Commentary: Is populism a disease? Or a cure?

Populist nationalism is here to stay. Many still believe it a phase which, like surliness in adolescence, will pass and be succeeded by orderly, thoughtful maturity. But they will find that the political world, already changed, will disappoint them. Liberalism, however defined, is not politics’ default position: mainstream politicians are in a fight ring facing young contenders buoyed by a string of victories.

Italian League supporters attend a political rally led by populist politician Matteo Salvini in Milan, Feb. 24, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

So predicts a book published this week, “National Populism” by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, two British academics who – in contrast to their cheerful surnames – go to some pains to warn that anti-liberal politics is likely to grow. Unlike other authors – such as Yascha Mounk in his “The People vs. Democracy” – they do not write to warn and condemn, but to understand, even sympathize with, a movement which seeks to restore “the primacy of the nation over distant and unaccountable international organizations” and to reassert “the importance of stability and conformity over the never-ending and disruptive instability that flows from globalization.” 

These goals – as Thomas Frank, one of the first authors to explore rising populism in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” writes – are not to be despised, being a lower-class response to decades of social marginalization and economic stagnation – “populism isn’t the name for this disease; it’s the cure.”

Disease or cure, its present successes in the United States and in Europe prompt the question: what if it succeeds in at least some of its aims, and embeds itself as a governing rather than a disruptive force? And more urgent, what if it fails, and the tens of millions who support one or other national form of populism find themselves deprived of Frank’s “cure”?

Success would mean that policies –- which include much reduced immigration, repatriation of illegal immigrants and more determined integration of ethnic minorities who remain, together with trade barriers and efforts to reduce the effects of globalization – would be successful and popular. Failure, on the other hand, could see debt rising to unsustainable levels, trade barriers and disinvestment by foreign companies causing unemployment , and national businesses suffering from the loss of both unskilled and highly-skilled immigrants.

Success for populist parties would mean that they would displace the left – or would come from the left, since populism is not confined to the right. Their “cure” borrows heavily from the left – indeed, controls on trade and foreign investment, preferential treatment for national workers and heavy, and state-led investment in national infrastructure feature in the policy lists of the populist parties, and have all recently been programs of the left. In some cases – in France where the leading left group, “La France Insoumise” (“France Unbowed”) favors a 100 billion euro ($114 billion) economic stimulus and selective nationalization, and in the United Kingdom, where Labour has rediscovered its radical socialism and plans nationalizations of rail, mail and water together with higher taxes on the rich – they still are. 

It’s easy to see populism, whether of right or left, becoming a dominant strain, fighting it out with pro-globalist parties, including left-center parties like the U.S. Democrats, the German Christian Democrats and French President Emmanuel Macron’s Republique en Marche. The latter have on their side the fact of a world in constant, disruptive change But it’s an option which has increasingly been felt as senseless by the millions who see themselves as its victims. 

The political issue in a world in which populist governments will have been seen, at least partly, to succeed (and no government ever can succeed more than in part) would be to ensure that these policies become part of a reasonably stable political society and not, as now, a center of constant  contention. This is possible; something like it already exists, in the adoption by mainstream parties of policies, particularly on immigration and integration, which had been regarded as outside of a right-left consensus

Failure by the populists could be catastrophic. In Italy presently, the Lega-5 Star coalition government has been high in the polls for months – and now faces a direct confrontation with the European Union, on a budget which the Union insists contains a far higher figure for the deficit, 2.4 percent, than that agreed. Matteo Salvini, who heads the Lega and is the effective leader of Italy, seems to relish the confrontation. A tough stance defending a budget aimed to increase growth and jobs against an austerity-obsessed EU would play well in the European Parliament elections in May.

But almost every economist, in and out of Italy, sees disaster ahead – and thus the government dropping its plans, or losing a fight with the EU. The majority of Italians who voted for one or other of the coalition parties and who have been told to expect shorter working lives, a minimum income for those under a certain income level and a flat tax, would be shorn of their hopes. The collapse of the government, and its substitution by a more “mainstream” administration, would leave millions of embittered Italians looking for someone to blame – and would be directed, by the formerly governing populists, to international institutions with the EU in first place, as well as national “traitors.”

Something of this kind would happen wherever populists took and lost power. In the United States, Democrats could win control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 6 midterm elections with a net gain of 23 seats out of the 435 up for election. Less likely, but not impossible, they could take over the 100-seat Senate with a net gain of two more places. Were the Republicans thus to lose control of Congress then the Trump motor would be slowed.

Populism thus remains, win or lose – and is certain to be more disruptive if governments who rule in its name are expelled from office. The U.S. Democrats are presently driven, significantly, by Trump hatred. Not only may that not be enough to take back Congress,  but it is certainly not enough to produce a civilized polity. Populist leaders are confrontational, mendacious and ruthless – but those who follow them need to have their fears, resentments and beliefs addressed, if politics is not to descend further.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. He has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror.” He is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.