The Spurt of Populism – And How We Can Deal With It

Right-wing populism is on the rise around the world and it shows no signs of stopping. In France, the National Rally (RN) has risen from a fringe Holocaust-denying party to the largest component of France’s delegation to the European Union and the second-most voted for party in the presidential election. In Italy, a Eurosceptic, anti-immigration government has led since March and since then, it has made it easier for the government to expel immigrants and also embarked on a budgetary battle with the European Commission. The increase in support for these new populist movements has shocked the historically stable system of Western European politics.

This phenomenon is not isolated just to Western Europe either. From fringe candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in the presidential election in Brazil to Trumpian populism in America to Eastern European parties like Who Owns the State? in Latvia and the Conservative People’s Party in Estonia, it’s become nearly impossible to find a democratic nation not facing this radical shift in global politics. And this trend doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon. Though the German Alternative for Germany (AFD), for example, has faced vast amounts of infighting which caused two of its three founders to leave the party, polls still show its support is rapidly increasing from 12.6 percent of votes just a year ago to anywhere from 15 to 18 percent depending on the poll.

Attempts to constrain these parties, such as isolating them in parliament, have only legitimized their claims of being the only opposition to the status quo and enhanced their appeal to dissatisfied voters. If we wish to stunt the growth of these political zealots, there needs to be a change in strategy.

Diagnosing the Problem

To find out how to defeat this global shift towards neo-reactionary populism, the first thing to do is to actually figure out the characteristics of the movement.

Looking at social policy, the question is usually just how extreme a given party is. The Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, for instance, is far more extreme than nearly any other right-wing populist party in Western Europe, mainly owing to its belief in banning the Quran and shutting down all mosques. However, the general philosophy behind its policies is the same as other nations’ populist parties. All these parties share an anti-immigrant slant due to their fear of Islam and Euroscepticism based on fear of technocracy and bureaucracy.

The knee-jerk reaction looking at these policies would be to call this an exclusively right-wing movement. Most leaders of this new populism consider themselves right-wing and often use rightest rhetoric. This simplistic diagnosis, however, is illusory.

Many of these parties, such as the True Finns Party in Finland and, to a certain extent, the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain, have taken most of their popular support from ex-leftists. In fact, the policies of different nations’ populist parties are substantially, and increasingly, diverse.

Indeed, the economic policies of these different parties are far from uniformly right-wing and are often incoherent or internally inconsistent. In a recent interview for German media outlet ZDF, Alexander Gauland, the leader of the AFD, evaded, avoided, or was simply unable to answer every question asked about the party’s economic policy, saying either that the party would decide what it thought of these policies soon or that it didn’t have an official position at all. In France, the National Rally has made a complete U-turn on economic policy, shifting from neoliberalism into a more statist and welfarist approach. Brazilian President-elect Bolsonaro has gone on record saying, “I really don’t understand much about the economy,” as reported by The Washington Post.

It makes sense that these different parties try to downplay and avoid economic issues, as their political base comes from all across the political spectrum. The point of these parties is to position themselves as big tent nationalist parties, which is their greatest weakness.

Fixing the Problem – Nordic Nations as Case Studies

So, we arrive back at our original question: How can this worldwide spurt of nationalist populism be stopped? How can the center hold against one of the most threatening challenges in decades?

To learn this, we have to analyze two Nordic nations’ politics to see how they managed to defeat, or at least tame, these groups.

First, take a look at Denmark. Its populist party, called the Danish People’s Party (DPP) has been active in parliament since 1997. Though it stagnated at around 12 to 14 percent of the vote during the 2000s and early 2010s, it had a sudden groundswell of support in 2015, getting over 20 percent of the vote and becoming the second largest party in parliament.

Ever since, though, it has only lost voters, and according to a recent poll by Megafon, is back to only receiving 14 percent of the vote. What is responsible for this loss in popularity? There are two main contributors.

The first is its participation in government. While the DPP is not technically part of the government, it is the largest political force affiliated with it and supports the government in votes of confidence. This is despite the fact that the government acts contrary to all of the DPP’s four electoral promises, namely Euroscepticism, border controls, restrictions on immigration, and an increase in public spending. Yet the DPP, fearful of appearing impractical, has done nothing contrary to this government, making it appear like a party of docile yes-men.

The second event that has caused the DPP’s decline was the creation of a party called The New Right. Disappointed with the DPP for not being radical enough, a group of right-wingers from a variety of parties created The New Right, which has noticeably undercut DPP support. However, there have been many examples of rightists fighting a populist party for not behaving extreme enough. Why has The New Right succeeded in a way Alternative for Sweden, for instance, has not?

What has attracted voters to The New Right is not its extreme immigration policy, but its economic policy. Rather than supporting social democracy, like the DPP, The New Right is firmly against government intervention in the private sector, going so far as to advocate repealing the corporate tax altogether.

This schism has sucked away support from the DPP, highlighting its economic policies, which are unpopular among its right-wing base. This has changed the image of the DPP from a big tent nationalist party into a center-left party.

While the Danish example paints a picture of how populist parties can decline, the example of Finland is just as stark. Finnish politics are, historically, particularly collaborative and stable, even for Scandinavia. Finland is a country where coalitions are usually established between the two, three, or four largest parties in parliament, irrespective of where those parties lie on the political spectrum.

However, the 2011 elections turned that stability completely upside-down. A mix of anti-bailout vitriol and corruption scandals led the True Finns (PS) to grow from 4 to 19 percent of the vote, becoming the third largest party in parliament. In 2015, the PS became the second largest party in parliament and entered government. However, this new power did not fare well for them.

After a leadership election in 2017, a new, more radical PS leader was elected. This immediately put the governing coalition in crisis, as the other affiliated parties refused to work with him. If that wasn’t enough, many leading members of the PS left the party in order to form Blue Reform (SIN), a more moderate political party that was able to continue in the coalition.

Since then, SIN has lost any popularity it once had, wit
h a poll from Kantar TNS showing them getting barely over 1 percent of the vote. The PS isn’t doing much better. The same poll showed them getting 9.1 percent of the vote, a drop of 8 points from their 2015 result.

The first and most obvious explanation would be that the new PS leader is simply too radical for Finnish voters. However, using the AFD in Germany as a microcosm for this populism, we can see that despite the fact that they have faced multiple splits over their moving to the right on social policy, none of these has ever hurt them in the same way as the PS. Intuitively, too, it doesn’t make sense for this type of radicalism to destroy PS support. Immigration, especially Islamic immigration, is a wedge issue; to voters, policy in these areas doesn’t matter as much as sentiment, which did not change with the change in PS leadership. It also wouldn’t make sense for voters supposedly concerned with radicalism to flee to traditional parties rather than to SIN, which is in essence the more moderate version of the PS.

Instead, what happened seems to have had much less to do with social policy changes and more to do with fiscal policy. The new leader of the PS not only affected party policy on immigration, but also on economics. He describes himself and the PS as purely left-wing economically, much to the dismay of the many right-wingers who used to support the PS. Just as in Denmark, the image of the PS has changed from that of a big-tent populist party to a left-wing populist party.

These examples demonstrate that the establishment’s current tactics can only help these populist parties. Instead of quarantining populist parties and refusing to work with them, centrist leaders should be encouraging them to enter government as minor coalition partners, so their campaign promises and pledges can be demonstrated to be just as impossible and unworkable as they actually are. Populism is built off of being oppositional. After all, creating policy is much more difficult than criticizing it.

The centrists’ second strategy should be to change their current focus on social policy. The gut reaction when establishment politicians see a radical party, whether that radicalism is centered on immigration or the European Union, is to simply highlight how radical they are. Instead, they should adopt a more even-tempered attitude. Of course these parties are radical; that’s why they’re popular in the first place. A better strategy would be to examine each and every one of their policies, to identify where their supporters fundamentally differ with each other, and then engage them there. It just so happens that for this new populist wave, today, budgets and taxes are that Achilles heel.