Why political populism is no longer a force to be reckoned with

Protesters demonstrate in London against the British government's plans regarding Brexit. Leon Neal / Getty Images
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We have reached Peak Populism. (Probably.) With populism, the caveat is necessary because the wave of discontent that swept the world in 2016 remains unpredictable, but the evidence is clear. Populism worldwide is waning or mutating and is certainly not the force it was a year ago. Britain voted for Brexit last year and populist discontent with ailing economies, stagnant wages and government failures brought us Donald Trump in the United States, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and a host of new parties and groupings apparently edging towards power across the world. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine LePen in France were tipped to win a slice of power or at least continue the pattern of disruption through Europe. In Italy, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement claimed one of the country’s great prizes, when Virginia Raggi became Mayor of Rome. In Germany, Alternativ für Deutschland appeared on the ascendant, as did Podemos in Spain, with other populist parties of the left and right shaking up politics from Sweden to Greece and beyond.

Then what? This year these parties and groupings have suffered a series of reverses all across Europe and in the United States, too. In Britain, the populist revolt, known as UKIP, which drove the anti-European Union mood, collapsed. It secured no seats in the British general election. In France, MsLePen was humiliated. Mr Wilders failed in the Netherlands. Ms Raggi has appeared baffled by the problems of Italy’s greatest city. And Mr Trump has learnt that the most powerful man in the world is … well, not as powerful as he once thought. Those irritating people in the US Congress, the media, the courts, the FBI, the CIA and state governments from California to Connecticut have proved resistant to Mr Trump’s charms. His key policy slogans mostly remain simply that - slogans.

To understand why this has happened, we need to recognise that 21st century populism is based on a few simple ideas. First, the view that the existing democratic system has failed and run by essentially corrupt people in an  incompetent and self-serving “elite”. Second, choosing an “outsider” as leader is therefore a good thing. Mr Trump fits perfectly — the first US president in history never to have served in the military nor in political office. The third key element of populism is for a leader to promise simple, or simplistic, solutions to complicated problems. In Britain, UKIP claimed getting out of the European Union would, in some magical, way infuse the National Health Service with cash. Mr Duterte, a former Philippine police commander, suggested that the public might follow his example and shoot criminals to reduce crime. Mr Trump continually promises to “make America great again”, and to “build a wall,” but the details remain unclear.

And that’s the key. Democratic government is difficult. It is much more difficult than populists claim. It’s not like running a business or a police force. It demands compromise. Compromise disappoints those who buy into the most ambitious and simplistic populist slogans. In Greece, the left wing populists of Syriza swept to power promising to stand up to Germany, the EU, IMF and European Central Bank. In the reality of power, they compromised. Syriza split. The faction in power became extremely unpopular. Meanwhile, resilient mainstream political parties quickly moved into the ground once occupied by populists. In Britain the Conservatives and Labour talked of tougher immigration controls and increased their anti-EU rhetoric. In Germany, unusually, the CDU is making the German flag a patriotic centrepiece of their election campaign. In France, Emmanuel Macron draped himself in red, white and blue while promising a fresh start from his new party, En Marche.

Populism, literally, means speaking for “the people.” In practice it means  demagoguery. “The people” to populist politicians are often defined in a way that demonises other citizens as “the problem”. Liberals, intellectuals, Muslims, Jews, foreigners, immigrants and others have all been demonised in this way. Mr Trump constantly told Americans that he spoke for the “real Americans” as if Hillary Clinton's 60-million plus voters were somehow un-American phoneys. UKIP’s former leader Nigel Farage said the Brexit vote was a victory for the “ordinary” people of Britain, implying that the 48 per cent who voted against his views were somehow unreal, over-privileged and out of touch. But as the people of Britain realise, leaving the EU is not as UKIP claimed, like leaving a golf club. It will be — it is — very complicated. For Mr Trump, “building the wall” with Mexican money was a brilliant campaign slogan, but an incoherent policy. And if populism truly peaked in 2017, then the White House populist in chief is in large part responsible. A fascinated world is watching Mr Trump discover that the presidency is more difficult than criticising others on Twitter. Government is not a game show, though at times it is amusing and entertaining to watch.