Right-wing Populism Wins in Britain and Israel

When people are hurting and resentful, logical and considered arguments do not capture hearts; simple stories do.

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UKIP leader Nigel Farage poses during a media launch for a controversial EU referendum poster, June 16, 2016.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage poses during a media launch for a controversial EU referendum poster, June 16, 2016.Credit: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

All of Europe is reeling from the Brexit shock, and Britain is in disarray. The vote’s demographics are clear: London strongly voted against Brexit, as did young people, the better off and more educated English voters, plus Scotland and Northern Ireland. But the elderly, the less educated and the disadvantaged voted overwhelmingly in favor of leaving the European Union.

The paradox is that those who voted to leave are the ones who stand to lose the most from Brexit: they live in areas with industrial and agricultural production that is overwhelmingly exported to the EU, Britain’s main trading partner. As opposed to this, the financial sector – London’s main economic driver – will take a hit from Brexit, but will survive since it operates globally.

Based on these facts, there is strong consensus for the primary cause of the Brexit vote. The elites who understand, thrive on and live globalization want a Britain open to the world. Those who do not profit from it directly, and feel that their way of life (which is largely local) and livelihood are threatened, are ever-more resentful of the elites, who are seen as disdainful, heartless, uncaring and only looking out for their own interests.

This is why the financial, political and cultural elites’ detailed explanations of why Brexit would harm the weaker strata of society mostly went unheard. Facts do not matter: It turns out that a number of Brits used Google after the vote to ask, “What is the EU?” and mostly had no idea what they were voting for or what the vote’s implications were.

This is the constellation that right-wing populists like Oxford-educated Boris Johnson and former investment banker Nigel Farage – leader of the UK Independence Party – thrive on: Instead of addressing the true complexity of the problems at hand, they sell their constituents on the idea that there’s a black and white, simple explanation for all their woes, and that there’s a clear enemy: the EU and immigration.

They distort facts at will, and sometimes spread outright lies (“The U.K. pays the EU 350 million pounds a week!”), to further fan fear and hatred.

Of course, we in Israel should not be surprised by this, because we’re way ahead of Europe in right-wing populism and the mechanism is the same. Israel suffers from a higher level of inequality than Britain, comparable with the United States. It has a center, the so-called “State of Tel Aviv,” that thrives on globalization, is open the world, is committed to individual freedoms and wants space for creativity and political dissent. Tel Aviv is Israel’s London.

Opposed to this is the cultural and economic periphery that watches the thriving center with envy, resentment and rage. It sees the elites as heartless, uncaring, unpatriotic and opportunistic.

Populist right-wingers like (MIT-educated) Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman thrive on this. They define simple targets for hatred: Islam, anti-Semitism and BDS overseas; while Israeli Arabs and the “radical left” and its NGOs are the enemy within that undermine Israel’s existence.

Arabs are voting in droves. Left-wing organizations are busing them out,” says Netanyahu, fanning fear and hatred – the tactic that has defined his career. Gaza must be conquered and Hamas must be eradicated, says Lieberman, even if his plan is as realistic as Donald Trump’s to make Mexico pay for a 1,000-mile-long (1,600-kilometer) wall on the U.S.’ southern border.

The State of Tel Aviv’s elite hasn’t succeeded in capturing the disgruntled periphery. It doesn’t matter that the overwhelming majority of Israel’s security establishment keeps repeating that Netanyahu is inventing existential dangers that do not exist; that it can be demonstrated that the right’s policies actually create BDS; or that Netanyahu’s protection of monopolies harms the disadvantaged.

Passions are much stronger than reason, so the populist right will always have an advantage because it plays on the most basic of emotions. Liberals will always be at a disadvantage, since we try to give arguments that reflect the complex reality. And when people are hurting and resentful, arguments do not capture hearts; simple stories do.

It’s scant comfort that we are now in “good company”: France’s Marine Le Pen, The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, Donald Trump in the United States and many others are joining the fray of right-wing populism in the West. Netanyahu may soon find his international popularity rising.