These electoral results are the latest part of a wave of populist sentiment in Europe and the United States that is profoundly affecting politics. Populist movements in Hungary, Serbia, Austria, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Sweden have all gained momentum in recent years, with varying degrees of success. In the United States, Donald Trump campaigned on populist rhetoric. These trends have created deep concern among those who support liberal democracy, minority rights and free markets.
There are various controversial definitions of populism, but essentially it is a political ideology or style that emphasizes the rights and interests of the “common people” or the poor or middle class. Populist rhetoric targets intellectual, cultural, economic and governing elites, and blames them for society’s problems. Populists have a strong tendency to oversimplify these problems, often coupled with a disdain for nuance and for experts, who they see as part of the elite.
Populism can be attached to a wide range of ideologies. Today, in Europe and the US, most populist movements and parties are on the right of the political spectrum, but in some places, especially in southern Europe, they come from the left.
While every country has its own specific political and cultural traits that shape the exact ways in which populism is playing out, there are two broad drivers of populism – frustration with traditional political parties and fear of demographic change.
Many Europeans and Americans are fed up with mainstream parties. Populism appeals to many of these voters, because it blames those parties for society’s ills. Some others might be uncomfortable with the populist rhetoric but voted for populist parties as a protest against traditional parties. The Austrian and German electoral results were partly an expression of frustration with the mainstream parties who have led those countries since the end of the Second World War. The Czech elections also reflected a strong anti-establishment sentiment. In the French elections, neither candidate from the two traditional parties made it to the final round of voting; while the populist le Pen lost in the run-off, some analysts argue it was only because Macron offered voters another alternative to the traditional parties. In the US, there is widespread frustration with both Republicans and Democrats. While Trump is technically a Republican president, much of his appeal to voters was a promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington governance.
Another factor driving populist movements is fear of demographic change. Europe has long been struggling with an ageing population. Immigration in Europe has been controversial for many years, but the 2015 migrant crisis — which brought more than one million into Europe in 2015 alone, mainly Syrian refugees – significantly worsened fears about immigrants overloading Europe’s social welfare system and about foreign Muslims replacing European Christians. In the US, Trump played into fears about Hispanic and Muslim immigration and concerns that American culture would no longer be shaped primarily by a white, Christian population.
Forcing elites to confront unfairness and inequality is useful, but pledging to destroy the system while offering nothing constructive to replace it is not.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Many who have voted for populist parties and leaders fear the erosion of their own racial or ethnic group’s cultural and political primacy within their society. They often talk about preserving their “heritage” — often referring to a sense that traditional European, Christian culture should continue to be the primary one shaping the society’s culture.
Those fears reflect real, significant demographic change. According to the Pew Research Center, “Europe is the only region projected to see a decline in its total population between 2010 and 2050.” By 2045, white people will no longer be a majority in the US. At the same time, populists frequently exaggerate these fears. For example, many European populists warn about Muslims taking over European culture; in reality, Pew data from 2015 showed Muslims at 5.9 percent of the European population in 2010, and as a growing but still small minority of 10.2 percent by 2050. In the US, while Pew data shows that Muslims will double as a percentage of the population by 2050, that is only from 1 percent to 2 percent. While Christians as a percent of the population are declining in Europe and the US, they are still clear majorities.
Populism can have a positive effect when it forces elites to pay attention to the real challenges that specific groups in society are facing, but populist movements themselves seldom offer feasible solutions. With a lack of interest in the complexity of social and economic issues, they tend to focus so much on destroying the existing system that they offer little to constructively replace it. They can undermine democracy and divide society with their argument that only one leader or party — theirs, of course — has the moral authority to represent “the people,” and they use this to try to discredit and silence their critics.
Populism is having a moment in the West, but its future is unclear. The French, Dutch and Austrian presidential elections in 2017 made it clear that populism in the West is not an unstoppable force. The recent German and Austrian parliamentary elections made it clear that neither will it simply fade away.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today.