Populism's Perfect Storm
Jul 11, 2017
16 Min read time
The very forces that sustain populist politics could eventually undermine populism.
After Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in the French presidential runoff in May, the European political establishment breathed a collective sigh of relief. By a two-to-one margin, voters favored Macron’s optimism, his sociocultural liberalism, and his pro-European Union and pro-globalization stances over Le Pen’s dark vision of a society in crisis, her cultural and economic protectionism, and her Euroscepticism and nationalism. Together with the defeat of Austria’s extreme right candidate Norbert Hofer in December and the unexpectedly weak showing in the Netherlands of Geert Wilders’s radically anti-Muslim party in March, the election of Macron seemed to have broken the momentum of the European populist right.
Yet the French election was scarcely a repudiation of populism as a whole. In the first round, Macron received 24 percent of the vote, barely outpolling Le Pen (21 percent), the conservative François Fillon (20 percent), and the insurgent left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon (20 percent). A month or so before the first round, anything seemed possible, including a Le Pen-Mélenchon matchup in the second round. Moreover, Fillon and Macron also waged populist campaigns. After a “fake work” scandal involving his wife landed him in legal troubles, Fillon mobilized street protests against the judiciary, complaining of a “political assassination” and an “institutional coup d’état.” And Macron founded En Marche! as a movement, not a party (or what one observer called an “anti-party party”), appealing directly to “the people” beyond divisions of left and right and promising to “re-found” the political system.
How did we reach the point at which Brexit, Trump, Hofer, and Le Pen all had a real chance at victory while the Eurozone and the Schengen system of free movement threatened to collapse?
Elsewhere in Europe, too, populist forces remain strong. In Italy, populist parties—ex-comedian Beppe Grillo’s shape-shifting Five-Star Movement, Silvio Berlusconi’s refounded Forza Italia, and the radically anti-immigrant right Northern League—are supported by nearly 60 percent of the population. The Austrian Freedom Party, though it failed to capture the presidency, is likely to enter a governing coalition after next year’s election. And the nationalist-populist regimes of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the Law and Justice party in Poland have tightened their increasingly authoritarian grips on power.
It is therefore too soon to say whether the populist wave has crested. But it is a good moment to try to explain the Euro-Atlantic populist conjuncture of the last few years. This is not a matter of explaining specific events, such as the victories of Brexit and Donald Trump. Any explanation for why a close referendum or election result falls on one side or the other must involve a great variety of contingencies. Had some of these contingencies played out differently, Brexit and Trump might well have lost. On the other hand, had other contingencies played out differently, Norbert Hofer might well be president of Austria and Marine Le Pen president of France. Analysts interested in explaining specific outcomes would then have faced radically different questions.
Yet for those more interested in broad tendencies than in particular events, the underlying question would have been precisely the same: namely, how did we reach the point at which Brexit, Trump, Hofer, and Le Pen—but also Mélenchon and the 2015 Greek referendum rejecting the terms of further bailouts—all had a real chance of victory, and the Eurozone and Schengen system of free movement a real chance of collapsing, at around the same time?
This extraordinary populist moment did not, of course, emerge from nowhere. It was prepared by two sets of structural transformations which have steadily expanded opportunities for populism over the last several decades.
The weakening of parties and party systems and changes in the relation between media and politics have fostered a kind of generic populism, a heightened tendency—shared by both the left and the right—to address “the people” directly. Party membership and loyalty have plummeted, and in many countries parties that had long dominated the political system have collapsed. This has encouraged politicians to appeal to the people as a whole rather than to specific social constituencies represented by parties.
The pervasive “mediatization of politics,” the intensifying commercialization of the media, and the accelerated development of new communications technologies have likewise made politicians less dependent on parties and more inclined to appeal directly to “the people.” They have also encouraged a populist style of communication, characterized by dramatization, confrontation, negativity, emotionalization, personalization, visualization, and hyper-simplification.
Demographic, economic, and cultural transformations have encouraged more specific forms of protectionist populism. The most strikingly visible of these transformations is the large-scale immigration of the last half-century, which has created and expanded opportunities for nativist claims to protect the jobs, welfare benefits, cultural identity and way of life of “the people”—meaning, of course, the “native” or “autochthonous people”—against migrants and increasingly, in the last fifteen years or so, against Muslims in particular.
The opening of national economies to immigrant labor is part of a broader set of economic transformations that have created opportunities for populists to speak in the name of “ordinary people” against “those on top” and against outside forces seen as threatening “our” jobs, “our” prosperity, and “our” economic security. The litany is familiar: sharp increases in inequalities, the regionally concentrated collapse of manufacturing jobs, the accelerating cross-border flows of goods, services, and investments as well as labor, and the shifting of risks and responsibilities to individuals through neoliberal modes of governance. But social-democratic parties did not seize the political opportunity created by these major economic shifts. Instead, their neoliberal turn in recent decades left the field open to other parties, on the right as well as the left, to advance populist claims to protect domestic jobs and welfare benefits.
This extraordinary populist moment did not emerge from nowhere. It was prepared by the weakening of political parties and changes in the relation between media and politics.
In Europe, the institutional architecture of the EU has provided a distinctive focus for both economic and cultural forms of protectionist populism, thanks to its deep democratic deficit, its imposed policy straitjacket, its constitutionalization of market freedoms, its position as both “on top” and “outside” of national polities, and its foundational commitment to downgrading and, in key domains, dissolving national boundaries.
In the domain of the politics of culture—more specifically the politics of identity and difference—new waves of emancipatory liberalism since the 1960s have created opportunities for populists to speak in the name of an aggrieved, symbolically devalued (or dishonored) majority against the alleged privileging of minorities. Attacking discourses and practices of multiculturalism, diversity, minority rights, and affirmative action has become a key rhetorical strategy of the populist right. And in the domain of gender and sexuality, new waves of emancipatory liberalism have created opportunities for claims to defend traditional forms of marriage and family and traditional norms of gender and sexuality against radical feminism, “gender ideology,” and gay or transgender rights.
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These medium-term trends help explain why anti-immigrant populist parties have become a structural feature of the political landscape in most West European countries in recent decades. They help explain the emergence of populist Euroscepticism, as expressed in the initial Danish rejection of the Maastricht Treaty (it was nearly rejected by French voters as well) in 1992 and in the French and Dutch rejection of the European Constitution in 2005. And they help explain the periodic populist challenges to the American political establishment in recent decades, from George Wallace and Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan, the Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street.
The pan-European and trans-Atlantic populist conjuncture of 2014-17 was made possible by these decades-spanning trends. But it was more directly triggered by the convergence of several independent crises, which came together to create a “perfect storm” especially conducive to right-wing populism. (The notion of crisis, to be sure, is not an innocent one. It’s important to recognize that populists—and of course other political actors as well—contribute to producing the very crises to which they claim to respond.)
The financial crash of 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession were compounded, in Europe, by the sovereign debt crisis and the deep institutional crisis of the Eurozone and the European Union itself. The disastrous straitjacket imposed on debtor and trade-deficit countries by monetary union was aggravated by creditor countries’ (especially Germany’s) unwillingness to mutualize debt and their insistence on austerity as a condition for bailouts. This deepened and prolonged mass unemployment, especially in Spain and Greece, and it directly provoked the left populist reaction that brought the Eurozone to the brink of collapse in July 2015 when Greeks voted to reject the terms of a further bailout.
But the economic crisis cast a long shadow: its effects were felt well beyond the hardest-hit countries and well beyond moments of peak unemployment or maximum tension over debt. And the crisis energized the right as much as the left. Throughout Europe and North America, populists have used the crisis to dramatize economic insecurity and inequality, to tap into economic anxieties, and to highlight the disruptions of neoliberal globalization. And they have proposed a resonant counter-narrative emphasizing the need to protect domestic jobs and markets. The counter-narrative informed the Brexit and Trump campaigns and the Mélenchon insurgency in France. But it also found expression in the striking shift in recent years from a neoliberal to a protectionist and welfarist stance on the part of most of Europe’s national-populist parties. These parties have increasingly targeted segments of the electorate—especially the so-called “losers of globalization”—that have been largely abandoned by European social democrats (and by the Democratic Party in the US).
Outside of Spain and Greece, it was the European refugee crisis that most immediately and visibly provoked a populist political reaction. The crisis afforded rich opportunities for dramatizing (and televisualizing) a sense of borders being out of control, an image of multitudes of strangers at the gates—indeed, an apocalyptic narrative of Europe being under siege from a seemingly endless supply of desperate men, women, and children willing to face death at sea and violence and exploitation at the hands of smugglers in order to reach the promised land of Germany or Sweden.
Populism—left and right—depends on an affective investment in politics and popular sovereignty. At the same time, populism thrives on the lack of faith in politics as usual.
The most direct political effects of the refugee crisis were felt in Germany, Sweden, and Hungary (even more than in Greece). In Germany, the crisis produced a moment of extraordinary openness on the part of both government and civil society, as well as a strong reaction against that openness. That reaction was in part articulated by the transformation of the Alternative for Germany from a neoliberal “party of professors” to an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim party that achieved dramatic electoral breakthroughs the following year. In Sweden, which received even more refugees per capita than Germany, there was a huge surge in support for the far-right Sweden Democrats, bringing them neck-and-neck with the long-dominant Social Democrats. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took the lead in constructing a razor-wire border fence. Orbán struck the posture of a lonely leader with the mission of saving Europe from itself, and notably from what he called Europe’s “suicidal liberalism.”
But the refugee crisis—like the economic crisis—cast a long shadow: its effects were felt throughout Europe and the world. Trump, for example, characterized Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees as “insane” since Syrian refugees might be a “Trojan horse” for ISIS. And fears of borders being out of control were central to the constellation of moods that made Brexit possible. A much-discussed UK Independence Party poster during the campaign featured a photograph of refugees massed at the Croatian-Slovenian border with the slogan “Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all.”
The refugee crisis was only the most visible and dramatic phase of a larger migration crisis. Like the United States and other rich countries, the European Union has resorted in recent decades to a system of extraterritorial “remote control”—to use the phrase of the late Aristide Zolberg—to keep unwanted migrants at bay. The EU’s fragile—and of course problematic—March 2016 agreement with Prime Minister Erdoğan to cut off flows through Turkey is a well-known example. Less well-known is the history of cooperation with Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya to prevent sea crossings to Spain and Italy. This cooperation has always been precarious, quite apart from the moral and political questions it raises. But a key link in the system broke down altogether with the collapse of state authority in Libya. Sea crossings to Sicily and the small Italian island of Lampedusa have surged since 2014, as has support for the radically anti-migrant Northern League. Deaths at sea have also surged, reaching a record of more than 5,000 last year.
The wave of terror attacks since 2015 also fed in to this “perfect storm.” In historical and comparative perspective, of course, the number of casualties has been small. But the increased frequency of the attacks and the symbolic resonance of attacks in the heart of a series of European capitals have enabled political actors throughout Europe and North America to cultivate and dramatize a sense of insecurity and vulnerability. The attacks have enabled them to combine the Schmittian political semantics of friend and enemy with the Huntingtonian thesis of a clash of civilizations between radical Islam—or sometimes Islam per se—and the West.
The perfect storm was created by the coming together—or rather the political bringing-together or tying-together—of the economic, refugee, and security crises. National populists throughout Europe, for example, used the Würzburg, Ansbach, and Berlin attacks (all committed by perpetrators who had applied for asylum in Germany) to link the refugee crisis and terrorism. And they (as well as Trump) used the sexual aggressions in Cologne, Hamburg, and elsewhere on New Year’s Eve 2015 to dramatize the connection between the refugee crisis, ethnoreligious demography, cultural difference, and physical insecurity.
More generally, the Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen campaigns tied together economic, ethnodemographic, cultural, and crime- and terrorism-focused insecurities in a newly resonant narrative. This narrative defined the opposition between open and closed as more fundamental than that between left and right. In this fundamentally protectionist narrative, the basic imperative is to protect “the people”—economically, culturally, and physically—against the neoliberal economy, open borders, and cosmopolitan culture said to be favored by economic, political, and cultural elites at both the national and European levels.
The Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen campaigns promised to defend and revive the bounded national economy against “savage globalization” and the frictionless cross-border movement of goods, labor, and capital. They promised to defend and revalorize national—as well as European and Christian—culture and identity from dilution or destruction through large-scale extra-European immigration. And they promised to protect public order and security against threats from both outside and inside—and against an elite portrayed as soft on crime and terrorism, in thrall to political correctness, deluded by the myth of multiculturalism, and insufficiently cognizant of the threat posed by radical Islam.
The perfect storm was created by the coming together of economic, refugee, and security crises.
The final element of the perfect storm is an epistemological crisis, symbolized by the sudden ubiquity of the notion of “fake news” and by discussions of a “post-truth” or “post-fact” era. This crisis is the product of the accelerating, technologically mediated convergence of media, commerce, and politics. Of course, anxieties that new media formats and communications technologies are undermining democratic citizenship are in no way new; they go back more than a century.
But something fundamental has changed in recent years. In our hyper-connected, hyper-mediated world, the superabundance and seemingly democratic hyper-accessibility of “information” have generated a crisis of knowledge. And this has been massively exacerbated by the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation churned out in the service of both profit and propaganda. As a result, a cloud of suspicion shadows all claims to knowledge.
But what observers like myself see as an epistemological crisis, right-wing populists see as an opportunity. It is an opportunity to undermine the authority of the more or less autonomous institutions that produce and disseminate knowledge—universities, science, and, above all, the press. And the hyper-connected media ecosystem makes it easier than ever for populists to generate and propagate not just “alternative facts,” but an entire alternative world-view that is massively insulated from falsification.
This right-wing media ecosystem has matured—though “matured” is scarcely the right word—only in the last several years. This new ecosystem enhances the performative power of right-wing populist discourse: the power to create or at least deepen the very crises to which populists claim to respond, and the power to sharpen and exacerbate the very divisions—between “the people” and “the elite,” and especially between insiders and outsiders—that populists claim to diagnose and deplore.
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The concept of a “perfect storm” explains both too little and too much. It explains too little in that this highly generalized sketch cannot account for the substantial variations across Europe and North America in degrees and forms of populist politics. It explains too much in that it would lead one to expect right-wing populism and nothing but right-wing populism.
I would like to speculate, by way of conclusion, about three factors that can make populism a self-limiting rather than a self-feeding phenomenon.
The first is what I’ll call poaching. As I noted above, there is no sharp boundary between populism and non-populism, or even anti-populism. Both substantive themes and stylistic devices from the populist repertoire are routinely appropriated by mainstream political actors, sometimes precisely in their efforts to combat populist challenges. This kind of poaching, for example, was central to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s successful attempt to defeat the challenge from Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom had been leading in the polls for most of the year before the elections of March. In an open letter to “all Dutch people” published in the major newspapers seven weeks before the election, Rutte used simple, direct language to proclaim his identification with the discomfort felt by the hard-working “silent majority” in the face of immigrants who “abuse our freedom” to act in ways that are “not normal.” And he called on immigrants to “act normal or leave.” If this is anti-populism, one might wonder, then what is populism?
Secondly, while populism thrives on crisis, and while crisis often sells, it doesn’t always sell. Just as populists perform crisis, other political actors—for example Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron—can be understood as performing non-crisis. This is one way of thinking about Merkel’s famous “We can do it” (“Wir schaffen das”) response to the migrant crisis. In the battle between representations of crisis and representations of non-crisis, crisis doesn’t always win.
The third and perhaps most important limit on populism is what I will call the limits of enchantment. Populism—left and right—depends on a “faith” in the possibility of representing and speaking for “the people.” It depends on an affective investment in politics and specifically in the idea of popular sovereignty. At the same time, of course, populism thrives on the lack of faith in the machinery and language of representation, on an affective disinvestment from politics as usual. So the resonance of populist rhetoric depends on a claim to exceptionality, a claim to be fundamentally different from politics as usual. But this claim can be discredited; it can ring hollow. The idea of popular sovereignty may be drained of its emotional potency, leaving only cynicism and distrust in its place. And that cynicism and distrust can extend to populists themselves. The affective constellation that sustains populist politics can thus shade over into a constellation that undermines populist politics as much as it does other forms of representative politics. This, however, offers no justification for complacency: cynicism and distrust are scarcely grounds for a democratic public life. It is important nonetheless not to exaggerate the strength of populism, just as it is important to take it seriously.
July 11, 2017
16 Min read time