Thursday 21 February 2019

Analysing rise and fall of populist forces

  • Politics: National Populism - The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, Pelican, €13.99
  • The Populist Temptation, Barry Eichengreen, Oxford University Press, €26.59
US President Donald Trump at a 'Make America Great Again' rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.
US President Donald Trump at a 'Make America Great Again' rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

Democratic political parties are happy to be popular but reluctant to acknowledge populism as part of their platform. Populism has come to denote a less-than-respectable appeal, for parties on the right, to xenophobia, and on the left to delusional fixes for economic problems. But the right and left versions can fuse: anti-immigrant sentiment plus rickety economic policy gimmicks have marked the Trump presidency in its appeal to blue-collar voters, and the Brexiteer platform in the UK has similarities - stop immigration and somehow create prosperity through an implausible extra-European trade bonanza with extra money for the health service. Indeed, Trump's election in the USA and the referendum Leave victory made 2016 the year when populism entered the lexicon as something approaching a term of abuse, not quite up there with fascism, but getting close as exasperated centrists and liberals, as well as traditional social democratic parties, lament some spectacular vote losses.

Cue a stream of academic analyses including the Eatwell/Goodwin volume from Brexitland and Eichengreen's book focussed mostly on the USA. In both countries the shift to a right-populism has come through the conversion of established political parties to a new agenda, in the USA via Trump's hostile takeover of the Republican party, in the UK through the Conservative party's disarming of the overtly populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) through the adoption of the latter's anti-EU policy plank. Direct democracy played a role in facilitating the populist takeovers in both cases. The primary system for selecting candidates in the USA permitted Trump to capture the Republican nomination, which would surely have been denied him by the party machine, while in the UK David Cameron's over-confident resort to the un-British device of a national referendum presented the populist forces with an end-run around parliament and his country with a constitutional crisis.

It has been different in parts of continental Europe and in some Latin American countries. As Eatwell and Goodwin document, new political parties have been the vanguard of populism, particularly right-populism, in continental Europe, where proportional representation voting systems afford an entry point for any group that can muster 10pc, or even 5pc, of the national vote. There are new, or newish, right-populist parties in Austria, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and most recently in Spain. The populist and nativist right provides the governing parties in both Hungary and Poland. In first-past-the-post countries, like Britain and the USA, the referendum and the primary system have provided a route to the populists into partial capture of the right party in an otherwise rigid two-party system where small parties are locked out. They attribute the populist ascent to a new strain of identity politics, a revived nationalism which sees immigration, particularly of Muslims from outside Europe, as a threat to the dominant culture. This narrative, they argue from opinion poll evidence, has a strong appeal to voters who might traditionally have given allegiance to social democratic parties, in decline almost everywhere. The data shows that populist voters come disproportionately from groups with lower educational attainment and socio-economic status. In attitude surveys, these voters often record a feeling of exclusion from the political conversation, of being ignored by the old mainstream parties.

This is not entirely a new phenomenon - the Front National in France has been around for a generation and the new right-populist parties in both Germany and Italy have had less successful predecessors down the years. What needs to be explained is the acceleration in the rightward drift (it's been mostly rightwards - there are only a few left-populist movements) over the last decade or so. Barry Eichengreen is a prominent American macroeconomist and economic historian, and his book gives more weight to the impact of the 2008 financial crash and subsequent downturn across Europe and North America. The opening of economies to free trade creates losers as well as winners, and the losers have noticed. He recalls that the last, and disastrous, shift to the right in 1930s Europe was demonstrably rooted in economics and prompted a resort to protectionism a-la-Trump.

One of the countries where no right-populist party has emerged happens to be Ireland, where the voting system is entrant-friendly, where the post-2008 downturn was severe and where there has been substantial immigration from other EU countries. There is also plentiful basis for anger at the country's treatment by the EU, or at least by the European Central Bank. But the decline of the main social democratic party, Labour, has been accompanied, not by a voter desertion to the right, but by the rise of a left alternative in the form of Sinn Fein which has resisted the temptation to trumpet anti-immigrant or Europhobic sentiments. There are roughly 900,000 Polish people in the UK and about 120,000 in Ireland, in relative terms twice as many. But nobody cares. The comedian Dara O Briain observed in December that the Irish would never vote to restrict their own freedom of movement and have presumably twigged the corollary, that a welcome for incomers is part of the deal.

But the speed of the recovery in Ireland has played a part too, as has public understanding of the blatant reality that small countries have most to lose from protectionism and other populist fixes.

Eatwell and Goodwin, both British, have rather under-emphasised the exceptionalism that has characterised the UK's embrace of Brexit, a right-populist project with the capacity to inflict substantial self-harm. They conclude with a plea for greater responsiveness to the factors driving the disaffected electorates which begins to border on appeasement. Eichengreen is made of sterner stuff: his book is more of a call to arms aimed at the democratic centre.

The best response is a rejection of facile policy options like trade protectionism, a better effort to ameliorate the adverse consequences of globalisation and an honest assessment of rising income inequality in much of the developed world. Eichengreen acknowledges the sources of populist concern but resists the 'solutions' offered by populist politicians.

And he has some home truths for Europe and the ECB, which he calls 'the least democratically accountable central bank in the world'. Amen to that.

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