The world’s liberal elite seems to have taken a collective sigh of relief as we move into the New Year.
Not so long ago all the values it cherished – democracy, inclusiveness, human rights and globalism – seemed to be under sustained assault. The forces of darkness, often dubbed populism or illiberal democracy, seemed to be unstoppable.
But over the course of 2018 the populist wave seems to have lost its momentum. Trump’s Republicans fared badly in the mid-term elections. In the UK, public support for Brexit is on the wane. The results of a general election in Sweden in September and in local elections in Poland in October suggest that support for populists in Europe hit a ceiling.
Last week, The New York Times gave a semi-official imprimatur to the crest of the populist wave with an analysis headlined “After a rocky 2018, populism is down but far from out in the West.” The Economist magazine’s intelligence unit global survey of government showed democracy enjoyed a small uptick: 42 countries saw their democracy raking fall while 48 showed a rise.
In fact, the kaddish for liberal democracy is as premature as the celebration over its survival.
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Disrupting the comfort
Populism only achieved power in a few Western countries, including Italy, Poland, Hungary and the United States. What seems to be the rule is that the movement can win the support of a minority, and sometimes even a large minority, but it struggles to approach even the 50%-mark at election time.
So far, populism’s power has come from its ability to disrupt what has in most Western democracies been a comfortable two-party system of center-right and center-left conducting gentlemanly debates about how to tinker with the system.
How did the U.S. and Europe ever get into this situation? They are generally speaking democratic, peaceful, prosperous and free places and tinkering seemed to be all they needed. It might be dull, but why would anyone want the excitement of rocking the boat?
The core of populists' belief is that a country’s true “people” are locked in a conflict with outsiders, which could be immigrants, racial or religious minorities or even the country’s own elites. (In fact, this definition comes from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which couldn’t better exemplify the elite populists despise – a bunch of academics under the patronage of a former prime minister. But what can you do? A populist think-tank is an oxymoron.)
The us-versus-them worldview got a boost in the last few years as Europe, and to a lesser extent America, was deluged with migrants and suffered a wave of terrorist attacks. The Great Recession of 2008 and resentment over how bankers and other elites managed to come out of it unscathed while the great masses lost their homes and jobswas a factor as well. Free trade – a favorite of the elite – cost yet people more jobs.
It’s no surprise that many (but, it turns out, not most) people felt betrayed by all of this. Politicians, experts and business titans were all looking after themselves or providing the intellectual justification for it with think-tanks like the Tony Blair Institute or the media.
The populists wanted an alternative – a fearless leader who would promise to right everything and wouldn’t let facts and figures get in his way, hence the rise of “alternative facts.” To this day, the elites prefer to focus on populism’s nativism and racism because those are evils that are easy to reject; they are a lot less comfortable asking why they themselves are in the populists’ cross-hairs, too.
Roiling beneath the surface
A bad economy makes the populist’ claims all the stronger. So, with the U.S. and Europe doing well, it makes sense that resentment has ratcheted down over the last year. Unemployment, which is the economic indicator the masses can most appreciate, is at its lowest in years in Europe and the U.S.
But the elite should be worried because the fundamental grievances that created the populist surge continue to lurk beneath the calmer waters of a strong economy.
Right now forecasters like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are predicting a mild slowdown in growth this year and in 2020 – nothing that would stirs things up politically. But, of course, these intuitions are exemplars of the hypocritical elite and (I say this only half-facetiously) always favor order and calm in their predictions. Let the purveyors of alternative facts predict gloom and doom.
There is a very good chance the world economy won’t sail calmly into a mild slowdown.
The dangers are all around: the U.S.-China trade war, high levels of debt and a lack of U.S. leadership to contend with a crisis, to name a few. If that happens, resurgence of populism is almost inevitable.
In most countries, populism's failure to win control means that it won’t own the crisis but can blame the establishment. Even in America, where populists have their man in the White House, an economic downturn might give the movement a boost.
A second term for Trump in the middle of a recession? It’s not at all implausible when you consider that populism isn’t about solutions and policies – indeed, the movement seems bereft of them, certainly vis-à-vis economics. It’s a celebration of rage, and for that, Trump is the life of the party.