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A pattern of populism?

It was not just the snow on their shoes that the Davos “liberati” were wiping off this year, but also the sweat off of their foreheads. Once detached from mainstream political trends, attendees seemed anxious following the recent triumphs of populist movements.

Their longstanding presumption was that global problems required complex analysis so as to reorder the world into the mold of free-market liberalism. This now seems to fall short. It is clear that average voters are no longer persuaded by political complexities; rather they are being caught up in the simplicity of populist messages. Though opening up politics to the vox populi is not harmful in itself, when such trends are being manipulated by the likes of Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen the alarm must be raised.

There are certain trends that have helped shape the current mood. Globalization has seen middle and low-income voters squeezed; multinationals continue to act in supposed contempt of international regulations and taxes, while real incomes have fallen. In the US, median household income has declined markedly. Having hit an all-time high in 1999 of $57,843, it has remained broadly unchanged at $51,900 since 2013 according to the US Census Bureau.

In the last year unemployment rates have increased in Cyprus, Estonia, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Spain and the US. This is echoed by the unprecedented rise in the distribution of hot meals in the outwardly wealthy capitals of London and Paris, where in some neighborhoods the number of those living under the poverty line is as much as 30 to 40 percent. Under such circumstances it is of little surprise that electorates worldwide seem possessed to “Make America Great Again,” “Put the French First” and to “Keep Holland for the Dutch.”

Populist movements have given voters the impression that they can, to use a Trumpism, “take back control” and make a difference. The issue is however that effective modern government is complex and not slogan-led. The concern with electing populists is that though they may lead great campaigns, they are too often ill-suited to govern. The shambolic episodes that have plagued the first month of the Trump presidency have highlighted this all too well. To insist on administration leaving the preserve of the thinking man is offensive to the very nature of government. The analytical necessity of policymaking is not the issue; rather that established institutions have grown complacent. Policymakers failed to predict the political implications of important social and economic challenges that are now coming to the surface.

Whipping up xenophobia

Thinly veiled behind the razzmatazz of modern political campaigning, a recent get-together of three European far-right parties in Koblenz served as a sinister premonition. Voters’ recent infatuation with populism has hugely empowered the extreme right. Those present at the rally hailed Donald Trump as a “savior” and predicted a “patriotic spring” to envelop Europe. The two most worrying proponents of this discourse are French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen of the Front National and Geert Wilders whose Freedom Party (PVV) is leading opinion polls ahead of the Netherlands’ general election. 

Average voters are no longer persuaded by political complexities; rather they are being caught up in the simplicity of populist messages.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Wilders’ rise is especially disturbing; his premise is based on the fact that Holland’s 4 percent Muslim population poses a long-term mortal threat to European civilization. In an effort to whip up xenophobic feeling in 2014, Wilders asked his supporters whether whey wanted more Moroccans or fewer, the reply that came was “fewer!”. Thereafter he was prosecuted for hate speech and found guilty, though bizarrely never punished.

That was then. Just last week he labeled some Moroccans “scum” showing how his message of populist hate has become almost acceptable in the mainstream. This was epitomized in how the Conservative Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte hurried to adopt hate into his own political campaign. Advertisements that threaten people “who refuse to adapt” should “behave normally or go away” reflect how desperate some politicians are to react to the popular mood and endorse fear. 

Such rhetoric would not be out of place in other European countries. There also the challenges of globalization, technological changes, and fluctuations in the job market that have created a state of public disaffection. Wilders, similar to his peers, has successfully tapped into a reservoir of anxiety to create a sense of instability and of course scapegoats. 

Are voters naturally inclined to vote for rabble-rousers with dyed blond hair and a penchant for the vulgar? No. The rise of such underqualified braggarts is however symptomatic of the regression of political debate and a deepening sense of extremism. In denouncing the independent judiciary and parliament as “phony” Wilders has displayed a disdain for democracy that is very much akin to the labelling of the free press as “fake news” and “the enemy” across the Atlantic. This is dangerous. In deliberately undermining democracy and the rule of law, populists seek to threaten established political institutions.

It is not just the Davos set that should focus its energies on building more inclusive and effective political models to combat hate. Voters, en masse, must mobilize so as to oppose the division of mixed societies along racial and religious lines. The last European populist to overhaul the established political order with a racist message marched under the Brandenburg Gate having been elected chancellor of Germany. That man was Adolf Hitler.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.