No going back

Thankfully things have moved on in terms of understanding the rise of populism. It used to be common to hear it dismissed as an unpleasant aberration. A protest vote that would disappear before too long. The result, it was sometimes argued, of the wrong type of people reading the wrong type of newspaper.

However, the most prevalent explanation that has emerged over the past couple of years, while a step forward, is still partial. According to this view the main culprit is widening income inequality. Or, more precisely, surging incomes for a small minority while many more struggle on stagnant incomes.

This argument should not be dismissed. Sharply rising incomes for the wealthy few alongside many more left behind clearly creates fertile ground for resentment. But this is only part of the story.

To develop a fuller understanding of populism’s rise it is necessary to go back further than the Brexit referendum or Donald Trump’s presidential election. As Robin Best, a political scientist at Binghamton University argues in my article on euro-pessimism (p46), the trend long predates the fateful year of 2016.

Populist parties emerged in the vacuum created by the decline of the traditional post-War parties of right and left. Too many commentators have focused so fervently on the populists themselves that they have missed the broader picture.

For example, the conditions in which the centre left thrived after the second world war have disappeared. First, the goal of a socialist alternative to capitalism, even a moderate one, lost all traction with the end of the Cold War in 1989. 

screen shot 2019 05 29 at 10.27.24

Leftist parties have come to the conclusion that the only realistic option is a fairer version of the market economy. Whether or not they are right, it means the centre left has lost its distinctive character. That helps explain why over the past 20 years it has become markedly weaker across western Europe.

In addition, the trade union movement has declined sharply. This has important political implications because centre-left parties were often closely linked to the unions.

But not only the left has suffered. Right wing parties were, at least in part, defined in opposition to the left. That means that, paradoxically, the decline of leftism has also helped rob the right of its traditional identity.

Old style conservatism has, in addition, suffered as a result of the decline of religious observance. It is often forgotten – although the clue is in the name – that Christian Democratic parties had close ties to the church.

Although the shape of the new terrain is far from clear, one thing is certain. There is no going back to the days when the key political divide was between mainstream left and right.

Daniel Ben-Ami, Deputy Editor

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