2017 Was the Year of False Promise in the Fight Against Populism

The populist wave seems like it may have crested. The data proves otherwise.

This map shows the change in election results of 102 populist parties across 39 European countries between 2000 and 2017. (European Populism: Trends, Threads, and Future Prospects)
This map shows the change in election results of 102 populist parties across 39 European countries between 2000 and 2017. (European Populism: Trends, Threads, and Future Prospects)

Populist movements have been on the rise for at least two decades, but anxiety about the phenomenon reached its high point a year ago. That should be no surprise. 2016 was the year in which populism went primetime: Over the course of a few disorienting months, the people of Britain voted to leave the European Union and the people of the United States made Donald Trump their president. Most commentators around the world assumed that 2017 would bring even more shocking news. The world as we knew it might be about to end.

A year on, it is clear that such fears were exaggerated. In the first round of the French presidential election, populists on the left and the right took about half of the vote. But when Emanuel Macron faced the far-right Marine Le Pen in the second round, he won comfortably. Similarly, in Germany, a far-right populist party entered the Bundestag for the first time since World War II. But moderate parties retain a clear majority in parliament, and when the next government is finally constituted, it will likely remain as moderate and milquetoast as the last.

It would be tempting to draw the wrong lesson from this — and indeed some commentators already have. “The populist wave has crested, soon to abate,” Charles Krauthammer summarised the new conventional wisdom in an op-ed this past April. After a scary couple of years, things are seemingly returning to normal.

We draw a different set of lessons from the same story. Traumatic though they were, it never made sense to look at the events of 2016 and conclude that populists would henceforth win every single election, or that they would manage to destroy longstanding political systems as soon as they gained power. And so it never made sense to measure the populists’ progress by a binary yardstick, with everything short of sensational wins implying that populists were already being forced into a hasty retreat.

To get a clear view of whether populism is growing or subsiding, we should therefore be comparing their current strength to their performance in previous years. To do this, we set out to construct a comprehensive data set of the electoral performance of European populist movements since 2000.

First, a brief definition. For the purposes of our study, we didn’t treat populism as a deep ideology, but rather a logic of political organization, one that sharply distinguishes between supporters, who are portrayed as the whole of the legitimate people, and opponents, who are cast as the people’s illegitimate enemies. To be populist, in other words, a movement simply has to claim to represent the true will of a unified people against domestic elites, foreign migrants, or ethnic, religious, or sexual minorities.

The picture that emerges is very clear: Populist movements had been gradually gaining votes well before the shock year of 2016. And they have continued to do so since. While the average vote share for European populist parties was 9.6 percent in 2000 and 17.2 percent in 2008, for example, it is now 24.6 percent.

The clearest way of understanding the rapid advance of the populists is to chart their progress on a time-series map. A first glance reveals the basic story: a blue wave has slowly conquered the continent. But a closer look reveals three key — and hitherto underappreciated — features of the populist rise.

First, populism is now the predominant form of government in a huge, populous, and strategically crucial part of Central Europe. It is now possible to drive from the Baltic Sea all the way to the Aegean without once leaving a country ruled by a populist.

The implications are enormous. Far from being a small, insurgent force, populism has proved capable of capturing power in a large number of countries. As a result, hopes of a democratic Europe that extends from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic — containing all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe celebrated by Winston Churchill in his Iron Curtain speech — has been dashed: Barely three decades after these parts of Europe were liberated from Soviet domination, democracy is now fighting for its very survival in Budapest and Prague, in Belgrade and Warsaw.

Second, right-wing populists have not yet led the government in a single Western European country. It would be easy to conclude that their influence remains limited in much of the continent. But that would be a mistake: As our map shows, right-wing populists are now part of the government in many countries, from Greece to Austria to Norway.

What’s more, the influence of the populists is rapidly growing even in countries where they are not in power: To stave off the competition from the extremes, traditionally moderate parties in countries including France and Austria have recently lurched to the right. Indeed, when members of France’s Les Republicains were faced with a choice between traditional conservatives like Florence Portelli and Maël de Cala or a much more radical candidates by the name of Laurent Wauquiez, they chose the man who likes to make sly allusions to theories according to which a mass of immigrants threatens to replace the white race. Similarly, Austria’s conservative People’s Party has quickly radicalised under the new leadership of Sebastian Kurz, and so it does not come as a surprise that the new Kurz-led government, which includes a heavy presence from the populist Freedom Party, has already announced plans to confiscate all money from arriving asylum seekers and to purge left-wing voices within the country’s public broadcaster.

Finally, it is a mistake to focus exclusively on right-wing populism. Just as a populist belt, mostly composed of right-leaning parties, has already covered much of Central Europe, so too a second populist belt, mostly composed of left-leaning parties, may one day conquer much of Southern Europe. Many of these movements have grown strong in debtor countries as a result of the euro crisis and a decade of economic stagnation. But while much of their anger is directed at austerity policies that really have done a lot of damage, some of these parties are also proving to be increasingly open to xenophobic appeals, or have started to undermine the independence of the media.

Our data makes one thing abundantly clear: the populist rise started well before 2016 — or even 2008.

The political transformations we are currently seeing are a long-term trend, and the only plausible explanation for that must be that they are caused by structural drivers which have been at play for a long time. While debate about their exact identity persists, it seems likely that they include economic insecurity; a rebellion against immigration and the notion of a multi-ethnic society; and the greater ease with which extreme voices can make themselves heard in an age of social media.

Past trends, of course, are never a sure predictor of the future. Perhaps those structural drivers are about to exhaust themselves, making it easier for moderate parties to regain the initiative in the years to come. But to think that the populist wave has crested just because the record performances of Germany’s far-right AfD and France’s Marine Le Pen were not enough to catapult them into the very heart of government is deeply misguided; unless politicians manage to identify and counteract the structural drivers of populism, populism is very unlikely to disappear of its own accord.

Looking ahead to 2018, we shouldn’t expect any dramatic upsets like Trump or Brexit. But opinion polls suggest that populists will continue to make significant inroads in countries with upcoming elections, including Italy, Belgium, and Estonia. The populist wave has not yet crested. Nor is it about to bury us quite yet. But unless we act now, it will keep garnering strength in the years to come.

Yascha Mounk is the author of The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.

Tag: Europe