What is Really Driving Populism in Europe

Michael Keating | 18 April 2017

Hague Street at Night, Roman Boed, CC-BY-2.0

Populism has a long history and the term has been applied to a variety of political and social movements across the world. Its incarnation in contemporary Europe and beyond, however, has taken a specific form, rooted in the political extreme. This is right-wing national populism, predicated on the idea of a unitary people, whose will must in all circumstances prevail.

In practice, national populists rarely trust the people to think for themselves. The unitary will, rather, is articulated by a supreme leader, who incarnates the nation. Opposition is dismissed as unpatriotic. Intermediary institutions such as parliaments, trades unions or political parties, are obstacles to the popular will. Supranational bodies likewise crush the liberties of the nation.

There is a constant railing against ‘elites’, who are said to have betrayed the people. These include established parties, politicians, administrators, academics and other ‘experts’, and big business. The fact that populist leaders so often hail from exactly these social strata is no obstacle to success. Think of Donald Trump with his inherited fortune; Marine Le Pen, from a political dynasty and brought up in one of the poshest districts in Paris; Silvio Berlusconi, the very embodiment of the corrupt establishment he claimed to defy.

There is always an ‘other’, an outsider who can be blamed for the social and economic ills afflicting the people. It does not matter who that outsider is, defined by ‘race’ or (nowadays) by culture. Nor does it matter how numerous the others actually are, as attested by the revival of anti-Semitism in eastern Europe or the strength of anti-immigrant feeling in those parts of the United Kingdom with fewest migrants.

Failures in Liberal Democracy

Populists have stepped into a gap vacated by liberal democracy as our system of policy-making has been stripped of the politics. In what the French call the pensée unique, there is only one way of managing the economy, resistant even to the manifest failures revealed in the global financial crisis. Vast spheres of social life are subordinated to the market or bogus market substitutes. Important policy fields are reduced to technical matters to be managed by professionals with simple goals.

The most egregious example is the fashion for independent central banks with the single task of meeting inflation targets rather than balancing growth and employment – not that they have even succeeded in the inflation task itself. In the case of the eurozone, a highly contestable set of economic dogmas has been constitutionalised, and later incorporated into national constitutions.

It is futile to attack national populists for being hypocrites – that is the whole point about them, the secret of their success. Nor does it pay to dwell upon the incoherent jumble of ideas that makes up their economic policy if all we have to offer in return are monetarist fantasies. The only solution lies in the rebuilding, democratisation and politicisation of institutions at all levels from the local to the European.

Politics implies contestation, debate, deliberation and pluralism, against the simplistic nostrums of national populists and the reductionism of the technocrats.

Michael KeatingMichael Keating

University of Aberdeen

Prof Michael Keating FRSE FBA FAcSS is Professor of Scottish Politics at the University of Aberdeen and Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change. His research areas include regions, nationalism, Scotland and public policy.