How Did Populism Capture the Heart of the People?

populism, progressives, far right, nationalism, austerity, Brexit, European Union
Image credit: populism.byu.edu

Austerity? Globalisation? It is no secret that populism struck a chord. Progressives must now assess how they may recapture the heart of the people.

In times of perpetual defeat, all you can do sometimes is unlearn what you knew and begin again. Politics is a history of cycles when moments create seismic shifts and political developments that feel epochal but then disappear once again. That is how it feels currently with the emergence of national populism bubbling to the surface and worryingly showing all the hallmarks of being a cycle that will take longer to expire than others.

The emergence of populist right-wing governments in countries like Hungary and Italy has combined with sharp swings to the right in Germany, France and the Netherlands. And of course we had the monumental year of 2016 when Donald Trump was elected President of USA and Britain opted to leave the European Union. This has created a state of fragility in the global political order and a sense of turbulence at a micro level.

Confusion and demoralisation swept through those who considered themselves to be progressives and liberals. The march of time, technology and science combined with the globalisation of capital and labour had created the inevitable sense that liberal consensus politics would dominate. Key institutions, universities, media and the arts industry were increasingly liberal, permeating the values of a cosmopolitan globalist world in which the concept of a border was becoming increasingly diluted, at least in places like the European Union. It was as Antonio Gramsci described, the “cultural hegemony”.

But today, that sense of comfort and triumphalism seems to have lulled everyone into a false sense of security. The world is a more anxious and less certain place than it has been for a long time. Progressives are losing, struggling to connect with voters, to gain an understanding of the anxieties, fears and motivations that their voting decisions are persuaded by. And arguably, it’s tempting to conclude, looking at the push for a People’s Vote in Britain and the liberal identity politics of the Democrats in America, that the art of empathy, a requirement not only for leftist politics but basic representative democracy, is increasingly lost on those on the liberal-left. Any sort of intellectual legwork required to understand why they were defeated across many countries is not being applied.

This, at least, is what you would get if you read Matthew Goodwin’s recent co-authored book on the rise of national populism and how it revolted against liberal democracy. It’s uncomfortable reading for those on the left, and posits a viewpoint that progressives had for too long been detached from reality, cocooned by the comforts of conversations with the converted, rather than voyaging into areas nursing resentment towards globalisation.

It is an interesting analysis into how national populism has pervaded politics across a span of countries. There are problems with it, namely the unwillingness to identify Donald Trump as a racist rather than someone who says xenophobic things, as well as attributing Britain’s falling unemployment rates as a reason why Brexit was not motivated by necessarily a fear of economic scarcity.

But there are more than a few nuggets of truth to his book, namely the polarisation between communitarians and cosmopolitans. This divide is an important point for those on the left who regard Brexit and Trump as simply social upheavals induced by economic anxiety. They look at something like the financial crash in 2007 and the imposed austerity as fostering a hunger for radical change. Certainly the sense of relative deprivation cannot be denied: Britain has experienced a period of extreme socioeconomic angst, in which working poverty has rocketed, the NHS has been squeezed, there has been an explosion in food banks and homelessness has risen every year. The welfare system has become a subsidy for landlords and employers and there has been resentment at how David Cameron spoke of society facing austerity together even though the rich enjoyed tax cuts. There is deep-rooted anger there.

Yet it would be dangerously naïve to suggest that austerity created this anger rather than just exacerbate it and fertilise the political ground with enough anger that would allow something like Brexit to happen. It reduces people to self-interested materialist beings if we simply look at anxiety with globalisation as solved by socialism. People will only pay into a pot from which we all mutually share the goods if they see a connecting cultural thread binding people together. This art of socialism is rooted in the local community and its institutions and peoples, in a sense of reciprocity and mutual generosity. People will pay for a better NHS, welfare state and social housing if they feel they share something with its recipients. On parts of the left there has been an unease with patriotism, and a sense of bafflement with why people are obsessed with nation-states and when applied in policy, it has not gone down well.

This basic value of communal identity and cultural solidarity has been neglected by the left but cannot be any more so. It demands that we change how we view immigration: not just about enriching the economy, which leads to the commodification of migrant workers and doesn’t let them become long-term stakeholders in their local communities. It must also be about the cultural. Understanding that language is the starting point of building relationships with others and therefore unease with migrants who don’t know the language is not racist. Not speaking about this has allowed the far-right to conflate this cultural identity with English, positing the argument that heritage rather than language and a broad set of values is what makes you belong. It is also about understanding that a sense of communal identity has been eroded, not only by deindustrialisation but by the decline in pubs, churches and other shared places.

The world is a more insecure and anxious place. The liberal-left must address these issues and ensure that their message resonates and provides security, lest the far right exploit the people’s concerns.

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