Letters & Opinion

Rise of the Populists

Clement Wulf-Soulage
By Clement Wulf-Soulage

IT’S becoming indeed highly risky to dismiss them altogether. They have eagerly turned on the “establishment” and the “elites” with shameless distortions and exaggerations, and have encouraged voters to make choices that contradict their own rational self-interest. Around the democratic world from Norway to Australia, right-wing populist movements have launched tirades against free trade, Muslims, immigration and even economic and social orthodoxy.

It appears that practically no democracy is immune to their anti-rational rhetoric and fear-mongering. And there is an abiding sense that people are now gravitating toward voices and ideas that provide comfort and an outlet for their social and economic frustration. Right-wing populists of the likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen are turning democracies on their heads – a disturbing trend that perhaps heralds the decline of an old world order and the emergence of a new (characterized by demagoguery, protectionism and nationalism), as depicted in Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain”.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister and current Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace writes: “Trump’s protectionism and national narcissism are sustained by the anxiety of those hit by the impersonal dark forces of the “market.” The turn toward populism constitutes a revolt against intellectual orthodoxy, embodied by cosmopolitan professional elites. In the Brexit campaign, “expert” became a slur.” Of course, by quoting Ben-Ami in this particular instance, I am by no means suggesting that challenging the establishment in not without merit.

Perhaps most alarmingly, populism has emerged even in countries with low unemployment and rising incomes. For instance, despite the economic success of Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AFD), an iconoclastic right-wing party, has managed to convince Germans that the country faces a new national identity crisis and stands to lose its competitive edge if migrants are not kept at bay.

Europe has become frighteningly illiberal and has been transformed to the point of being unrecognizable. Where meritocracy, devotion to human rights and an open societal culture once ruled, islamophobia, nationalism and nativism are now rapidly becoming enduring social and political norms.

In the wake of the protracted euro crisis, identity politics have become the order of the day in much of Western Europe, amid growing concerns over refugee flows, the terror of the Islamic State, the simmering war in Ukraine and the smouldering financial crisis.

Across Europe, large, mainstream parties are losing support, power and influence, as the continent itself loses its internal cohesion. In Hungary, Poland, Finland and Switzerland, the right-wing is already part of the government – abusing the constitutional rights of foreigners, and turning conventional economic logic on its head.

A few months ago, Austria almost elected a right-wing populist to become their highest political representative. As reflected in the result of the June referendum, and to the dismay of many, Nigel Farage’s UKIP party of pub revolutionaries and armchair rebels, along with Boris Johnson, the UK’s most talented populist, successfully convinced Brits that it is in their economic interest to leave the European Union.

As it turns out, the populists are all doubling down on the claim that globalization lies at the root of many citizens’ problems – never mind that the internationalization of markets, capital, etc., has delivered untold prosperity over the last seven decades. As chaos now beckons in Europe, Brexit threatens to cast an even darker cloud of doubt on the approach and modalities of globalization.

The threat that political populism represents, continues to disturb some of Europe’s staunchest integrationists. Javier Solana, ex Secretary-General of NATO and former EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy recently wrote: “A victory for populism would indicate that the political classes really have failed their citizens. The victory of the campaign in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union should have jolted all of us from the illusion that we are somehow protected from the risks we see around us. The unthinkable can happen. Populists can win. It is time for national leaders to show that they are paying attention.”

Seemingly, the populists have wasted no opportunity in threatening to reverse the tide of economic liberalism – by consistently pledging to their voters that they will abandon free trade, restrict immigration and seal off political and economic borders. Yet any effort to close economies – much less borders – will fail disastrously, as no nation can afford to isolate itself in a global economic system sustained and linked by immigration, capital, trade and co-operation.

So how does one tame the destructive populists? Well, mainstream politics can start by reconnecting with frustrated voters and developing mechanisms to respond to and deal with their real economic grievances.

Yet, this won’t be easy as in many democracies, particularly in the U.S., there are many poorly educated and economically disadvantaged people who can be easily swayed into smashing the old system and replacing it with a darker new one.

If nothing else works in the valiant attempt to save some voters from themselves and from wrecking their own democracies, education remains the only hope. Democracy must be protected at all costs from populism, hate and totalitarianism. Sadly, even if Donald Trump loses in November, his legacy of protectionism, national narcissism and bigotry will live on and democracies the world over will never be the same again.

For comments, write to ClementSoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.

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