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Goodbye to all that - Populism in retreat

Denis MacShane - The Tablet - Fri, Dec 18th 2020

Goodbye to all that

Joe Biden, right, celebrates with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris Photo: CNS/Reuters, Jim Bourg

Populism, the idea of a revolt of “the people” against the elites, has been the most discussed if slippery of political concepts of the century so far. The books and learned articles have poured out from the professors and the political commentariat. 
Of course 2016 was the annus mirabilis for the populists. Brexit, a raw populist project, won in England, and Donald Trump won in America. Trump sent his chief strategist Steve Bannon, populism’s principal cheerleader, to Europe to shape a crusade against the EU’s animating idea that people of different nations, races and religions could live together harmoniously and more prosperously within a supranational community. Bannon pulled together the rising forces of populism, including those of Matteo Salvini in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany, the Freedom Party in Austria and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. They shared a distaste for migrants, for Muslims and for multicultural values, derided protections for minorities as liberal wokery, often used coded white supremacy language and, above all, denounced the European Union.

Four years ago, populism seemed to have the wind in its sails. But something has gone wrong. Marine Le Pen was seen off by the ultimate liberal technocrat, Emmanuel Macron. Angela Merkel retained power in alliance with German Social Democrats despite all the fulminations of the AfD. Wilders disappeared as voters shunned him. In England, Theresa May, who used crude populist language about immigration and assumed the Brexit vote would be converted into a handsome majority for the Conservatives, was humiliated in the 2017 election. The hard leftist Jeremy Corbyn, with his quintessential populist proclamation “For the many, not the few”, was rejected by voters; and so was the left populist Syriza party in Greece, to be replaced by the outward-looking New Democracy party, full of clever multilingual anti-populist ministers.

Matteo Salvini was humiliated in elections this year, after he had walked out of a coalition government confidently hoping to win power in Rome. Instead, it is the Argentinian Pope Francis’ voice of protest against Salvini’s anti-immigrant nationalist populism that prevailed, and the success story of Italian politics has been an intellectual internationalist lawyer, Giuseppe Conte. Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark and Finland all have social democratic prime ministers. Greens, you could argue, are the new rising force in European politics. In New Zealand, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern comfortably won a new term, seeing off right-wing nationalist populist opposition. The candidly Islamophobic Austrian Freedom Party suffered a major defeat in elections to control the key city of Vienna last month.

And four years on, one of the populists’ two biggest wins, Brexit, is turning out to be something of a disaster. Boris Johnson, hailed by the US President as the “British Trump”, is seeing his populist dream of rupture with Europe ebb away, as a messy compromise with the EU looms under pressure from British business. A recent opinion poll showed only 39 per cent of UK voters now think Brexit was a good idea.

And the second big populist win of 2016? Though Trump will join the elite club of US presidents who have failed to be re-elected for a second term, 70 million Americans voted for him. The populist wave that swept Trump into power four years ago remains a potent force in the US. But it has passed its high-water mark.

President-elect Biden is a long-time anti-populist globalist. He served for years as chair of the Senate’s foreign relations committee before becoming the most internationalist US vice president ever. Biden’s 1968-generation pragmatic, problem-solving, centre-left politics are the very antithesis of nationalist right-wing populism.

Democratic politics has always been about populism in the sense of seeking majoritarian support to win and hold power. But as an explanation of what is happening in democracies, populism is running out of steam. Biden’s victory buries the professors’ favourite thesis that populism’s rise is inevitable. Political scientists, intellectuals and commentators should stop leaning on the crutch of populism as the catch-all explanation of what is happening in the world’s democracies.

Denis MacShane served as the UK’s Minister for Europe between 2002 and 2005.

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