What makes populism popular?


In Martin Eiermann’s new paper, he argues
that rising support for populist parties isn’t just because of economic concerns, as is often
stated, but cultural ones too. Martin identifies four forms that these blended
anxieties take. Frayed Identities, Precarious Futures, Marginalisation
and Powerlessness. Let’s briefly take each in turn. Firstly, Frayed Identities. This is the sense that some supporters of
populist parties report of almost feeling like strangers in their own land. Questions
of identity are of course closely linked to questions of community, and for people within
this group, there can be a sense that their community is changing rapidly, and what have
felt like strong community ties are being weakened. These sentiments have been seized on effectively
by populists in recent elections, including the National Front in the 2017 elections in
France, and some high-profile supporters of the Leave campaign in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum. Precarious Futures is the second form mentioned
in our new paper. Due to cultural and economic changes, a number
of supporters of populist parties share a real sense of uncertainty about the future
and a longing for stability. 62% of American voters, for example, recently
agreed in a poll that their lives overall were declining in quality. There is now an
increasing feeling in the west that the longstanding promise that the next generation will do better
than the last is no longer the reality. The impact of this has been again seen in
recent elections, in which previously relatively separate voter groups moved together to support
populist victories – both in the US election in 2016 with areas of the rust belt uniting
with some southern states, and in the UK’s EU referendum with some typically Labour strongholds
uniting with some typically Conservative voting rural areas. Then there’s Marginalisation. Many supporters of populist parties report
feeling increasingly as though their voices are not heard in national politics. For this group, there is a sense that other
people and groups are receiving preferential treatment, which can in turn lead to the politics
of division and blame. This sentiment has also been harnessed by
populists to achieve electoral success, which in the UK for example, we saw spill over into
protests calling for migrants to leave the country in some areas after the 2016 EU referendum. Lastly, let us look at Powerlessness. When the feeling of political abandonment
is exacerbated by the inability to do anything about these economic and cultural concerns,
a sense of powerlessness can follow. Nearly two thirds of Americans now agree that
“hard work” is no guarantee of success and social mobility – a significant rise
since 2013. While frustration with representative politics
is not new, what is emerging is a decrease in identification with it – especially among
the younger generation. This, coupled with a distrust of political systems, comes a desire
for greater, direct engagement with democracy, for example in referendums. These concerns are genuine, and what the centre-left
needs to do to be seen as a credible alternative to populists who ride the anger, but don’t
provide real solutions, is to pull together both a new rhetoric and a new policy programme
that addresses them. What the centre-left cannot do, as has happened
at times, is either cede this ground simply because the conversations are difficult, or
worse, simply dismiss these concerns as incorrect.

Maurice Vega

1 Response

  1. This video says more about you than it does about 'populism". The "center left" totally lacks self awareness and refuses to acknowledge the damage it has caused.

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