The wave of right-wing populism that is currently sweeping over the Western democratic world, has now reached its peak as a true, full-fledged populist finally has gained power in the most powerful nation in the world. This article enlightens the contemporary phenomenon of Western populism, tries to define it and to explain the consequences of their regimes.
The tricky political term “populism”, for instance defined in “What is populism?” by political science professor Jan Werner-Müller at Princeton, is allegedly a destructive force and as such harmful for the democratic systems of the Western democracies. But it is also a symptom of a failure of the political elites of these countries to address communal problems and popular distress, and their inabilities to handle and oppose the right-wing populist forces. Newsweek star analyst Fareed Zakaria comes to these conclusions in his masterly article “Populism on the march – Why the west is in trouble”, published in the December 2016 issue of the respected magazine Foreign Affairs.
Anti-democratic forces like the Putin regime in Russia, KKK in the US and right-wing extremist parties in Europe are all applauding the Trump victory, and this alone indicates that something is very wrong here.
This article addresses the right-wing populism viewed as a problem and as a threat to the democratic systems of the west, examined from an academic perspective. First, it should be noted that “populism” as a threat to society does not necessarily have to come from the “right”. For instance, Venezuela with its problematic left-wing revolution can also be exemplified as a clear and destructive populist experiment. The revolutionary movement in Venezuela is surely equally damaging for the democratic development as is the right-wing populism. On the other hand, it is the populism on the right that constitutes the main trend in the west today, and is therefore problematized in this article.
In a research paper at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Ronald Inglehart (Research Professor, Center for Political Studies) and Pippa Norris (lecturer in comparative politics) finds that the traditional left-right divide, i.e. economics as the pivot of politics, is on the decline. With Brexit, Trump and populist candidates in Europe, analysts have noted that economic factors are not the most powerful factors of their support.
As Fareed Zakaria points out in his article, Inglehart and Norris note that the shift began in the 1970s “when young people embraced a postmaterialist politics centered on self-expression and issues related to gender, race, and the environment. They challenged authority and established institutions and norms, and they were largely successful in introducing new ideas and recasting politics and society. But they also produced a counter reaction. The older generation, particularly men, was traumatized by what it saw as an assault on the civilization and values it cherished and had grown up with. These people began to vote for parties and candidates that they believed would, above all, hold at bay these forces of cultural and social change.”
According to Vanessa Williamson (doctoral student in Government at Harvard University) and Theda Skocpol (Professor of Government and Sociology, Harvard University) the core motivations of Tea Party followers were not economic but cultural. They also concluded that the strong hostility towards Obama showed that race also plays a role in this reaction.
Zakaria adds that “Trump’s political genius was to realize that many Republican voters were unmoved by the standard party gospel of free trade, low taxes, deregulation, and entitlement reform but would respond well to a different appeal based on cultural fears and nationalist sentiment.”
Ruchir Sharma, Chief Global Strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Group, argues in his book “The rise and fall of nations”, that all Western countries have experienced a general drop in growth ever since the 1970s. One crucial factor for this are the effects of demographics, where most Western countries have seen a decline in fertility rates. The fact is that families have become smaller, the labor force has shrunk and the retirees are growing in numbers every year. This, argues Sharma, has had a negative impact on economic growth, giving empty spaces of popular dissatisfaction for populists to fill.
So much for the causes of the rise of populism. But what is populism? Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, argues in his above mentioned work that populism is the rejection of pluralism, that populists will always claim that only they represent the people and their interests. This means that populist leaders wish to govern following what they themselves define as the will of the people, without asking the people. Therefore, according to Müller, all populism is anti-democratic.
Where democrats view popular protest or disagreement within the frames of the political system as a possibility to make change, populists see it as results of foreign intervention, conspiracies among the elites, self-hatred or treason. Other political parties and free press are discarded as illegitimate.
Müller concludes that if populists gain enough power, they will try to create an authoritarian state that strives to exclude all those not considered part of the “proper people”.
As the first populist leader selected in a democratic country in modern time, Donald Trump will serve as an obvious example of the consequences of a right-wing populist regime. In his first one hundred days in office, Trump has been busy slandering the mainstream media and the science community alike, undermining the public confidence in these institutions. In doing this, he is actually attacking the very foundations of democratic society.
Furthermore, Trump has since his inauguration continued to blame immigrants for the country’s problems and thereby dividing the country instead of trying to unite it. Uniting the country must be the least anyone should expect from an elected leader, but apparently not in a populist-run world. A direct consequence is increased discrimination and an increased number of violent hate crimes through the United States ever since Trump’s victory. No-one can deny the connection and it all fits well into Müller’s findings of the “proper people”.
Moreover, Trump has cut the budget for environment policies and left, or intended to leave, global environment agreements, measures in fact promised during his election campaign and motivated by a denial of science’s conclusions of dire environmental concerns in the world today. These measures are a direct consequence of Trump’s denial and slander of the academic community, a very pillar of developed society.
So, is populism a real threat to democracy, and has Trump so far tried to dissolve the democratic system just as Jan-Werner Müller warns in his famous book? For the above-mentioned reasons, the answer is “Yes”. Trump has indeed tried, and is still trying, to tear up the democratic system. Fortunately the democratic institutions in the US have largely managed to check and control several of the Trump regime’s attempts to drive through new laws and policies that are incompatible with democratic principles. Let’s just hope the system will stand the test of time.
In Europe, we now know what to expect from a right-wing populist election victory. So far their attempts have failed, with populists defeated in Austria as well as in The Netherlands. The next European nations to face a populist showdown are France and Germany, the two most powerful countries in the EU. Europe, and the world, are holding their breath.