Panic About Populism
“Is Western civilisation about to enter a new Dark Age, presided over by “populists”? No.”
Is Western civilisation about to enter a new Dark Age, presided over by “populists”? No. A quarter of a century ago, one in three human beings lived in poverty; today it is only one in ten. Global prosperity, health and education are at an all-time peak. But panic about “populism” has confused the issue. In the 1930s, the heyday of populism, the capitalist West was impoverished by depression, globalisation went into reverse, and democracy was challenged by dictatorship. None of this is happening today.
It is nevertheless easy to evoke hysterical reactions from political, corporate, bureaucratic and academic establishments who feel threatened by Brexit, Trump or other shocks to the system. They fall back on an inventory of ideas that is as imprecise as it is antique. The term “populist” has been applied to charismatic leaders who appeal directly to the people, over the heads of patrician elites, from Julius Caesar to Adolf Hitler. No useful purpose is served by comparing Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt or anybody else. His presidency doesn’t mean that American democracy is in danger, any more than Brexit means that Britain has succumbed to xenophobia. Trump is sui generis. And Brexit means Brexit.
Rather than reaching for lazy parallels with the past, a few commentators have kept calm and carried on trying to grasp what is new about the present. One of these is David Goodhart, whose review of Refuge by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier appears in this issue. Goodhart’s own book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (Hurst, £20), offers a new polarity to explain what is happening. Western societies, he argues, are divided into those who are at home Anywhere and those who feel they belong Somewhere. We are witnessing a revolt by the latter against the dominance of the former. Though hailing from the liberal, cosmopolitan camp, Goodhart is sympathetic to the new identity politics. He speaks of “decent populists” for politicians who voice the legitimate grievances of those who have nobody else to speak for them — as opposed to cynical demagogues who exploit such grievances.
The Dutch election has offered the spectacle of a contest between populisms, neither particularly decent. Geert Wilders wants to ban the Koran. In their television debate, the prime minister, Mark Rutte, mocked this as an empty threat. Yet he too tried to frighten voters: “In England there’s chaos, too, now, because of Brexit.” The Dutch don’t have far to go to disprove such scaremongering. Rutte won, boasting that voters had rejected “the wrong kind of populism”. That implies that there is a right sort, too — his own.
As it happens, the two most formidable leaders in Europe are both women: Angela Merkel and Theresa May. Do they fall within Goodhart’s definition of “decent populists”? For a decade, Mrs Merkel shadowed public opinion. To appease Germany’s pacific public, she refuses to spend 2 per cent of GDP to defend her Nato allies. After Fukushima, she abandoned nuclear power, subjecting not only her compatriots but also their neighbours to toxic air pollution and increasing dependency on Russia. Yet such “decent populism” won her three elections.
Then, in the summer of 2015, Mrs Merkel suddenly threw caution to the winds by suggesting that Europe could solve the migration crisis by opening its borders. At the time, the media gave her the benefit of the doubt: her “welcoming culture” (Willkommenskultur) was widely praised. But it wasn’t popular. So she laid plans to halt the influx, only to lose her nerve. She was paralysed by angst: any use of force, broadcast across the world, could be construed as reminiscent of the Nazi past. Angela Merkel emerges as a well-meaning politician who lacked courage. Indeed, her pursuit of popularity culminated in what Donald Trump called “one very catastrophic mistake”. For once, Trump was right. Of 1.2 million asylum-seekers, nearly half did not qualify to stay in Germany; they have yet to be deported.
The resulting backlash has undermined post-war Germany’s greatest achievement — its political stability. In September Mrs Merkel’s grand coalition may be displaced in an election that could catapult the former Communist party, Die Linke, into office as part of the most left-wing government in the history of the Federal Republic, led by Martin Schulz. This unprepossessing President of the European Parliament has morphed into a rabble-rouser, who threatens Britain with “the hardest Brexit possible”. Mrs Merkel believed she was indispensable; she was wrong. If she had ignored her own cult of personality and stepped down after ten years, Schulz’s Euro-populism might not have emerged. A German lurch to the Left is as likely to tear the European Union apart as a far-Right France under Marine Le Pen.
How about Theresa May? Elsewhere this issue, Stephen Glover analyses a prime minister who is now more popular than her predecessor ever was. Even after Philip Hammond’s botched Budget, the Tories are now out of sight of Labour. Yet it is the hapless Jeremy Corbyn who is more obviously a populist than Mrs May — just not a decent one.
Mrs May was accused of populism last year, when she declared: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Anyone who doubts the truth of her remark should ask those who really are citizens of nowhere: the refugees. In return for the rights of citizenship, a country may (indeed must) impose responsibilities, including the duty to be patriotic.
That should be uncontroversial in any nation state; in the European Union, however, patriots are accounted scoundrels. Somehow, the Anywheres and the Somewheres will have to rediscover a shared form of patriotism — or be displaced by the Nowheres