The populist threat looks to have been neutralised over recent months—at least on the continent. But if political leaders aren’t careful, it will come back with a vengeanceby Sophie Gaston / July 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
The astonishing success of Emmanuel Macron across the Channel has provided a rapturous symbol of hope to liberals who find themselves on the wrong side of history, living in the shadow of Donald Trump and Brexit and authoritarian impulses.
But it is important to remember the pernicious and deep-seated influence that populist narratives continue to play in our societies, long after they are seemingly “neutralised” at the ballot box.
The political outlook for Europe remains mixed, with the spectre of far-right populism continuing to lurk in political rhetoric, the language of the media, and in citizens’ attitudes towards their political institutions, and one another.
The fears and concerns that gave rise to populist parties in the first place developed over many years, and cannot simply vanish. They will continue to live on until they are addressed decisively, whether through policy responses or a robust new political language. If given hope, dashed again, populists could even become emboldened, ushering in a new era of disruptive shocks at the ballot box as the unweaving social contract comes fully apart.
If there is the air of a sense of calm across the continent now, it is a delicate calm, which masks a risk-taking appetite that remains high. In this landscape, it is worth revisiting the landscape of social and cultural insecurities that have provided the backdrop for the political upheavals of recent years, as whether seen or unseen, they will remain important for many more years to come.
As my think tank, Demos, revealed in its report Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself, citizens hold complex fears about society which span a variety of dimensions—some reflect concerns about their material wealth and wellbeing, whereas others reflect a lack of agency, or a sense of cultural dislocation. These fears compound one another; the attitudes of citizens towards their political leaders, or to business, also contribute to a culture of mistrust that can impact the ways in which they view their fellow citizens. As power is increasingly seen to be concentrated at an impenetrable distance, there can be an impulse to entrench within the boundaries of a defined notion of community.
It is important for us to recognise where these fears reflect personal, lived experiences, and where they pertain to broader concerns about the state of the nation—in particular, the idea that its fortunes have faded and it has fallen into irreparable decline. To consider whether the responses should fall into the domain of personal or the political, it is essential to distinguish between those based in “fact” and those that reflect individual perceptions (for example, the incorrect assumption that crime is rising)—but not to diminish the significance of the latter, because of course in politics, perception is everything.
One of the most profound political trends over the past decade has been the surge in visceral anti-establishment sentiment, and populist parties from both the left and the right have been tremendously successful in giving this a voice. They have also created currency and legitimacy for nostalgic narratives, which resonate in an especially powerful way for those who don’t feel they have a place in today’s pecking order. As these citizens struggle to articulate a future narrative for themselves and their families in a world in which accelerated technological and demographic change demand adaptability, their feeling of precariousness compels them towards promises of control.
This inherent desire for security and agency explains the appeal of policy-making that swings between the interventionist and the exclusionary, as so clearly evidenced in many of the past year’s elections. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey also captures the complexity of Britons’ concurrent social liberalism, desire for hard-nosed approaches to border control, law and order, and increasing appetite for an easing of austerity economics.
This resilient urge for control and decisive short-term political action also helps to make sense of the breadth of support for President Macron, whose adoption of “strongman liberalism” helped see off his “strong(wo)man” opponent of the authoritarian kind. Having enthusiastically embraced the visual pomp and trappings of the state as he promises to restore France to greatness on the world stage, Macron provides a pathway forward for liberalism to beat the powerful message of populism at its own game—reconciling patriotism and internationalism, innovation and control, and offering, through widespread reforms, the level of systemic change many voters hope will usher in a brighter future.
But it is folly to believe that the threats posed by insurgent populist parties on the left or the right have abated in any meaningful, structural way—even in countries where their electoral influence appears to have been contained. The journalists may have left the Le Pen heartlands, but the fears, and anger, and mistrust, which found a voice within parties like hers will continue to live on until they are tackled meaningfully. It is time to shift focus from election campaigns with their soaring heights and dramatic conclusions, to the question of governing in the age of populism. After all, today’s policy failures are tomorrow’s political nightmares.