Rise and fall of populism

To defeat populism, liberals must have the courage to develop policies that combat discrimination and nationalism.

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This article originally appeared in EastWest magazine

Not so long ago, 2017 was set to become the annus mirabilis in European politics, a year in which the liberal establishment in key EU countries would be blown away, opening up space for their populist competitors. Representatives of the illiberal tide who had already taken power, such as Kaczynski in Poland or Orban in Hungary, saw themselves as the avant-garde of a new European mainstream. The Polish national-conservatives (PiS) were so certain that the zeitgeist was in their favour that they declared the Eurosceptic United Kingdom to be their key ally in the EU (instead of Germany). PiS strongly believed that the Polish-British idea of less Europe and more power for the capitals was destined to gather momentum. But that prediction proved to be wrong. Instead, the history books will mark 2017 as a moment in which Europe could take a breath, with special thanks to Emmanuel Macron and his German counterpart (whomever it will be). It is now safe to predict that upcoming changes in the architecture of the EU will follow a different script than that advocated by Kaczynski, Orban or (in the past) Cameron.

While European liberals and progressives can take a breath, they certainly cannot relax. When the small country of Austria has elected a new government in October 2017, and the much bigger Italy will do so in the spring of 2018, the mood could once again turn dark. Macron’s success and Germany’s stability are certainly encouraging, but they are not enough to stop the tide of what is turning out to be a structural change in Western politics. Recent outbursts of populism with the likes of Marine Le Pen, Hans-Christian Strache and Beppe Grillo are not just the result of multiple, simultaneous European crises (unemployment, migration and currency). The primary reason that populism has risen from a marginal distraction from the liberal mainstream to its key and enduring challenge runs much deeper: class-based politics is being replaced by identity politics.

There are multiple studies, including one by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, which confirm this new pattern in Western politics. The classical division of the left and right, defined by the attitude of voters to economic and social issues (the role of the state in the economy, the scale of redistribution) has lost its dominance. A new conflict has begun to polarise Western societies, one centred on cultural values: attitudes towards the so-called others in terms of race, community and globalisation. It is precisely these “combined with social and demographic factors [that] provide the most consistent and parsimonious explanation of voting support for populist parties”, Inglehart and Norris wrote. While some people view globalisation, immigration and cultural/religious pluralism as something either neutral or positive (if requiring some modification), others reject these phenomena as being in conflict with national interests and traditional values or undermining their identity. The divide between these two approaches largely defines the very strong cultural subtext of modern politics.

There is no reason to believe that identity-based politics will quickly recede and that the traditional patterns of the left-right divide will reemerge. The effects of globalization and international migration, changing social and class structures as well as the labour market revolution which laid the foundation for this change are no longer reversible. We have already entered a new political era in which progressives and liberals (in essence, supporters of an open society, EU integration and the rule of law) need different strategies and answers for people’s concerns. Liberal values and norms no longer simply go unchallenged. In fact, they have become the very centre of the political divide and conflict.

There is no silver bullet for liberals attempting to hold their ground. It will take time until they fully adapt to the new circumstances and grasp the magnitude of the challenge posed to them by identity politics. As things stand, however, resistance against the proponents of nativism and illiberalism will not succeed unless liberals rethink at least three key components of their political agenda. First, the populist appeal benefits from people’s need for community and belonging. Liberals are not good at thinking in terms of community. They tend instead to underline the values of individualism and diversity. But the ideas of common good, social cohesion and unity are not at odds with liberal fundamentals. In fact, the opposite is true. Liberals have simply ignored the importance of these concepts and left their definition to the right or, most recently, to populists. The rise of the nationalconservatives in Poland would not have been possible without liberals having fully abandoned the issues of history, national identity and culture as non-political. In the era of identity politics, this approach is a recipe for failure. Politics has become (highly) emotional again, and to win the game one needs to find ways not to let the opponents monopolise the discourse about identity and culture. A new liberal narrative must therefore take the value of community seriously, but shape it in line with its own principles.

The second key policy component for the liberals to develop is an honest and viable migration policy which can rise to the emerging challenges. If there is a single issue which fuels identity politics and plays into the populists’ hands, it is migration. Liberals can no longer praise diversity at the expense of unity and cohesion, but neither can they compromise their values of human rights, the rule of law and international responsibility. Those values need to remain credible and must form the core of the liberals’ emotional appeal. Thus a new migration policy must strike a balance between two key pillars: the protection of community and full respect for humanitarian and legal obligation towards refugees. There are already very good ideas for how to make this work, for example from the think tank European Stability Initiative. These proposals should be embraced and endorsed by those who want to shape a credible response to xenophobic and nationalist propaganda.

Thirdly, Europe (or the EU) should play a central role in the new emotional messaging of liberalism. Like all other values of a liberal, open society, European integration has become a hot issue, polarizing countries and provoking conflict. In the short term, this represents a threat to a previously technocratic and uncontested project. But looking further into the future, European integration also represents a great opportunity for liberals to frame the discourse by portraying the EU as the glue necessary to ensure the protection of European values. Macron has shown that an emotional embrace of the EU is not a non-starter. It was, in fact, a winning move. And in the long run, such an embrace is the only way to prevent the demise of the EU and fend off the populist revolt.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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