CRF Blog

Populism on the March

by Bill Hayes

In Populism on the March for Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria looks at the rise of populism, particularly right-wing populism, what it means for the West, and why it has occurred.

Historically, populism has come in left- and right-wing variants, and both are flourishing today, from Bernie Sanders to Trump, and from Syriza, the leftist party currently in power in Greece, to the National Front, in France. But today’s left-wing populism is neither distinctive nor particularly puzzling. Western countries have long had a far left that critiques mainstream left-wing parties as too market-oriented and accommodating of big business. In the wake of the Cold War, center-left parties moved much closer toward the center — think of Bill Clinton in the United States and Tony Blair in the United Kingdom — thus opening up a gap that could be filled by populists. That gap remained empty, however, until the financial crisis of 2007–8. The subsequent downturn caused households in the United States to lose trillions in wealth and led unemployment in countries such as Greece and Spain to rise to 20 percent and above, where it has remained ever since. It is hardly surprising that following the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the populist left experienced a surge of energy.

The new left’s agenda is not so different from the old left’s. If anything, in many European countries, left-wing populist parties are now closer to the center than they were 30 years ago. Syriza, for example, is not nearly as socialist as was the main Greek socialist party, PASOK, in the 1970s and 1980s. In power, it has implemented market reforms and austerity, an agenda with only slight variations from that of the governing party that preceded it. Were Podemos, Spain’s version of Syriza, to come to power — and it gained only about 20 percent of the vote in the country’s most recent election — it would probably find itself in a similar position.

Right-wing populist parties, on the other hand, are experiencing a new and striking rise in country after country across Europe. France’s National Front is positioned to make the runoff in next year’s presidential election. Austria’s Freedom Party almost won the presidency this year and still might, since the final round of the election was annulled and rescheduled for December. Not every nation has succumbed to the temptation. Spain, with its recent history of right-wing dictatorship, has shown little appetite for these kinds of parties. But Germany, a country that has grappled with its history of extremism more than any other, now has a right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany, growing in strength. And of course, there is Trump. While many Americans believe that Trump is a singular phenomenon, representative of no larger, lasting agenda, accumulating evidence suggests otherwise. The political scientist Justin Gest adapted the basic platform of the far-right British National Party and asked white Americans whether they would support a party dedicated to “stopping mass immigration, providing American jobs to American workers, preserving America’s Christian heritage and stopping the threat of Islam.” Sixty-five percent of those polled said they would. Trumpism, Gest concluded, would outlast Trump. [more]