Right-wing populism is rising as progressive politics fails – is it too late to save democracy?

The populist upheavals in the West are a response to political failure of historic proportions, but its most conspicuous casualties have been liberal and centre-left parties.

These are dangerous times for democracy. Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and other countries that once offered democratic hope are now, in varying degrees, falling into authoritarianism. Democracy is also in trouble in sturdier places.

In the United States, Donald Trump poses the greatest threat to the American constitutional order since Richard Nixon. And yet, despite the floundering first year and a half of Trump’s presidency, the opposition has yet to find its voice.

One might think that Trump’s inflammatory tweets, erratic behaviour, and persistent disregard for democratic norms would offer the opposition an easy target. But it has not worked out this way. For those who would mount a politics of resistance, the outrage Trump provokes has been less energising than paralysing.

There are two reasons for the opposition’s paralysis. One is the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. The hope that Mueller’s findings will lead to the impeachment of Trump is wishful thinking that distracts Democrats from asking hard questions about why voters have rejected them at both the federal and state level.

A second source of paralysis lies in the chaos Trump creates. His steady stream of provocations has a disorientating effect on critics, who struggle to discriminate between the more consequential affronts to democracy and passing distractions.

The Italian writer Italo Calvino once wrote, “I spent the first 20 years of my life with Mussolini’s face always in view.” Trump too is always in view, thanks partly to his tweets and partly to the insatiable appetite of television news to cover his every outrageous antic.

An economy of outrage

Moral outrage can be politically energising, but only if it is channelled and guided by political judgement. What the opposition to Trump needs now is an economy of outrage, disciplined by the priorities of an affirmative political project.

What might such a project look like? To answer this question, we must begin by facing up to the complacencies of establishment political thinking that opened the way to Trump in the US and to right-wing populism in Britain and Europe.

The hard reality is that Donald Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties have no compelling answer.

This means that, for those worried about Trump, and about populism, it is not enough to mobilise protest and resistance; it is also necessary to engage in a politics of persuasion that must begin by understanding the discontent that is roiling politics in the US and in democracies around the world.

The failure of technocratic liberalism

Like the triumph of Brexit in the UK, the election of Trump was an angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalisation that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary people feeling disempowered. It was also a rebuke for a technocratic approach to politics that is tone deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind.

Some denounce the upsurge of populism as little more than a racist, xenophobic reaction against immigrants and multiculturalism. Others see it mainly in economic terms, as a protest against the job losses brought about by global trade and new technologies.

But it is a mistake to see only the bigotry in populist protest, or to view it exclusively as an economic complaint. To do so misses the fact that the upheavals we are witnessing are a political response to a political failure of historic proportions.

The right-wing populism ascendant today is a symptom of the failure of progressive politics. The Democratic Party in the United States has become a party of a technocratic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base. A similar predicament afflicted the Labour Party and led, following its defeat in the 2015 general election, to the surprising choice of the anti-establishment Jeremy Corbyn as party leader.

The roots of the predicament go back to the 1980s. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had argued that government was the problem and that markets were the solution. When they passed from the political scene, the centre-left politicians who succeeded them – Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schröder in Germany – moderated but consolidated the market faith. They softened the harsh edges of unfettered markets, but did not challenge the central premise of the Reagan-Thatcher era – that market mechanisms are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. In line with this faith, they embraced a market-driven version of globalisation and welcomed the growing financialisation of the economy.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration joined with Republicans in promoting global trade agreements and deregulating the financial industry. The benefits of these policies flowed mostly to those at the top, but Democrats did little to address the deepening inequality and the growing power of money in politics. Having strayed from its traditional mission of taming capitalism and holding economic power to democratic account, liberalism lost its capacity to inspire.

All that seemed to change when Barack Obama appeared on the political scene. In his 2008 presidential campaign, he offered a stirring alternative to the managerial, technocratic language that had come to characterise liberal public discourse. He showed that progressive politics could speak a language of moral and spiritual purpose.

But the moral energy and civic idealism he inspired as a candidate did not carry over into his presidency. Assuming office in the midst of the financial crisis, he appointed economic advisers who had promoted financial deregulation during the Clinton years. With their encouragement, he bailed out the banks on terms that did not hold them to account for the behaviour that led to the crisis and offered little help for ordinary citizens who had lost their homes.

His moral voice muted, Obama placated rather than articulated the seething public anger towards Wall Street. Lingering anger over the bailout cast a shadow over the Obama presidency and would ultimately fuel a mood of populist protest that reached across the political spectrum – on the left, the Occupy movement and the candidacy of Bernie Sanders; on the right, the Tea Party movement and the election of Trump.

The populist uprising in the US, Britain, and Europe is a backlash against elites of the mainstream parties, but its most conspicuous casualties have been liberal and centre-left political parties – the Democratic Party in the US; the Labour Party in Britain; the Social Democratic Party in Germany, whose share of the vote reached a historic low in the last federal election; Italy’s Democratic Party, whose vote share dropped this year to less than 20 per cent; and the Socialist Party in France, whose presidential nominee won only 6 per cent of the vote in the first round of last year’s election.

Rising up: reduced social mobility and the loss of jobs and status are fuelling populist protest. Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski/EPE-EFE/Rex

Rethinking progressive politics

Before they can hope to win back public support, progressive parties must rethink their mission and purpose. To do so, they should learn from the populist protest that has displaced them – not by replicating its xenophobia and strident nationalism, but by taking seriously the legitimate grievances with which these ugly sentiments are
entangled. Such rethinking should begin with the recognition that these grievances are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem.

Here are four…

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