On November 8th Donald Trump Won
On November 8th Donald Trump won the American Presidential election by 58 Electoral Votes. Such a result by a candidate who would in normal circumstances have been dismissed as a fringe candidate is an indicator of where Europe and America are heading. On 23rd June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union in a surge of anti-establishment rage. Historically, populist parties do not win in national elections – columnist David Brooks argues that the majority of voters reject their Us versus Them mentality, making the history of populism generally a history of defeat. However, far-right populist parties now lead the government in both Poland and Hungary. Finland, France, and the Netherlands may be next. This unprecedented flood of right-wing populism can be traced back to the economic recession of 2008 and the resulting job losses and economic decline, although its roots run much deeper into neoliberal policy. Facilitated by an increasingly partisan media and blamed on immigration, right-wing populism is on the rise.
Broadly speaking, populism is the belief that the will of ordinary citizens should prevail over the privileged elite – the 1%. There is no set of terms which can uniformly define populism – the different people and parties called ‘populist’ enjoy family resemblances of one to another, but there is no set of traits that can be found exclusively in all of them. In his book on American populism, The Populist Persuasion, historian Michael Kazin describes populism as ‘a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class; view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter”. Furthermore, right-wing populism is often centered around the idea of an external scapegoat. This may be a group of people of a particular race, religion or nationality that are seen to benefit from policies of the elites, or are to blame for the problems in society. John Judis, author of ‘The Populist Explosion’, describes this as ‘triadic’ populism, in comparison to the dyadic populism of left-wing activists. Left-wing populism is created by the disparity between two groups: the elite and the people, making it dyadic. In contrast, right-wing populism is triadic as it looks upward, to elites, as well as downwards to the immigrants or ‘welfare spongers’ – the scapegoats – below who hurt the social and economic prospects of ‘the people’. Just as there is no common ideology that defines populism, there is no one constituency that comprises “the people”. It can be blue-collar workers, shopkeepers, or students burdened by debt; it can be the poor or the middle class. Equally, there is no common identification of “the establishment”. The exact referents of “the people” and “the elite” don’t define populism; what defines populism is the conflictual relationship between the two – or in the case of right-wing populism, the three.
The recent rise in populist movements in Western developed countries is a kick in the face to the current status quo which emerged after the post-war consensus of the Second World War broke down in the 1970s. This status quo is largely based on neoliberal economic policy and generally liberal social policy – for example the extension of LGBTQ+ rights. However, ‘the people’ have emphatically stated that this current system is not working for them, and they want to change it. How they change it does not necessarily matter. The policy platforms of right-wing populist parties are hazy at best and downright contradictory at worst. However, this does not seem to matter as long they promise to ‘shake up’ the system. Furthermore, their inability to conform to the traditional party structure is seen as further evidence that they are different to the ‘Washington Consensus’ – the status quo. Donald Trump, for example, stands for a number of policies which actually hurt those who voted for him the most – but because he personifies (at least on a surface level) opposition to the status quo, he wins their support.
In order to find out why people wanted to change the status quo, I conducted a set of primary research questionnaires. I asked American recipients 10 questions, ranging from their view on the biggest issue facing their country to what the phrase ‘Make America Great Again’ meant to them. I received 24 replies from all over the country (See Appendix 1) – whilst this small sample is clearly unrepresentative of the wider beliefs in America, it gave me a good range of responses on which to base my research and to use as evidence. Social concerns ranked high on the list, however it was economic issues – from globalization to the role of small businesses – which seemed to be the biggest concern.
Populism and the economy
The strength of a country’s economy has a huge impact on its citizens. People worried about employment and jobs are far more likely to be worried or angry at the state – emotions currently associated with populism. Furthermore, economically secure citizens are far more likely to want to stick with the status quo than insecure citizens. Arguably, the recent rise in populism has been nothing more than a vote to change the status quo. The effect of the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008 on the average European and American household was significant, and particularly acute in deprived areas. U.S. households lost on average $5,800 in income due to reduced economic growth during the worst stage of the financial crisis from September 2008 through the end of 2009. Employment in European countries sharply declined more than 2 percentage points in 2009, whilst America saw a fall in employment of 8.7 million between 2007 and 2011 . As Joseph Stiglitz points out, the Great Recession represented a “triple whammy” for most Americans: their jobs, their retirement incomes, and their homes were at risk. Most importantly, low- and middle-income homeowners were hit particularly hard due the nature of the crisis, with households in the bottom four-fifths of the wealth distribution experiencing a 39.1 percent decline in net worth between 2007 and 2010 in comparison to a loss of 14 percent for the top fifth of earners. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, every dollar and more of aggregate gains in household wealth between 2009 and 2011 went to the richest 7 percent of households. As a result, wealth inequality increased substantially over the 2009–2011 period, with the wealthiest 7 percent of U.S. households increasing their aggregate share of the nation’s overall wealth from 56 percent to 63 percent. This disparity in wealth led to intense anger at the elite bankers and politicians who had precipitated the crisis, directly leading to the anti-establishment rage that is such a core part of populist parties’ platforms. Trust in bankers has also eroded significantly since the crisis, from 68% in 2007 to 24% in 2011.
Furthermore, there was a reduction in lending by large banks due to a severe lack of confidence in the economy. This primarily hit small business owners as they found it difficult to source funding for projects – one response to my primary research argued that her support for Donald Trump was based on the fact that “as a small business owner looking to add value to the economy, I want someone who understands and support American business”. According to a poll by the Pew Research Centre, 48% of trump voters thought that economic conditions in the US were poor in comparison to 31% of Cruz voters and 28% of Kasich voters. Interestingly, the recession far less affected the white middles classes than other groups, which is contrary to the idea that the economic effects of the recession created support primarily from the working classes – the blue collar workers. Figures from the Pew Research Centre show that during the crisis, the middle class lost pre-tax income but when post-tax and transfer payments are included, didn’t lose income from 2007 through 2011. Unemployment rates were far higher for those with only high school education or less than for those with a college or bachelor’s degree. However, this then created a situation in which what parts of the middle class feared most was having to subsidize through higher taxes or healthcare premiums those in the lower classes or illegal and recent legal immigrants who were in a poor economic situation as a result of the Great Recession. The pro-business and protectionist policy put forward by populist parties was therefore very appealing. That being said, whilst the economic crash did have significant economic and social effects, it is too easy and simplistic to blame the rise in right wing populism on a single, recent event. The sheer scale and depth of the populist feeling in Europe and America shows that these ideas are rooted in a much longer-term issue – neoliberalism.
Neoliberal polices began to emerge in the Western world during the age of Thatcher and Reagan, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Neoliberalism is an offshoot of capitalism, and is based around the concept of the power of free market to dictate an economy. It Is characterized by policies of de-regulation in addition to free movement and employment of resources. At its most extreme, neoliberalism is a completely free market with no government intervention in an economy. We do not live in this age of neoliberalism but rather an era defined by neoliberal policies – Western governments continue to be involved in the economy and advocate socially liberal safety nets for those who lose out whilst encouraging policies of deregulation, free trade and open markets. The ideology of politicians such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are clear examples of this. The core argument of neoliberalism is that a “rising tide would lift all boats” (Reagan) however in the years since neoliberal policy became the core policy of Western governments this has been proven to be false. For instance, over the last three decades those with low wages (in the lowest 90%) have seen a growth of around 15% in their wages, while those in the top 1% have seen an increase of almost 150%, whilst those in the top 1% have seen growth of over 300%. in addition to a cut in welfare benefits and a massive increase in consumer debt as a result of financialization (the process by which financial institutions, markets, etc. increase in size and influence.). At the same time, corporate lobbyists in government have helped to deregulate industries, such as the agriculture industry, which has helped those who run the company to keep a larger share of the profits whilst workers become worse off.
Furthermore, the economic recession is rooted in neoliberal policy. The financial deregulation under Reagan and Clinton increased the ability of the banks to hide losses or unstable bonds through laws such as Basel II or the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act. Neoliberal policy was a core part of the ‘Third-Way’ – a position akin to centrism that tries to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics by advocating a varying synthesis of right-wing economic and left-wing social policies. Trade and investment policies under Clinton and Bush led to unwieldy dollar surpluses in the hands of China and other Asian nations which were then sent back to America; with the high-tech boom exhausted and manufacturing still generally plagued by global over-capacity, these dollars were directly or indirectly fueling consumer debt, particularly in housing. Tax policies and anti-union business practices under Bush widened economic inequality and led to the need to prop up consumer demands through the accumulation of debt (financialization). The combination of these policies undermined the stability of the American housing market which later, along with additional factors, led to the breakdown of the financial system in 2008. Socially, neoliberalism and the inequality it has created has led “to first disengagement… and then disfranchisement.”
The idea of political disenfranchisement is especially important as populist parties are reversing this trend. They have managed to find an angle that speaks directly to ignored and disengaged citizens by listening to their fears and problems in a way that centrist parties are not currently doing. A key factor is that people saw a Davos class winning whilst they were being squeezed by the economy, fueling populist anger at elites. 72% of Americans agree the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful. However, it is interesting that whilst many populist leaders condemn the effects of neoliberal policy (such as widening inequality and the growth of the 1%, or increasing foreign debt) they are at the same time often encouraging neoliberal policy itself. For example, Donald Trump has promised to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act, which was put in place to regulate banks in light of the 2008 recession, and the Dutch Party for Freedom advocate a reduction in government subsidies and welfare payments – both clearly neoliberal policies. This would suggest that whilst neoliberal policy has caused a shift in public opinion towards populist parties, people either do not know or do not care about the actual policies of the party or person they are voting for – supporting the claim that people are primarily voting for a change in the status quo above all else. It is difficult to see the cause of this disconnect – perhaps citizens simply assume that their populist parties will have policies which support the people, or perhaps the two ideas of being pro-business and being neoliberal are mistakenly conflated? Nevertheless, economic insecurity continues to be a main concern of a huge proportion of the population, with a particular focus on the negative effects of globalization and offshoring on their livelihoods – which have both been greatly expanded and modified over the past 30 years.
Globalization has become the buzzword of the last two decades. The sudden increase in the exchange of knowledge, trade and capital around the world, driven by technological innovation in everything from the internet to shipping containers, thrust the term into the limelight. However, globalization is not a recent phenomenon; the forces of globalization have been in place since the 1400s when valuable goods such as silver and spices were discovered, which led to the creation of trade routes from the Americas to Europe, and from Asia to Europe. However, the growth of corporate globalization has been catalyzed by neo-liberal policies in the last two decades. Litonjua argues that neoliberalism is the main driver of globalization and that globalization can be seen both as the effect of, and move towards, global neoliberalism. Some see globalization as a good thing. According to Amartya Sen, a Nobel-Prize winning economist, globalization “has enriched the world scientifically and culturally, and benefited many people economically as well”. However, many economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Ha-Joon Chang, have argued that globalization does the opposite: that it increases inequality and harms the overall economic development of a country. The International Monetary Fund admitted in 2007 that inequality levels may have been increased by the introduction of new technology and the investment of foreign capital in developing countries. This has exacerbated the problems of ‘us and them’ created by neoliberal policy and encourages the scapegoating of immigrants. However, the most important result of globalization in the creation of populism is offshoring – the practice of basing some of a company’s processes or services overseas, so as to take advantage of lower costs.
The rise of right-wing populism is inextricably tied to offshoring. Donald Trump arguably won the American election on the back of three rust belt states: Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. Nigel Farage drew a large amount of support from Labour heartlands hit hard by the loss of the manufacturing industry. The disparity between labour costs in rich western countries and eastern countries such as China and India has led a number of firms, particularly manufacturing firms, to leave areas such as Michigan and relocate to China. As a result, these once-strong manufacturing regions are marred with economic discontent and hardship. From a psychological point of view, this has led to males, particularly white males, feeling marginalised as their traditional job of ‘breadwinner’ has been taken away from them. This is why the Trumpian message of “Make America Great again’ resonates so strongly with voters – when supporters of Trump were asked “What does the phrase Make America Great Again mean to you?” nearly all of my respondents mentioned the relocation of manufacturing back to the US. However, it would be grossly wrong to characterize all populist supporters as blue-collar white males. Despite this being mathematically impossible, it also misses the point that the middle classes also oppose offshoring for a number of reasons (for example through fear of becoming economically disadvantaged or anger that foreign countries are ‘ripping off’ their home country). This opposition to offshoring can also be seen in the strong opposition to trade deals and international bodies which are such a large part of the populist rhetoric. Donald Trump has promised to review America’s position in the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, in addition to scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In France, Marine Le Pen has promised to scrap the Transatlantic Trade and Investment partnership. Each of these agreements shared the same fundamental promise: to reduce trade barriers between countries and to encourage intra-country investment – in other words, increased globalisation and therefore offshoring. However, it is also important to remember that a large part (arguably a majority) of people in Europe and America do support free trade and to an extent free movement of labour . The problem is that populist parties have united those opposing globalization and offshoring – whether for economic or social reasons – against those in favour of it, creating an almost unbridgeable divide of ‘open vs closed’ in Western economies. The impact of globalization and offshoring is exacerbated by high levels of immigration – as the unemployed see migrant workers ‘stealing’ their jobs.
Populism and Scapegoating – the changing perception of immigration
The graph below shows the relationship between % support for a populist candidate in the country’s most recent election, and the % of that country’s population that is foreign born (excluding illegal immigrants). I have use available information from the IMF to survey 22 different Western countries including the USA, the UK, The Netherlands, France and Sweden (see Appendix 1.1).
The graph shows a loose but clear correlation between populist support and levels of immigration. Interestingly, the four outliers with a small foreign born population but significant populist support (the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary) each joined the European Union in its 2004 enlargement, and are each significant players in the EU migrant crisis, which has seen millions of displaced refugees travel across Europe in search of a stable home. The issue of immigration is uniquely important amongst populist parties. According to ANES 66% of trump voters opposed the right to citizenship for immigrant children born in the US vs 26% of Kasich voters; in the UK independence referendum UKIP placed a huge amount of importance on immigration levels – even going so far as to advertise a false image of refugees travelling across Europe in a bid for people to vote ‘Leave’ ; Marine Le Pen has called for a policy to take away the rights of illegal immigration to social welfare and protection. Whilst immigration (particularly in Britain and the USA) has been at a similar level for over 2 decades, it was not until the economic crisis that it became the incredibly divisive issue we see today. Pre-2008, when economic conditions were strong with economic growth and job creation high, immigration’s effect on jobs and wages of native workers was not a major concern. But with the crash of 2008, and, more importantly, the UK austerity measures that followed i.e. cutting benefits and reducing jobs and wages, the perception was created that immigrants were responsible for the reduced jobs, stagnant wages, and declining social services. This is perhaps because immigrants are an easy scapegoat to a country’s problems- a simple solution to a complex problem. In addition, as Cory Doctorow has pointed out, “scapegoating dynamics fester in a system which excludes and ignores a large part of its population”. The fact populist parties address immigration in a much more direct and ‘non-politically correct’ way than centrist parties do has allowed populist parties to connect with their supporters and to give them the political voice which has not been available for decades.
In addition to the perceived economic insecurity created by immigration, social insecurity is also created. Social insecurity arises largely because it “constitutes a threat against the presumed identities of people and their traditional values”. Antonio Barroso, a political analyst in London argues that immigration poses the threat of “loss of national identity” which could explain the recent rise in nationalism as a backlash to this. Fear of terrorism, primarily radical Islamic terrorism, has been capitalized on by radical right populist parties. This fear is inextricably tied to immigration, particularly as a result of the migrant crisis, and creates much the same emotions as immigration does. This feeling is perhaps more pronounced than simple immigration because it is seen as both a different culture and religion – and therefore, the ultimate definition of the ‘other’ therefore something to be feared. Lord Pearson, who was the leader of UKIP from 2009 to 2010, stated in an interview on the UK’s Channel 4 News, in the context of a broader discussion on sharia law and the purported threat posed by Muslims to the British way of life, that “Islam is guilty of gender apartheid. It’s treatment of women is unacceptable in our society.” Gerald Batten, UKIP Member of the European Parliament, a founding member of the party and part of its executive council, proposed that all Muslims sign a “Charter of Muslim Understanding” in which Muslims renounce violence – implying that all Muslims are potentially violent and do not respect people of other faiths. The Danish People’s Party speaks of a “proletariat” of foreign women who do not participate in the workforce due to their “traditional culture,” and blames “intolerant Islamic groups” for a rise in homophobia. Its manifesto section on violence against women is almost entirely devoted to immigrant women and the problems of forced marriages/honor killings, as if native-born Danish women do not also face violence from their partners. Furthermore, terrorism presents a tangible (albeit unlikely) threat – particularly in countries such as France or America which have had multiple terrorist attacks since 2000. Social insecurity is rooted in the rapid pace of social change over the past 30 years, arguably as a positive result of economic growth and economic freedom (neoliberalism). However, the media has an undeniably large part to play in the echoing and amplification of these ideas.
It would be wrong, however, to condemn all those who believe immigrants (whether legal, illegal or seeking asylum) have negative effects for their country as racist dinosaurs, relics of bygone era of racism and xenophobia. Characterising right-wing populists in this way misses the point. It is largely due to a widespread sense of social insecurity. This feeling – which is driven by many forms of social and economic change and surfaces as anxiety and fear of decline – is hard to grasp but it leads to typical forms of scapegoating and the creation of an artificial sense of cohesion by juxtaposing “us” versus “them”. Whether it is blaming immigrants, Muslims or Jews, people look out for ethnic or social groups that can be made responsible for their own feeling of insecurity. As Gesine Schwan writes, this pattern is well-known and the subjects of scapegoating are interchangeable. Whether it was Jews during the Third Reich or Muslims today, the root cause of these prejudices is to be found in the people holding them, not in the social groups they are targeted at. As these feelings of social insecurity spread throughout society, these prejudices find fertile ground and multiply. This can be seen in opinion polls and claims to speak “for the people” by the likes of Donald Trump. It is also no coincidence that these prejudices develop precisely in the areas where the scapegoats are barely present. In areas where there is regular exchange between “us” and “them,” people quickly come to realize commonalities through shared experiences rather than playing up real or perceived differences. Furthermore, because of the scale of the social and economic changes around us, bedrock social institutions that usually could be relied on to deal with rising social insecurity are also eroding. Insecure people are not open to the rational argument about the net benefits of immigration, for instance, if their insecurity is not just rooted in economic fears but in cultural alienation and the persistent erosion of the social fabric. Claudia Chwalisz analyses a “declining feeling of belonging” and the lack of a new form of cultural identity offered through social institutions. In a nutshell, through the individualization of society and the erosion of community institutions, as David Goodhart argues, there is a deep sense of dislocation that goes beyond fears of social and economic decline. This social alienation has distanced people from mainstream politics – therefore when a populist candidate appears, promising social cohesion and a voice, people are much more inclined to support them.
The role of the media
The media is often blamed as the core reason for the rise in support for right-wing populist parties. This is, in my opinion, an exaggerated view of the media’s role. Whilst the media is a significant factor, it cannot create public opinion out of thin air. Yes, the media can exaggerate existing beliefs through incendiary or bias headlines, but it is an echo chamber rather than a shaper of public opinion – after all, people buy newspapers and click on online articles because they are interested in what the headlines say. If no one cared about these incendiary views, the readership of right-wing (and arguably populist) newspapers such as the Sun or the Daily Mail would not be so high. However, the way in which the media reports certain cases can exacerbate existing faultlines between races or ethnicities. This is clear in the Daily Mail’s opposite coverage of two murders: that of Lee Rigby and Jo Cox. Whist the headline the day after Jo Cox’s death read “Loner suspected of murdering Jo Cox was ‘in crisis’ and sought help from health counsellor just 24 hours before attack”, the headline concerning the man accused of Lee Rigby’s murder was “From 7/7 bombers to Lee Rigby’s killers, how vile preacher’s network of radical connections was like a who’s who of Islamic terrorism”. This radically different coverage exemplifies the way the press treats those of different religions or ethnicities; for white Britons the automatic reaction is to blame the act on an external factor such as mental health whilst for Muslim Britons the reaction is to condemn the accused and often to relate their act to Islamic terrorism. Furthermore, the actions of a single person who belongs to an ethnic minority often seem to speak for the personality of the whole group, whilst for White Britons the incident is isolated and unrelated to the actions or beliefs of any other White Britons. This has the twofold effect of both encouraging stereotyping and fear of particular races or ethnicities. The actions of the media have been instrumental in creating ‘bubbles’ in society, where people only interact with, or read coverage from, people who share their personal views. The creation of these bubbles has been particularly conspicuous in the aftermath of the American election, where people believed the opinion inside their bubble was that of the entire country. Since newspapers often sit on one side of the divide and people tend to read media which corresponds to their pre-existing views, these bubbles were often unnoticeable, but have contributed to the divide in Western society. In behavioral economics, this is referred to as confirmation bias, and is a key reason that liberal media outlets and organizations underestimated the power of populism – in their eyes, it did not exist. Whilst bubbles on their own did not lead to the rise of right-wing populist parties, they did encourage the alienation of certain sections of society. Whilst the media did not create the underlying opinions of the populist movement, they allowed these views to fester and develop, unchecked, in society. By undermining and laughing at their outdated views instead of trying to adapt them to the 21st century, liberal media outlets pushed these people away – indirectly they created the populist movement. After all, the populist movement has primarily come about because people feel disconnected from the general consensus. to nationalismtoricow wages
Social media and Facebook’s fake news stories have been another popular source of the blame for the rise in right-wing populism. A poll found that 38% of all news stories from right-wing sites was either false or mostly false, and that 18% of all news from left-wing sites was either false or mostly false. However, it is people who already subscribe to these sites which are likely to receive these articles on their Facebook page; therefore fake news is unlikely to change people’s feelings and more likely to intensify pre-existing feelings. That being said, David Simas, the political director in Obama’s government, has suggested that social media has other negative effects – “There is social permission for discourse. Through social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change.” Whether this is a foundational change or not is arguable, but the core of Simas’s argument, that the validation for extremist viewpoints received through social media are partly to blame for the rise of controversial figures such as Donald Trump. Barack Obama has also said that “the capacity to disseminate misinformation, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal” has “accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.” Social media has therefore contributed to the stark divide which now characterizes Western countries, if not directly to populism itself.
The gap left by centrist parties
The failures of centrist parties have undoubtedly pushed people away from ‘status quo’ politics and towards more radical parties. Most governing parties in Europe today sit squarely on the side of the status quo. A majority of western countries elected a centrist political party in the election cycle after the 2008 crash, and on the whole elected them back into office in the next election cycle. However, these governments, whilst largely succeeding in returning to ‘normal’ economic growth have seen increased poverty, establishment power and inequality. Furthermore, political parties have lost touch with the people through policies in opposition to, or removed from, their supporters – for example Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome one million migrants into Germany. In addition, centrist parties are increasingly seen as part of the establishment and the elite in comparison to the outsiders which populate populist parties. The EU is a clear example of this; it is seen as overly bureaucratic and detached by its opponents whilst nearly all governments in Europe remain supportive of it. Increasingly, being part of The Establishment encourages images of corruption and collusion – just look at Hillary Clinton’s election campaign. The issue is that this is not entirely false – Barack Obama did not prosecute a single banker involved in the 2008 banking crisis; The MP expenses scandal in 2009 continues to undermine trust in British politicians. The wave of hope and optimism that governments were elected on in the late 2000s has disappeared. The fact that mainstream political parties lost touch with some of their support base gave a golden opportunity to populist parties to be the voice of the disconnected – or the silent majority. Populist parties speak about social insecurity in ways which mainstream parties would never dream of for fear of not being politically correct – but the message resonates with all those who feel that mainstream politics is a game and that no one has the guts to say what is ‘really going on’. Populist parties therefore offered a viable alternative to those who felt left out of the liberal bubble. Furthermore, mainstream parties around Europe have simply ignored these popular feelings of discontent and continued on the path they perceive and advertise as the only viable one. Whilst the political system used to present different alternatives to voters who had the freedom to make their sovereign decision, the years of TINA politics (There Is No Alternative) have created a system where there really is currently is no viable alternative political or economic system. Populism masquerades as an alternative to the status quo without actually offering any solid policy platforms past social and economic isolationism.
2016 seems to have been the year that the populist floodgate opened. Previously, populism existed more in the shadows – although one or two governments in Europe were run by populist parties (Poland has been governed by the populist Law Justice since 2014). There is little reason for 2016 specifically to have been the year of populist insurgency. Most European countries have had two elections since the economic crisis at which people could have expressed their anger – some did, but not on the scale we are currently experiencing. The opportunity for radical change in the form of Britain’s exit from the European Union may have sparked emotion – it may be that Donald Trump’s election was contingent on populist forces winning in the Brexit referendum. Furthermore, the migrant crisis reached a head in late 2015 with over 200,000 arrivals to Spain and Greece, creating a perfect scapegoat for European populism. However, American populism has no clear spark in this way. Ultimately, it may just be the coincidental culmination of the Brexit referendum, the migrant crisis, and a personality like Trump’s having the opportunity to unite the disenfranchised and disempowered in America.
In conclusion, the reasons for the rise in right-wing populist parties in Europe and America cannot be confined to a single factor. The 2008 crash highlighted the problems within Western society and the neoliberal consensus without offering a viable solution or alternative, and led to economic hardship for millions across Europe and America. It also led people to fear the decline of their society, at which point the most attractive option is a shake-up of the system. Immigration provided a simple scapegoat for economic and social issues and therefore the third point in the triad – a ‘lower’ group of people who steal jobs, resources and culture – as it is easier to blame a single group of people than to blame the economic system for our problems. This change (or perhaps uncovering) of attitudes was then facilitated by the media, who amplified and normalized the issue, in addition to unintentionally sidelining those most susceptible to populism. Ultimately, however, the rise in right-wing populist parties in Europe and America is not just the fault of the 2008 economic crisis, but a signal that people are dissatisfied with the status quo, and want to change it in whatever way they can, even if it may mean potential disaster – it is preferable to have the opportunity for improvement rather than certainty of the same. In his book, John Judis states “Populist campaigns and parties often function as warning signs of a political crisis”. A rise in populism is a signal to the establishment that their ideas and plans for the future are not in line with that of the general population. The populists express these neglected concerns and frame them in a politics that pits the people against an intransigent elite. By doing so, they become catalysts for political change.