Why Populist Movements Eventually Lose Their Appeal

One of the hottest political topics over the last few years has been the rise of populism, a term that has come to describe movements on both the left and the far right. Both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were credited to the latter, as well as movements all over Europe.

While many books have been written about the rise of populism, the title of the one by John Judis captured what most authors considered to be its roots: The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics. Here’s how William Galston described the process:

Contemporary liberal democracy, I argued, rested on a tacit compact between peoples on the one hand and elected representatives together with unelected experts on the other. The people would defer to elites as long as they delivered sustained prosperity and steadily improving living standards. But if elites stopped managing the economy effectively, all bets were off.

This compact began to weaken with growing competition from developing nations, which put pressure on policies designed to protect the citizens of advanced democracies against labor-market risks. The erosion of the manufacturing sector and the urbanization of opportunity—the shift of economic dynamism away from smaller communities and rural areas toward a handful of metropolitan centers—destabilized geographic regions and political structures. Inequality rose. A globalized economy, it turned out, served the interests of most people in developing countries and elites in advanced countries—but not the interests of the working and middle classes in the developed economies, which had done so well in the three decades after World War II.

Against this backdrop, the Great Recession that began in late 2007 represented a colossal failure of economic stewardship, and political leaders’ inability to restore vigorous growth compounded the felony. As economies struggled and unemployment persisted, the groups and regions that failed to rebound lost confidence in mainstream parties and established institutions, fueling the populist upsurge that has upended U.S. politics, threatens the European Union, and endangers liberal governance itself in several of the newer democracies.

But as right wing populist movements began to take hold, Galston writes that “a structural explanation that places economics at the base and treats other issues as derivative distorts a more complex reality.” Instead of simply focusing on the impact of the Great Recession (which connected populist movements on both the left and right), here is how Galston describes the “more complex reality” that has emerged on the right.

Early on, many analysts believed that the rise of populism reflected mainly the economic distress created by the protracted Great Recession. As it waned, they hoped, so would the populist challenge. But even as Europe’s economic recovery has gathered pace and unemployment has declined, the populist surge has continued. It is now evident that populism draws strength from public opposition to mass immigration, cultural liberalization, and the perceived surrender of national sovereignty to distant and unresponsive international bodies. If economic arguments had determined the outcome of the Brexit vote, Britain would have remained in the EU. If economic growth had been decisive in Poland, which enjoyed the faster growth rate in Europe between 1989 and 2015, the populist Law and Justice Party would never have become the country’s dominant political force.

That mirrors the shift from early assumptions that voters were driven to support Donald Trump because of “economic anxiety” to later analysis that showed cultural and racial issues were more determinative.

Most of the writing about populism has assumed that its influence will only grow in the coming years. That’s why I was intrigued by the title of Max Fisher’s latest article: “After a Rocky 2018, Populism Is Down but Far From Out in the West.”

Immigration and terrorism crises, which aided populism’s world-shaking rise in 2016, have waned. Populists have faced disappointing election results in Germany, the United States and even Poland, shattering the image of the movement’s inevitability and its claims to represent true popular will.

Why would that be happening? A few quotes from Fisher point to the answer.

…without a crisis to justify populism’s hard-line policies, its message has been stripped down to its most core element: opposition to liberal ideals of pluralism, multiculturalism and international cooperation…

Many Western populists are falling back to their message of besiegement and threat, as much out of the paranoid worldview that is central to populism as out of any conscious strategy…

But dividing the world into us versus them works only if voters want to belong to “us” and oppose “them,” typically establishment elites and cultural outsiders.

As we saw prior to the 2018 midterm elections in this country, Trump and the Republicans attempted to create a crisis about the caravan of migrants heading towards our southern border. That is because the only way populism survives is by inventing an existential threat. When the crisis fails to materialize, populists lose their appeal.

We’re watching that unfold now with the lack of support, even among some Republicans, for the president’s government shutdown over a wall. Eventually populist energy dissipates (it is difficult to maintain anger and fear over the long term), and might even swing against those who promulgated the fake crisis in the first place.

Fisher isn’t claiming that populism is dead, or even in its death throes. Instead, he forecasts that, while populist appeal will never attract a majority, “they will remain in a strong position to challenge liberalism’s postwar hold over Western democracies.” That could be more disruptive in countries with parliamentary systems. In this country, it simply means that Republicans will continue to try to scare people by suggesting that “those people” are a threat to “us.” Same as it ever was.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.