positive attitude toward immigration, the transfer of national power to international bodies (the United Nations and trading blocs such as the European Union) and (though unevenly) liberal social views and liberal interventionism in foreign policy. The sum total was a drive toward openness and universality. This consensus became dominant with the questioning of Keynesian economics in the 1970s and the collapse of Soviet Communism in the late 1980s, as the second era of globalization (the first having run from roughly 1870 to 1914) took off. The consensus peaked around the beginning of this century, with its symbolic pinnacle on September 10, 2001.
The rise of global Islamism that launched the attacks of September 11, 2001, provoked the last spasm of post–Cold War internationalism, which came to be seen as responsible for bogging the West down in constant and apparently unwinnable war. Trade liberalization is seen as having hastened the disappearance of stable middle-class jobs that could be secured with a high school diploma. The failure of immigrant communities to integrate into local cultures, an outcome often encouraged by state multiculturalism, has increased the anxieties of those who feel the pressure of competition for low-skilled work. Islamist terror attacks by domestic Muslims only exacerbated concerns around immigration. Political institutions, occupied by wealthy and self-appointed elites who dictate to the masses regardless of popular feeling, appear increasingly distant and beyond influence; the unelected and bureaucratic EU probably stands as the ultimate example.
As table 1 shows, populism creates strange bedfellows. At first glance these political alignments look mismatched. Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump in the same category? The post-Communist Left Party next to the National Front? Assumptions that hold these movements to be in conflict stem from the outdated left-right paradigm that underpinned the liberal consensus. It is no longer useful in describing the way voters behave or think, and it is time to retire it. All these groups share some basic attitudes:
- protectionism in trade, and a rejection of or deep scepticism of freer trade;
- foreign policy isolationism and an aversion to liberal interventionism;
- immigrants not regarded as part of the national community (either excluded or seen as a separate entity);
- rejection of or at least deep scepticism toward the European Union project;
- a stronger welfare state, often with benefits based on nativist criteria.
And as we see in table 2, these parties are on the rise.
Why right-wing populists aren’t right-wing
Many populist parties and movements – including the French National Front, Britain’s UKIP and the Nordic anti-immigrant parties, along with Trump’s presidential bid – are classified as right-wing. This does not describe what these parties actually advocate, and creates the impression of a greater gulf between them and the Syrizas and Jeremy Corbyns of the world than actually exists.
Historic divisions between left and right applied principally to economics, with the right end of the spectrum preferring less state intervention and the left preferring more. Social liberalism and social conservatism were tacked onto that economic spectrum but they are more accurately plotted along a libertarian-authoritarian axis. The trend in the West from the 1960s on saw economic and social policies conflated. That moment has now passed.
Today’s parochial right-populists show little interest in freer markets or economic liberalism, or in any dismantling of statist welfare structures. This populist rejection of economic liberalism is the result of a particular reading of the impact of globalization, which has hastened the deindustrialization of the West and the loss of low-skilled but well-paid manufacturing jobs. That in turn has led to a nostalgia for protectionism and amnesia about the troubles caused by Western attempts at autarky and protectionism during the interwar years.
The time when a low-skilled factory job could support a middle-class lifestyle was a historical anomaly. During that time, the West led the way in the development of a global consumer economy and benefited from the comparative underdevelopment of the rest of the world. Most countries resisted globalization, or formally market-based economics. The Soviet bloc engaged in autarky, China was engulfed by Maoist madness and India practised misguided localism before perpetual poverty and popular pressure convinced its government to liberalize in the early 1990s. Western leftists could have taken solace from the rapid global decrease in poverty: the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day fell from 1.95 billion, or 37 per cent of the global population, in 1990 to 896 million, or 12.7 per cent of the global population, in 2012.1 Sadly, this was not the Western left’s response.
Parochial populism is driven by a fear that open borders, freer trade and general economic openness will lead to openness in other spheres. “Old-stock” inhabitants must be protected. Tariffs are a barrier against the assaults of the world, to be raised in synch with closing the immigration drawbridge.
Most parochial populists support an elaborate welfare state, provided it only serves old-stock inhabitants. David Frum calls them the “parties of incumbent claim,” pining for the welfare state of 1980 serving the citizens of 1980.2 The Danish People’s Party advocates a fully tax-funded health care system; the Sweden Democrats would increase housing subsidies and lower taxes for the elderly; UKIP is a full-throated champion of the National Health Service. Even Donald Trump talks of replacing Obamacare with something better and protecting Medicare (state-covered health care for Americans over 65). The right populist Tea Party was sparked by seniors seeking to protect Medicare against President Obama’s universal health care plan. Today’s so-called “right-wing” populists are not fans of Milton Friedman.
Nor can parochial populist parties and movements be dismissed as traditional social conservatives. Many forcefully defend “liberal” values from a nationalist perspective, arguing the need to safeguard gay rights, women’s equality and other rights and freedoms from an Islamist assault. The curious assumption is that supposedly universal liberal values can be shared only among indigenous residents of liberal nations, a perspective best described as Continental Powellism. (Enoch Powell was a prominent British MP who, in the 1960s, predicted “rivers of blood” in the future if Britain allowed open immigration.) This feature of Western European parochial populists differentiates them from the more traditionally reactionary social conservatism of their Eastern European counterparts such as Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party, especially on matters such as gay rights.
Donald Trump has shown little interest in social conservatism as a political mobilizer, stumbling on the question of abortion and limiting his culture war on behalf of Christians to saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” When it comes to religiosity, a traditional litmus test for American social conservatives, Trump defies conventional wisdom. A January 2016 Pew Research poll about all the major presidential contenders found Trump viewed as the least religious, beating out Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. There were twice as many respondents who saw Trump as “not too / not at all religious” than who saw him as “very/somewhat religious.” As Tucker Carlson points out, many evangelicals have given up on electing one of their own and now want a protector of their faith.
The sea change in American social values over the last 20 years has affected Republicans as well as Democrats. Between 2005 and 2015, support for same-sex marriage among Republicans, according to Pew Research, increased from 19 to 34 per cent. This did not just reflect older voters dying off and younger, more socially liberal voters entering the sample. Attitudes changed within generational blocs as well. Support for same-sex marriage among the “silent generation,” born between 1928 and 1945, jumped from 23 to 39 per cent.3 Other concerns have overtaken traditional social conservatism, a fact the Republican establishment, the media and Democrats have been slow to recognize. As Michael Lind commented in September 2015,
Trump has exposed the deep disagreements on immigration and trade policy between the Republican Party’s donor elite and its white working class base. Until recently Republican conservative politicians ignored the economic nationalism and protectionism of their voters, seeking to placate them on social issues by proposing to outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage. But now that Trump has awakened the slumbering Kraken of European-style national populism in the U.S., Republicans may have trouble changing the subject away from trade protectionism and immigration restriction and back to “God, guns and gays.”4
The end of secular cosmopolitanism
On the surface, “right-wing” and “left-wing” populists have little in common on the subject of immigration. Scratch below the surface and they are united in mutual rejection of cosmopolitanism based on universal liberal values. This rejection manifests as nativist xenophobia within some movements, while in others it takes the form of an asymmetrical view of rights and a relativist approach to values.
Labour’s Corbyn and the German Left Party accept immigration but are hostile to any notion that immigrant communities ought to be subject to the same laws and rights as native-born citizens. This is most evident in their attitude toward political Islam, with varying degrees of acquiescence in the idea of shari‘a coexisting with secular law and bending secular liberal values to accommodate Islamist views, no matter how extreme. Liberal values are suitable only for native-born, non-Muslim citizens, and even then these values and freedoms are to be watered down to appease the loudest imams. Ironically, this stance abandons liberal Muslims confronting extremism, denying them the support of a universal, nonsectarian, liberal community. It also ensures that only xenophobic populists are left to address genuine anxieties associated with Islamic immigration and communities in the West.
Hostility to internationalism and the alliances and humanitarian interventionism it sometimes entails is at the heart of parochial populist movements. Donald Trump bemoans American dollars spent stationing American troops in South Korea while expressing scepticism about American military adventures. Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn stand together to question British military power being used for humanitarian purposes, while Corbyn and Trump support their respective countries’ withdrawal from NATO.
The hostility to internationalism of Donald Trump, not to mention Bernie Sanders, is particularly out of place for a presidential front-runner, given American primacy. Trump is no pacifist and is not opposed to using American military force (especially to “kick the shit out of ISIS,” as he eloquently phrases it), but he is doubtful of the value of American military commitments in East Asia and Europe and thoroughly opposed to nation-building and liberal interventionism. His campaign speeches suggest that he welcomes tyrannical regimes provided they do not cause grief to American interests: he has expressed geopolitical laments for the toppling of the Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi regimes. Trump wants a beefed up U.S. military but one that stays home, guarding the Great Wall on the Rio Grande.
Trump’s popularity and his isolationism are not unrelated. In 1964 Gallup recorded only 20 per cent of Americans who agreed with the statement that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” During the Cold War period, isolationism peaked at 43 per cent in 1976, in the aftermath of Vietnam and at the height of détente with the Soviet Union. In 2013, Pew Research found that a post-1945 record of 52 per cent of Americans believed that the United States should mind its own business.5 Trump and Bernie Sanders both speak to this fatigue with global leadership among American voters.
A common feature of these movements is their readiness to apologize for and seek warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime. Britain’s Farage and Corbyn claim that NATO provoked Russia’s intervention in Ukraine by “encroaching” on Russia’s sphere of influence. Farage goes further, praising Putin as a co-combatant in the fight against Islamism. Donald Trump has embraced Putin’s praise and expresses appreciation for Putin’s military adventure in Syria. The German Left Party sent election observers to watch the entirely illegitimate 2014 Crimean referendum, in effect endorsing Russian annexation. During the same year France’s National Front accepted a Kremlin-backed loan worth €9.4 million.
These movements often admire strong men, and Putin shares with them a contempt for the West. In receiving and reciprocating this praise, Putin puts the parochial populists to work furthering his primary foreign policy goal of splintering the EU, as the historian Timothy Snyder pointed out in 2014.6
Putin’s anti-EU thrust does not stem from the concerns about bureaucratization or antidemocratic impulses in the European Commission that motivate his populist allies (and many liberal and libertarian critiques of the EU). Rather, it is based on old-style Westphalian foreign policy that seeks to enhance Russia’s relative power. Parochial populists are Russia’s “useful idiots” of the early 21st century. In Putin, they have found the father figure they were looking for, a role model for both the self-styled left and right.
How can liberals respond?
A comprehensive cosmopolitan, internationalist and liberal response to the challenges identified is well beyond the scope of this article. I offer a few suggestions.
We must stop being afraid of offending others. Part of the new populists’ appeal is stylistic: a pose that says they are not held back by the niceties of political correctness on the one hand or traditional behaviour on the other. Politics is about ideas, and ideas should never be expected to hold universal appeal. This implies a didactic politics, with no genuine liberal assuming that any position will be universally accepted.
For instance, the merits of free trade must once again be argued, on the basis of facts, rather than accepted as obvious. That also means accepting the downsides to free trade and explaining how they can be addressed. The endless slog of defending liberal values, of influencing public opinion, will have to be embarked on as a conscious project. Liberals will be insurgents, challenging not the left or right but conclusions that stem from dogma, not evidence. The crowds in the streets and votes in the ballot box supporting today’s parochial populists tell us that the liberal assumptions those parties are trashing are clearly not settled facts. Contrary points of views can no longer be dismissed as unworthy of attention simply because they don’t make sense to us.
In addressing the concerns raised by the parochial populists, sometimes it’s not just a question of defending anew an established belief under ill-informed attack. Sometimes the parochial populists are right, as when they talk about a disconnected elite that generally, and often openly, holds the broad mass of the public in contempt. There must be an effort to understand – and mitigate – the anxieties that motivate populism’s supporters. This will not always be successful, nor will populist solutions match broad liberal values in some cases, but the effort must be made. Instead of dismissing these voters with lazy caricatures, there must at least be an effort to understand where they are coming from,.
Cosmopolitan liberals must acknowledge their failures and adjust their policies, specifically in the areas of immigration and trade. This ought to be done in part defensively, to ensure the survival of liberal cosmopolitanism against the risk of populist revolt. But it also needs to be done to enhance cosmopolitan liberal values, by acknowledging where these values may have been injured in the pursuit of certain liberal-inspired goals.
State-directed multiculturalism – as opposed to “multiculturalism as lived experience” as British writer Kennan Mallick puts it – must be acknowledged as a failure, at least in Western Europe. Rather than nurture a heterogeneous but still coherent society, it has created a patchwork of detached and often hostile communities. It is particularly dangerous for the maintenance of liberal societies when ghettoized communities fall prey to radical Islam, only feeding the parochial populist narrative. If the combination of liberal social values and heterogeneity achieved through the free movements of people is to be saved, then liberals must regain confidence in the superiority of their ideals.
Recognizing and promoting the superiority of liberalism will require promoting a shared culture of secularism, individualism, personal freedom and pluralist values: a civic religion that makes it clear that Western societies have certain bedrock values that are not open to modification. Any promotion of a shared culture must be along liberal and secular lines, not narrow religious or ethnic ones, which is often what the populists – not to mention the Islamists – demand. Integration and assimilation have to be rehabilitated as positive, though limited, goals in defence of free speech, gender equality, gay rights and other liberal ideals, particularly in relation to new arrivals to the West. Such a stance will also provide refuge and example for moderate liberal Muslims, both in the West and in Muslim-majority countries desperate for modernization. The West can hardly assist those challenging Islamism in their own societies if we do not have the stomach to confront it here at home.
On trade, there must be an honest acceptance that the promises of the 1990s have not been realized on all fronts. The hope was to bring China and other emerging economies led by dubious regimes to the table via trade and start these societies on the path toward liberalization and democracy through the strength of the West’s example. China today is on the verge of becoming the world’s largest economy and is, if anything, more repressive than it was in the 1990s. Open trade with China has enriched an emerging totalitarian superpower, with clear strategic interests that challenge democracy and Western interests in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It should be difficult for liberal free traders to defend a system that builds up the economies of countries that reject the tenets of classical liberalism.
How can this be addressed without retreating to mercantilism or protectionism? A system of conditional free trade, a “democratic preference,” could operate among states that meet a minimal standard of democratic principles. The only tariff would be a tariff on totalitarianism. This would not diminish the appeal of protectionism to many populists, but it would address anxiety about free trade, protect globalized trade and include questions of democratic principles in discussion of trade and national interests.
When confronting parochial populism in the specific case of Western Europe, cosmopolitan liberals must insist on democratic reform of the European Union: an EU not governed by and committed to classical liberal principles is not fit for purpose. Liberals must counter the populists’ nationalist critique of the EU with a strong democratic critique, and a plan for making it real.
Finally, the West needs new political alliances within itself. The old binary of left and right is now inoperable. Parochial populists defy it in their own policies and alliances. Nigel Farage and George Galloway embraced onstage at the launch of the Leave campaign in Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership. (George Galloway is a prominent UK politician associated with advocacy on behalf of immigrant communities.) The Syriza government in Greece selected the right-populist, anti-EU Independent Greeks as its coalition partner. The parochial populists know who their allies are, and a politics that confronts populism using a framework that populism itself discredits is of no use.
Globally, the fight for liberal, cosmopolitan values against not just domestic parochial populism but also the regressive left, Putinism, the Chinese Communist Party and Islamism necessitates new coalitions. Today’s broad centre-left and centre-right should acknowledge their shared appreciation for basic liberal values, despite differences about specifics, and abandon or reconcile divisions that distract from the real battles. There is a political reconfiguration taking place that recognizes that the real divide is between broadly libertarian and authoritarian values. Realizing this will provide the intellectual springboard from which parochial populists, and other antiliberal forces from Islamists to Putinesque nationalists and censor-happy campus activists, can be confronted and defeated.
1 World Bank data.
2 Frum makes this case at Center for Immigration Studies, David Frum – the Progressive Argument for Reducing U.S. Immigration (video), May 25, 2015, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69oF_s590MQ
3 Pew Research Center, “Support for Same-Sex Marriage at Record High, but Key Segments Remain Opposed,” June 8, 2015.
4 Michael Lind, “The Summer of Trump May Soon Be Over – but the Damage Has Still Been Done,” The Spectator, September 6, 2015.
5 Pew Research Center, “Americans: Disregarded, Feeling Less Respected, but Still See U.S. as World’s Military Superpower,” April 1, 2014.
6 Center for Strategic and International Studies, Russia’s War, Ukraine’s History, and the West’s Options (video), October 28, 2014, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpOpnFzTfVQ
Patrick Webber is an independent researcher in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and former Head of the Research Unit for the New Brunswick NDP.