Global Cooperation

Why populism is on the rise

Image: A voter arrives to cast her ballot. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez.

Carl Bildt
Co-Chair, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
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Something seems to have gone wrong with politics in the West. In the United States, the billionaire tycoon and reality-TV star Donald Trump seems set to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. And throughout Europe, populism in one guise or another is running rampant.

We are witnessing the emergence of what I call the “Angry Quarter.” In the rich part of the world, roughly a quarter of the electorate seems to be furious, disillusioned, and divorced from mainstream political parties and allegiances.

Part of this angry-voter phenomenon can be attributed to local or temporary factors: Politics is always and everywhere a volatile business at times. But it is also the result of long-term trends that are transforming political systems in the West.

Over the last few decades, we have seen the decline and then collapse of the epic narratives around which European political structures were constructed. From the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848 until the fall of the Soviet empire, significant parts of the continent’s electorates were inspired and mobilized by a vision of socialism.

At the height of the Industrial Age, the epoch of mass production was reflected in a politics that revolved around the mass organizations of society. Collectivism, not individualism, was the contemporary creed, and the nation-state was its solid foundation.

Today, everything is changing – and rapidly. The socialist dream has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Globalization is transforming societies, and a growing middle class is becoming the backbone of societies that are just one or two generations removed from extreme poverty. Add migration and the new social media landscape, and it is hardly surprising that a significant share of the Western population feels that society has lost its bearings.

When members of society who believed they were on the winning side of history come to fear that they are among the losers, the result is a radical shift in politics. Throughout Europe, the large center-left parties that once regularly reaped 40% or more of the popular vote are losing ground, often barely breaching 20%.

Just as the democratic left had its epic narrative, so did the democratic right. And, because it was often organized in opposition to socialism, the conservative narrative, too, has lost much of its luster – though conservatism has been able to adapt by repositioning itself as a credible force for managing tough economic times.

These great shifts have been underway for decades, but inertia has until recently blunted their impact, as older generations retained old allegiances. Those participating politically for the first time, however, are more ready to embrace the new. With the blurring of the old battle lines, politics is gradually being reshaped into a contest between advocates of open, globalized societies and defenders of inward-looking tribalism.

Tribalism has strong appeal in periods of rapid, tumultuous change, as what the political philosopher Karl Popper called the “the strain of civilization” exerts its pressures on society. The issue of immigration is a particularly potent one: the mythical tribe suddenly under attack by invading hordes from afar. And its impact can be seen everywhere today. A wall must be built against Mexico. The United Kingdom must restore control of its borders. Germany must slam shut its doors. Society must close, and quickly –the barbarians are coming.

These sentiments are not new, but in the past they could be managed by the large political forces built around the epic narratives of the left and right. As those narratives have lost their power, the political field has been blown wide open. The Angry Quarter is set to organize around populist ideas and follow those who question the very nature of our open societies.

This challenge is here to stay. Trump might fade. French National Front leader Marine Le Pen may not become President. In Italy, the Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, may never crystallize into a viable political party. But, until new narratives replace the old ones, the epochal shift in politics will simply bring forth other leaders who play on the same anger and fears.

Defenders of open societies must rally support for their ideas, uphold the values of the West, and prevent the preachers of populism from expanding the Angry Quarter. Doing so will be a difficult balancing act, because it will require addressing the very real fears and unease produced by the rapid changes rippling across the world. It is not difficult to understand the widening appeal of tribalism; that appeal makes it all the more important to make the case for openness.

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