A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Benedetta BarbisanAssociate professor of comparative constitutional law at the University of Macerata and fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law
Populism is a political determination to please the majority by immediately satisfying the electorate’s wishes while paying little or no attention to the medium- or long-term consequences of the policies undertaken to this end. Populism also has at its core an anti-establishment sentiment.
In complex times, when the solutions offered by parliaments and governments are frequently late and seldom widespread, easy analyses and recipes have an indisputable attraction. Because less complicated times cannot be expected in the near future, populism seems destined to stay. Traditional parties need to start recruiting new generations of administrators, politicians, and leaders directly from colleges, universities, and professions. Only if parties are willing to open up their frontiers and involve new minds capable of contributing to society’s welfare might the electorate finally feel part of the establishment and not alienated from it.
Thomas CarothersSenior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The core drivers and enablers of populism in Western democracies and beyond are all deeply rooted trends: economic dislocation, stagnation, and inequality; diminished credibility of established political parties; sociocultural insecurity as a result of the movement of people and ideas across borders; and the proliferation of new tools that facilitate unmediated communications between political entrepreneurs and large numbers of citizens. As a result, populism is almost certain to be with us for the foreseeable future.
Populism has at least partly ebbed in South America, the region where it hit hard in the early 2000s. Yet those populist movements, which were from the Left rather than the Right (unlike many in Europe and the United States today), focused strongly on promises of economic distribution. The difficulty of delivering on those promises once the Latin American commodity boom ended hurt those movements badly.
By contrast, populist movements from the Right promise a wider range of policies, including restricting the movement of people across borders, which they may be able to deliver on—as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has done to notable political effect in Hungary. Right-wing populist movements may therefore be able to keep their followers happy for somewhat longer than their left-wing counterparts.
Thomas GrevenPolitical scientist at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin and independent political consultant and commentator
Today’s right-wing populism is a revolt by people who consider themselves losers of, or feel threatened by, socially unregulated globalization or cultural modernization. It is a movement against political elites who have for decades succumbed to a neoliberal consensus of nonregulation and shown condescension toward anyone opposed to these processes. There is also a left-wing revolt against the economic elites who benefit from the status quo of nonregulation and low taxation.
Both revolts as well as the hateful, sometimes violent blaming of ethnic minorities are here to stay for the foreseeable future—and likely to get worse, because there are no majorities to socially regulate globalization. Many voters favor renationalizing policy, sometimes along ethnic or narrowly defined lines.
Therefore, although the social and ecological regulation of globalization and policies of global justice are important, the political battleground has shifted toward defending liberal democracy and a pluralist society. This defense against authoritarian, antipluralist forces is made difficult by beggar-thy-neighbor policies and the opportunism of conservative political and economic elites.
Amr HamzawySenior associate in Carnegie’s Middle East Program and Democracy and Rule of Law Program
The populist grip extends over a wide variety of societies. In the United States, the phenomenon of President-elect Donald Trump claims to express the interests of ordinary people and their loathing of politics, politicians, and minorities. In Europe, the racist Right has risen up against enemies composed of the political elite, the EU bureaucracy, companies that benefit from economic globalization, and minorities.
In the Middle East, populism has been on the rise, too. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has injected populism into a Turkish nationalism that justifies both violence against Kurdish citizens and the regional use of armed force. This approach is disguised under rhetoric of defending democracy and the will of the people but quickly transforms into the complete opposite: chaos with regard to the rule of law, removal of the safeguards of rights and freedoms, government intimidation of free media, and wide-scale repression in the wake of the aborted July 2016 coup.
In Egypt, after the July 2013 coup, the country’s ruling establishment, centered on military and security generals, depended increasingly on religious and nationalistic populism. The combination of the two allowed the establishment to tighten its grip on many aspects of life in the country, under the pretense that it was governing on behalf of citizens and that it was attentive to their needs.
István HegedűsChairman of the Hungarian Europe Society
Yes. Populism is not a transitional phenomenon that disappears when social and economic crises are over. Some radical-right populist movements have become strong and stable, leaving behind their former fringe status, while some mainstream parties have shifted to illiberalism and majoritarianism. Calling themselves the only representatives of the people, populists attack the status quo and the liberal democratic order. If they grasp political power, like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński have, populist and authoritarian leaders continue their blame game, pointing their fingers at old and new enemies.
How dangerous are populists? What seems just an unusually strong challenge for well-established traditional Western democracies is a serious threat in the Eastern part of the EU. There, the issue is not how populists are questioning the dominance of shared liberal values, but how they are deconstructing the constitutional order of checks and balances.
To combat populism, smart political communication strategies are essential to reach “decent people,” as UK Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage called voters of Brexit. But to defeat populists, it is not enough to hope that facts will once again become more convincing than conspiracy theories and lies. Following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and given the widening gap between ordinary people and the establishment in the perceptions of many citizens, the complex task is the renewal of political and economic liberalism.
Sergey LagodinskyHead of the EU and North America Department at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin
The question is not whether populism is here to stay but whether democracy is about to go. People will have to live with populism in the future as they have lived with various forms of populism for many decades before. The difference now is that actors both in and outside Western societies have successfully weaponized populism to use it against various aspects of liberal democracies.
This weaponization of populism says nothing about the survival prospects for Western democracies but rather puts their fate into citizens’ hands. It opens doors for foreign interventions—from Russian government–sponsored trolls to expanding U.S.-grown right-wing news sites like Breitbart. Weaponized populism is also a useful tool for all those who had hesitated to articulate hate as hate and attacks as attacks. No more political correctness for them! Finally, they can say things they always wanted to.
But look on the brighter side: for once, people in the West have a clear decision to make—between their own model of democracy and something many of them strongly disagree with. This clear choice is a chance they should grab. A chance to make sure that Western democracies are here to stay, regardless of populists.
Stefan LehneVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Populist movements come and go. They tend to gain momentum whenever people perceive that their concerns are being ignored by self-serving elites. High inequality, stagnating wages, and concerns over migration are the main drivers of the current wave. If these worries are addressed seriously, the anger in the population will diminish again.
The greater worry is the erosion of representative democracy, a trend that enhances the destructive power of populist storms. As Simon Tormey of the University of Sydney has pointed out, the old collective identities on which traditional democracy was based have broken down. Democracy has been hollowed out by a decline of national sovereignty. Fragmented modern media reinforce rather than challenge prejudices. In the post-truth and post-fact age, the quality of political discourse has declined. People have lost trust in their political representatives and demand more direct democracy, which, however, can only complement and not replace representative democracy.
There is thus an urgent need to modernize the political process. Representative democracy must be made more transparent, participatory, and responsive. Politicians need to become more accessible and accountable, and civil society must be systematically involved in decisionmaking. Only if people feel that their voices are heard and taken seriously will they regain confidence in the political process.
Aurélien MondonSenior lecturer in French and comparative politics at the University of Bath
There is little doubt that populist movements will remain until the West’s current democratic systems are fundamentally rethought to take new power relationships into account. Populist radical-right parties are but one symptom of the current crisis of legitimacy plaguing liberal democracies. Distrust in political parties and the media is extremely high and disillusionment with mainstream politics is rampant as people feel no longer listened to or cared for.
Populist radical-right parties have managed to capitalize on this trend, but most people remain unconvinced by their reactionary politics. However, as mainstream parties fail to take this rejection into account and instead pander to xenophobic and racist sentiment, and as the Left is so far unable to put forward a convincing alternative or deliver on strong mandates for change, a vast portion of the electorate will continue to abstain or vote for the least worst option.
While politicians and the media alike ignore these voters and their grievances, the populist radical Right will gain further legitimacy as the sole alternative to the political status quo in the public discourse. This in turn will normalize racist discourse further.
Cas MuddeAssociate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia
Populism is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. The West is currently experiencing a populist zeitgeist, in which populist frameworks juxtaposing the pure people against the corrupt elite strongly influence the political debate. Such frameworks are driven by the rise of populist parties, but they have been adopted—in more moderate forms—by both mainstream parties and mainstream media (note the narrative that the liberal elite has lost touch with the heartland, which has dominated much of the British media since the June 23 Brexit vote and is currently omnipresent in the United States).
However, it is a particular form of populism that is successful: the populist radical Right, which combines populism with nativism and authoritarianism. Left-wing populism has remained limited to a few Southern European countries that were hardest hit by the economic crisis. The current success of populist radical-right parties is driven at least as much by nativism as by populism. That explains why the economic crisis was a catalyst and not a cause.
Many mainstream politicians seem to think the only way to beat the populists is to copy their populism, albeit in a more moderate form. But that approach will strengthen rather than weaken the real populists.
Alan PosenerWriter and columnist for the Welt media group
In 1995, American political theorist Benjamin Barber wrote a book called Jihad vs. McWorld, which contests that globalization of necessity brings forth tribalism of different stripes: religious, national, racial, and class antagonisms. This has happened across the Islamic world, in Africa and Asia, and then in Europe; now, it has reached the United States. A few years before Barber, in his much-maligned book The End of History and the Last Man, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama warned that “thymos,” the universal human need for recognition and dignity, can tip into “megalothymia,” the wish to be seen as superior: “Dissatisfaction arises precisely where democracy has triumphed most completely: it is a dissatisfaction with liberty and equality. Thus those who remain dissatisfied will always have the potential to restart history.” Stephen Bannon, chief strategist for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, is the prototype of this Nietzschean would-be superman.
It seems that liberal globalism—two terms that have become negative epithets on the radical Left and Right—needs to look closely at the questions of dignity and community raised by these thinkers twenty years ago. Unless answers are found, tribal populism could engulf the world again, as it has done before.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
In 2017, the permanent members of the UN Security Council could include two authoritarian states—China and Russia—and three populist states—France, the UK, and the United States. Italy’s current government may be swept away if it loses the December 4 constitutional referendum, and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi could leave his position to an anti-EU, anti-euro, anti-NATO leader from the Five Star Movement. The party, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, already rules the town halls of Rome and Turin.
Populism won at the political pulpit of the Internet, unchallenged by liberal opinion makers, who were either too smug to see the sansculottes or too eager to use rage against their foes. Populist attacks have been aimed at U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, at Italian prime ministers Silvio Berlusconi and Romano Prodi, at German chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel, and at French presidents Jacques Chirac and François Hollande.
Yet when the populist genie leaves the democratic bottle, it is impossible to tame him. So yes, spurred on by fake news and rabid media, populism has the field now. Rational leaders should unite in a common front, win the battle against the demagogues, and then restart the political debate. They will not: eager to bleed their enemies, they will all perish together, blind.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresident associate at Carnegie Europe and director of the Center for East European and International Studies in Berlin
The point about populism is that it never goes away. It may temporarily be hidden from view, but it is easily reactivated by the right set of conditions.
Populism centers on a basic timeless idea: a claim to represent the people against the elites. This can be a powerful political idea, as Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and opinion polls in several Western European countries heading for their own ballots illustrate. Populism thrives on economic crises and their aftermaths, a fear of high immigration, and national policies that can be portrayed as draining resources away from citizens and their concerns.
The populist discourse is framed in national terms, yet the current wave of populism in Western democracies benefits not only from the weaknesses of mainstream political parties but also from the transnational linkages between like-minded parties and movements. This international dimension, which cuts across democratic and authoritarian regimes, makes populism particularly resilient this time round.
However, populism is usually better as an electioneering tool than as a guide for government policy. Populism is therefore bound to stay as a vocal opposition force. But if populist leaders are elected as presidents or coalition partners, they are likely to discredit themselves in office, at least in democracies.
Ulrich SpeckSenior research fellow at the Brussels Office of the Elcano Royal Institute
Today, the term “populism” is used to describe a specific political agenda: the promotion of economic protectionism and conservative values, an emphasis on national borders, and a view of foreigners as a threat. Populism is a rejection of the pro-globalization, cosmopolitan policies that center-right and center-left parties in the West have pursued since the 1980s.
Populists argue that liberal elites have opened the floodgates and that Western communities are being swamped by dangerous Muslim immigrants and goods from China. Populists promise a return to the good old times when traditional values and ways of life were supposedly unchallenged.
The political establishment in many countries is in reverse gear, trying to appease populists and partly accepting their narratives. But it is rarely pushing back by making the argument in favor of globalization and cosmopolitanism.
Populism is so successful today because liberalism has lost its ability to speak out loud and convincingly; many of those in power simply don’t understand what the liberal order means. Populism will vanish only when liberalism finds its voice again.
Joseph C. SternbergEditorial-page editor and political-economy columnist for the Wall Street Journal’s European edition
The phrasing of the question explains why populism is here in the first place. Political and media elites are falling into the bad habit of tarring as populism—a loaded word often conflated with dangerous ethnic nationalism or demagoguery—any policy agenda that’s popular among voters despite being unpopular among those elites. We all need to cut it out.
What seems to be here to stay is voters’ demand for more competitive politics that responds to real economic and social problems. Successive elections in Europe—and the United States—have shown that voters want debates about trade, immigration, terrorism, foreign policy, and a range of other issues. They’re rewarding candidates and parties that break long-held taboos among mainstream parties by discussing these matters and that break the political cartels through which the mainstream enforced those taboos.
So if, like me, you’re a classical liberal who believes in free trade or less restrictive immigration policies, instead of complaining about populism, we need to work harder to make our own positions popular. Persuasion is the central political task liberals somehow forgot to do. Instead of despairing of democracy, liberals need to get better at it.
Sylke TempelEditor in chief of Internationale Politik and the Berlin Policy Journal, published by the German Council on Foreign Relations
Populist parties have come and gone. But the current wave of populism will not disappear quickly, because it is not only driven by economic anxiety, which could be addressed through major stimulus programs. It also has far deeper roots: a desire to simplify an overly complex world; a wish to restore past societies in which power was not shared with minorities; a frivolous fatigue with the liberal order; a fascination for the politics of strongmen who show contempt for the tedious tasks of compromise and consensus; a sense of entitlement among a public that wishes to be involved in all levels of decisionmaking without understanding the details of complex issues; and a media landscape in which classic providers of reliable information are replaced by the echo chambers of social media. All of these factors are boosted by the Russian government’s determination to undermine the West.
Will populism prevail? No: populism promises magic solutions to down-to-earth problems. As enticing as that might be, in the real world successful politics is the effort to find consensual solutions to complex problems.
Joe TwymanHead of political and social research for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa at YouGov
There is a very real chance that the rise of authoritarian populism could be the defining political phenomenon of the next decade, not just in Europe, but across developed democracies—and 2016 could be only the beginning.
In political science terms, authoritarian populists share common beliefs, opinions, and attitudes. These can be broadly characterized as cynicism toward human rights, opposition to the EU, opposition to immigration, and support for strong defense as part of a strong foreign policy.
A recent YouGov study looked at what proportion of people held these beliefs across twelve European countries and how these beliefs could be used to define new political groupings beyond the old ideas of Left and Right. In eight of the twelve countries, almost half of the electorate—if not more—held authoritarian populist views. In Britain the figure was 48 percent, and in France it was 63 percent, while in Germany the level was 18 percent.
Should politicians, political parties, or movements be able to find a way to unite significant numbers of voters of authoritarian populism under their banner, they will be able to issue a serious challenge to the established political order.