Populism has arrived. Telling voters the problems that populist parties raise have no easy solution sounds like an excuse for inaction
Across Europe, moderate politicians are anxious about the vitality of their democracies, the sturdiness of their institutions, the civility and harmony of their societies. The threat they see is a deepening political polarisation, documented in a series in the Guardian, which began this week. Once the choice offered to an electorate was simply between the centre-right and centre-left. Now they are being offered choices on the right and left too. This represents a shift, especially for western democracies, which got used to centrist politics. In the last few decades the axis of politics has shifted rightwards, so that the centre is now situated where once the right had been. Hence the arrival of “populism” as a political force grounded in the notion of the centre versus these opposite extremes.
This is a global phenomenon. When Jair Bolsonaro is inaugurated as Brazil’s president in January, five of the world’s seven largest democracies will have populists at the helm. They include India, the Philippines, Mexico and the US, which elected – in Donald Trump – a president some believe to be the first populist president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who died in 1945. Populism, clearly, is not new, and the current spike should not be overstated. In much of the western world, the established political order remains more or less intact. But clearly a dramatic realignment is under way. In the coming months the Guardian will be exploring what the political theorist Chantal Mouffe has labelled “the populist moment”. In Europe, populism is often conflated with nativism and far-right politics, but is rarely used to describe parties or leaders on the left. The reverse is true in Latin America, where populism has historically been associated with the politics of the left.
The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system acts as a defence against populist insurgencies, but it did nothing to prevent the country’s vote to leave the EU – a decision encouraged, in part, by intensely populist rhetoric about out-of-touch technocratic elites in Brussels. Many of our continental neighbours see Brexit as a dangerous political experiment, and part of a sinister ideological continuum stretching from Nigel Farage to Trump to Vladimir Putin. Europe watches in alarm as Steve Bannon, a Trump ally, attempts to mobilise a hard right network in next year’s European parliamentary elections. His campaign is faltering but there is no doubting the threat Mr Bannon poses.
There is a fundamental challenge in how to confront nativist populism without further alienating the voters who are attracted by its proponents. Trumpeting the economic benefits of migration, for example, does little to shift opinion among people who do not believe those benefits accrue to them. Fact-checking doesn’t reach those who reject the authority of the fact-checkers. There is an idiom of anti-populist rebuttal that comes across as a sneer, treating voters as dupes, unhelpfully bundling deep-rooted cultural disorientation with far-right aggression. But to tiptoe around real racism, indulging xenophobia as an expression of “legitimate” grievance, is also no remedy. Where mainstream parties have adopted anti-immigrant rhetoric, they have simply emboldened extremists – giving permission to ever more overt racism.
The roots of populism are deep and primarily economic, despite the objectionable way they often find expression. Telling voters the problem they raise has no easy solution sounds like an excuse for inaction. Or it leads to technocratic tinkering. That was a feature of the centre-ground politics that now looks directionless. There is a demand for big answers and radical political ambition. The appeal to pragmatism too often sounds like code for defeatism or denial of the scale of public discontent. The appetite for drastic upheaval must be met with optimism and imagination. Credible responses to social and economic distress do not have to be modest. Appeals to a collective national interest and rhetoric of collective solidarity can be made without scapegoats. A platform needs compelling political expression to have a chance of being delivered. No one says being radical and realistic is easy, but too much is at stake to surrender and say it is too hard.