Is the liberal democratic political world as we have known it being transformed – for the worse – right before our eyes? If so, we are not talking about the kinds of transitory changes we are accustomed to, but rather what the French call tendances lourdes. In this section we pose that question squarely. We are not the first to do so, clearly, but we bring to it both a Canadian perspective and on-the-spot reports from analysts in the places where the challenge is playing out.

We have approached the question before. In two articles in recent issues, Patrick Webber suggested that the left-right framework in which we have understood democratic politics is no longer appropriate. That framework was defended in the Winter/Spring 2017 issue by Gad Horowitz.1 But is it in fact meaningful in today’s context? Events since then strongly suggest that Webber has it right.

Marine Le Pen

Take the recent French presidential election results. While Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the second round was never in doubt, Marine Le Pen was still able to win 34 per cent of the vote. And a third of French voters stayed home or cast blank or invalid ballots. We can be sure that in mid-June Le Pen’s National Front will win far more than the two National Assembly seats it has now. Moreover, the polarization is not in any way the standard left-right one on social and economic issues, on most of which Le Pen was, if anything, to the left of Macron.

The left-right framework was set out in a number of landmark articles and books from the 1960s onward, including Horowitz’s 1966 essay “Conservatism, Liberalism and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation.”2 Swedish sociologist Walter Korpi termed it “the democratic class struggle,” while for his Danish colleague Gøsta Esping-Andersen that struggle was one of “politics against markets.”3 This idea, that the basic dynamic of democratic politics is a dispute over the use of the state within liberal democratic institutions, has served as the basic framework for understanding, and participating in, politics in the last two generations.

Emmanuel Macron

Of course, during these past 50 years, even in the democratic heartland of western Europe, North America and Australasia, not all political parties and movements have fit within the framework. Extremist parties of left and right have arisen, at times challenging liberal democratic institutions, But as a rule, these were kept to the fringe: for more than half a century the main actors in our political systems – a mainstream composed of two main parties or blocs of parties – have had a shared understanding. Within the constraints of constitutional democracy, the left seeks to use government to win a greater share of resources for those who are disadvantaged, while the right seeks to reduce constraints that hinder those with such resources from using them as they see fit. Each presumes that its favoured policy mix will produce sufficient durable economic growth to allow for improved conditions for everyone including those at the bottom, not only domestically but also beyond through foreign aid and immigration.

This is the model that was held out, if not always applied, as decolonization and democratization were advancing in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Most dramatically, it was the objective aspired to by the peoples of the former Soviet empire and, it seemed for a time, of the former Soviet Union itself. Until about ten years ago, when the economic crisis hit, the continued advancement of this liberal democratic model was never seriously in doubt.

The economic crisis brought to the surface cracks that had been forming in the key pillar propping up the model: the prospect that there would be sufficient economic growth so that some of its benefits could trickle, if not flow, downward. Recently, the work of Thomas Piketty and his colleagues has drawn our attention to the fact that upward mobility was declining and inequality had been increasing for a decade. This was the inevitable result of industrial jobs being supplanted by technology or moved to countries where labour costs are low. It is an “elite” with appropriate technological skills and knowledge and access to capital, both financial and social, that has prospered. Those who have combined the two in developing internet-based enterprises have made it to the top in record time and numbers.

Vladimir Putin

At the same time, the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union shifted the world’s major geopolitical fault line to the Arab-Muslim world in parts of Asia and Africa. Conflicts there, combined with the growing presence of internet-based communications, have brought terrorism and uncontrolled migration to the Western democracies. The resulting cleavages have led to the rise of populist parties in Europe. During this process, Russia under Vladimir Putin effectively abandoned whatever aspirations it had of becoming a liberal democracy. The rise of populist parties serves the interests of the Putin regime, which has used highly sophisticated cyber techniques to promote them and undermine mainstream parties.

The articles on Europe that follow, along with related analyses of events in the United States and Turkey, examine this complex set of developments. Inroads readers will be familiar with the manifestation of these phenomena in the rise of Donald Trump. While it is foolhardy to attribute any consistent set of ideas to Trump, there is no question that his appeal fits into what we think of as populism, aimed at those who feel left out of a world of geographical and cyberspace mobility that appears to have passed them by.

This is the constituency that populists address when they claim to speak in the name of, and directly to, the people. Those who oppose them, in politics, the media or universities, are “enemies of the people.” And the people, more often than not, turn out to be old-stock nationals. A specific example of this tack is the ongong attack by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on the Central European University and its founder, George Soros, a severe critic of the populists.4 The very real sentiment of being left out is thus exaggerated and distorted by populist politicians and their facilitators in the “alternate” media. Donald Trump’s disdainful attitude toward facts parallels developments in Putin’s Russia, for which Trump has shown a very un-American, and especially un-Republican, admiration.

Russian cyberwarfare clearly helped elect Trump, and he still appears unconcerned about Russian meddling not only in his own election but also in elections in eastern and western Europe, where it presents a more insidious threat to liberal democracy. Indeed, Trump has been generally welcoming of populist movements everywhere as reflecting his own “America First” stance. As described by Ronald Beiner in this issue, Steve Bannon, at least until recently the most influential of Trump’s advisers, expounds a more consistent version of this kind of populist nationalism: emphasis on the nation, on the direct relationship between the charismatic leader and the people and on security and public order, along with hostility to immigration and distrust of supranational and intermediate institutions.

It is noteworthy that the first foreign politician Trump met with after winning the election in November was Nigel Farage of the populist United Kingdom Independence Party. And a day after his inauguration, addressing right-wing populists meeting in Koblenz, Germany, Marine Le Pen heralded Trump’s victory. “In 2016, the Anglo-Saxon world woke up,” she said, promising that Europe was soon to follow. To what extent, the articles in this section ask, has Le Pen been proven right?

A related phenomenon is the emergence or consolidation of authoritarian regimes in Russia, China, Turkey, Egypt and parts of eastern Europe. Perhaps the most significant authoritarian challenge to liberal democracy today is taking place in Turkey. In a very important contribution to our understanding of this phenomenon, the distinguished Turkish political analyst Ilter Turan explains developments leading up to the April 16 referendum in that country. Overall, according to the Economist (Magazine) Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Democracy Index,

The average global score fell to 5.52 from 5.55 in 2015 (on a scale of 0 to 10). Some 72 countries experienced a decline in their total score compared with 2015, almost twice as many as the countries which recorded an improvement (38). The other 57 countries stagnated, with their scores remaining unchanged compared with 2015 … In the 2016 Democracy Index five regions, compared with three in 2015, experienced a regression – Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and Western Europe – as signified by a decline in their regional average score. Eastern Europe recorded by far the biggest decline (from 5.55 to 5.43). Almost one-half (49.3%) of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, although only 4.5% reside in a “full democracy”, down from 8.9% in 2015 as a result of the US being demoted from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.”

The flaw in American democracy is Americans’ declining trust in their government and elected officials. Drawing on data from Waves 3 through 6 of the World Values Surveys (1995–2014), Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk focus on “four important types of measures that are clear indicators of regime legitimacy as opposed to government legitimacy: citizens’ express support for the system as a whole; the degree to which they support key institutions of liberal democracy, such as civil rights; their willingness to advance their political causes within the existing political system; and their openness to authoritarian alternatives such as military rule.”5 They conclude,

Citizens … in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives … In 2011, 24 percent of U.S. millennials (then in their late teens or early twenties) considered democracy to be a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country.

Continental Europe is the main scene of the populist insurgency. In his comparative analysis of European developments, John Erik Fossum shows how populists like Marine Le Pen are able to target the European Union. Even in Sweden, as reported in the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of Inroads, the still strong anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats were at one point in 2016 tied in the polls with the two major parties.6 In this section, we report on elections this year in a number of key European countries where populists, often Russian-supported, have emerged as key players.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that Ukraine was hit during its 2004 and 2014 election campaigns. Malware was used to infect the servers at Ukraine’s central election commission. Hungary, the Baltic states and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which Russia invaded in 2008, have also been targets of political subversion by the Kremlin. Putin’s intelligence agencies are now directing their subterfuge at Germany and France. The immediate targets of Russian cybermeddling are Emmanuel Macron and think tanks associated with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The result has been a relentless series of cyberattacks originating in Moscow, in all probability directed by Russian military intelligence.7

Pro-Russia candidates won presidential elections in 2016 in Bulgaria and Moldova, and the former Soviet empire remains the primary target of Russian meddling. The essay by Filip Kostelka and Eva Krejčová provides an overview of the methods through which, more than 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Kremlin is rebuilding its political clout. But as we have seen, it doesn’t end there. As Andrew Higgins wrote in the New York Times on December 4, Putin “has been adept at making his own luck, deploying Orthodox priests, Russian-funded news media outlets like RT, spies and computer hackers to ride and help create the wave of populist anger now battering the foundations of the post-1945 European order.” A European Council on Foreign Relations (EFCR) study termed 45 parties insurgent, of which 30 “expressed agreement with at least some recent Russian positions.” The study noted that “these views on Russia policy do not fall naturally along the lines of left and right.” A subsequent EFCR commentary elaborated:

A majority of the 45 insurgent parties identified by EFCR were favourably inclined towards Russia and sympathised with Russian positions. The most pro-Russian of these parties (of a significant size) on the far right are: the AfD , FPÖ , Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s Front National, Italy’s Northern League, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (VB). On the far left, the most pro-Russian parties are Cyprus’s AKEL, Germany’s Die Linke, the Czech Republic’s KSCM, Podemos in Spain, and Syriza . The Italian Five Star Movement and the Human Shield Party in Croatia also belong to the pro-Russian camp.8

There are reports of American money finding its way to some of these movements. As reported by Paul Lucardie in this issue, the David Horowitz Freedom Centre (founded to battle “the radical left and its Islamist allies”) donated over €100,000 to Geert Wilders’s PVV (Freedom Party) in the Netherlands. In his article, Lucardie notes that though the PVV did not do quite as well as had been expected in that country’s election, the overall result was more complex. Nationalist parties, seeking to protect national identity and sovereignty, restrict immigration and strengthen national defence and security, did well, but so did cosmopolitan (antinationalist) parties concerned with climate change, solidarity with refugees, diversity, privacy and civil liberties. The losers were parties that either defended the status quo or took an ambiguous middle-of-the-road position on these issues.

Something similar is happening in France. It was the pro-Europe independent Emmanuel Macron who emerged to face Marine Le Pen in the second round rather than the major party candidates. Nevertheless, as John Richards reports, the combined strength of Le Pen and far-left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round raised concerns that will not go away despite Macron’s second-round victory.

In Germany, where the election will take place in the fall, the populist AfD will not be an important factor compared to elsewhere in Europe. Nevertheless, the AfD has done well recently in a number of key Land elections and, as reported by Philipp Harfst, is apparently being helped by a campaign orchestrated or at least tolerated by Russian authorities. Harfst expects a dirty campaign, with fake news from a variety of sources including the Russian media.

It can be said that, among Western countries, the populist story begins in Italy. Giorgio Malet writes about two major anti-elite uprisings, in 1994 and 2013. These two electoral earthquakes resulted from deep and widespread popular dissatisfaction with the political system and mainstream political actors and transformed Italian politics. Italy has witnessed the rise of Forza Italia, the party of the tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, the Northern League and, most recently, the Five Star Movement led by the former comedian Beppe Grillo, the choice of a quarter of Italian voters in 2013.

As the articles that follow describe and try to explain, somewhere between 15 per cent (Germany) and 40 per cent (France) of voters in these countries have so abandoned the idea that democratic politics will lead to progress that they are prepared to cast their votes for someone who rejects the whole trajectory of democratic development they have experienced.9 Whether these local populists’ attack focuses on the EU, immigration or trade, the appeal is the same: it finds its audience not in the expanding cities but in those outside of them, near or far, who feel, or are told to feel, abandoned. Given that the pressures that underlie mass migration are not likely to recede soon, and the cybernation of the world even less so, this state of affairs will be with us in the years to come.


1 Patrick Webber, “The Politics of the Raised Drawbridge: The Rising Tide of Parochial Populism Confounds Categories of Left and Right,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2016, pp.46–55, and “Standing Up to Trump, Le Pen and Putin: The Regressive Left, the Alt-Right and the Need for a Radical Centre,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2017, pp. 89–98; Gad Horowitz, “The Deep Culture of Canadian Politics: Fragment Theory and the Fate of the Red Tory Meme,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2017, pp. 78–88.

2 Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Vol. 32, No. 1 (May 1966), pp. 143–71.

3 Walter Korpi, The Democratic Class Struggle (London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983); Gøsta Esping-Andersen, Politics against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).

4 Palko Karasz, “Chided by Brussels, Hungary’s Leader Attacks George Soros,” New York Times, April 26, 2017, retrieved here.

5 Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Democratic Disconnect,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 27, No. 3 (July 2016), pp. 5–17.

6 Patrik Öhberg and Elin Naurin, “Trials of a Role Model: Sweden Does an About-Face on Refugee Policy,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2017, pp. 70–75.

7 Ann M. Simmons, “Russian Meddling in Elections is Nothing New; Just Ask the Europeans,” Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2017, retrieved here; Rick Noack, “Cyberattack on French Presidential Front-Runner Bears Russian ‘Fingerprints,’ Research Group Says,” Washington Post, April 25, 2017, retrieved here.

8 Susi Dennison and Dina Pardijs, The World According to Europe’s Insurgent Parties: Putin, Migration and People Power (London, England: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2016), p. 4, retrieved here; Frederik Wesslau, Putin’s Friends in Europe, EFCR Commentary, October 19, 2016, retrieved here.

9 As this is being written, the United Kingdom is about to face a snap election, so analysis of the meaning of its results will have to await the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of Inroads, where we will report on it in light of the wider developments signalled here. Support for UKIP is one indicator of the strength of populism in the U.K., but the strength of populism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is perhaps a more important one.