Not Just Old White Males

A political quip that made the rounds in and around Westminster a decade or so ago went like this: “Tony Blair didn’t like the English working-class, so he decided to import one of his own.”

This was after the United Kingdom’s then-prime minister decided to grant immediate rights of entry to economic migrants from the eight Central and East European countries of the former Soviet  bloc that had just joined the European Union. This was in preference to imposing transitional delays of up to seven years, as did practically all of Britain’s fellow EU members. 

The all-too-predictable effect of that fateful 2004 decision, strenuously disputed at the time by Blair’s own Labor Party, was a massive influx into Britain of Central and East European workers. Some 129,000 arrived between 2004 and 2005, against the official forecast of between only 5,000 and 13,000. The inflow continued unabated on this scale for many years after.  

Herein lie the several factors identified by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin in their new book as being responsible for the recent upsurge of what they call “national populism,” not only in the UK but throughout the West as well as several points beyond. National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy is about the concerted rejection by vast swathes of the electorates of liberal democracies today of established political parties and institutions, as well as of the elites who run them, in favor of outsiders who propose radically new policy nostrums, previously considered unacceptable, to allay the pressing concerns of those who for so long have felt their voices and interests to have gone unheeded by the established political classes and processes.

The two most familiar manifestations of national populism both happened in 2016: Britain’s referendum in favor of departure from the EU, a process and outcome due in large measure to the concerns of British workers about the economic and social effects of unrestrained inward migration from the EU, and the U.S. presidential election of that same year which saw an outsider enter the White House without previous political experience on promises to protect the lives, livelihoods, and neighborhoods of American workers from foreign goods and migrant labor. 

Mainland Europe has by no means been immune to this phenomenon. National populists have gained power in Hungary and Italy, as well as having made unprecedented electoral inroads in France, Germany, Austria, Greece, and the Netherlands. Beyond the West, national populism has also become a prominent force in Turkey and India.

The Four D’s

Eatwell and Goodwin (both of whom are professors of politics at English universities) identify four factors as responsible for national populism, and they call them “the Four Ds.”

The first is distrust of mainstream politicians and institutions which is said to have been fueled by “a sense among large numbers of citizens that they no longer have a voice in the national conversation.”

The second is fear of the potential destruction of the historic identity and established ways of life of the national group arising from mass immigration, against which political correctness has long stifled public expressions of opposition. 

The third is a mounting sense of relative deprivation among lower income groups in response to increasing inequalities of income and wealth. 

Finally, there is what our authors call dealignment, by which they mean a steady weakening of the bonds between traditional mainstream political parties and the electorates they are supposedly meant to represent and serve.

The joke about Prime Minister Blair recounted above touches on all four factors. First, there was the blithe disregard of the voices and interests of British workers by the leader of the very party founded to represent and champion their interests. Second, there was the replacement of the traditional nation by a plethora of different foreign ethnicities. Third, the allusion to the fact that it is the elites associated with both main political parties who have been the principal beneficiaries of the cheap labor migrants have provided at the cost of their lower income, less well–educated compatriots. Finally, the palpable disconnect between the Labor party and its traditional voter base. 

Many among the political and cultural elites of the countries most affected by the recent upsurge in national populism feel horror at its rise. They have equally, however, been inclined to dismiss it as no more than a temporary aberration of normal political sensibilities, brought on by the financial crisis of late 2007 to 2009 and the subsequent economic downturn, combined with the inflammatory rhetoric of flash-in-the–pan demagogues whose primary appeal has supposedly been to a dying breed of impoverished and increasingly aged white males soon destined for the graveyard.

Not Just Old White Males

Our authors refuse to see the phenomenon that way. Citing innumerable recent polls and surveys, they reject as myths the oft-voiced claim that national populism draws practically all of its support from the poor and unemployed or else from old white males who are merely reacting against a system without being in favor of any specific positive agenda. Just as inaccurate, according to Eatwell and Goodwin, is equating today’s national populism with the fascism of yesteryear.  

They write: 

When you consider the foundations of fascism and populism, it is clear that the likes of Trump, [Marine] Le Pen and [Geert] Wilders do not signal a return to fascism but stand in the populist tradition . . . Trump’s . . . views are a far cry from fascist racism, let alone Nazi anti-Semitism. The historical provenance of Trump’s appeal is, rather, to ‘American exceptionalism’ . . . nothing like a fascist third way . . . [and] far from an attempt to establish an authoritarian state in a stable country with strong democratic values. Or take the French National Front … [A]fter replacing her father as leader in 2011 Marine Le Pen sought to detoxify the party’s image . . . There is no serious evidence that party policy is being driven by neo-fascists, even if some remain on its fringes.

It is very unusual indeed to find a pair of senior mainstream academics so prepared as our authors to be publicly sympathetic to so many of the concerns that underlie support for today’s national populists. Thus, we find them observing that most of their supporters “are not fascists who want to tear down our core political institutions” but instead “have understandable concerns that these institutions are not representative of society as a whole and, if anything, are becoming ever more cut adrift from the average citizen.”

It is likewise a sad comment on the times that they should be sticking out their necks so prominently by observing that national populists “who argue that the closing down of debate over difficult issues like immigration has been encouraged by distant and more culturally liberal academic, urban and political elites . . . do have a point.” Why such statements as this should be so rare from academics today becomes understandable in light of the fact that, as they point out, in the United States, “among tenure-track professors, registered Democrats  outnumber Republicans by a ratio of at least 12:1, while in some institutions the figure is 60:1.”                       

Along with their wishing to allay concerns that today’s national populists are about to morph into fascists, our authors would dispel the further myth that this recent global upsurge is liable to prove evanescently brief. National populism is here to stay, they claim, so today’s liberal democracies will have to adjust to its presence and demands in order to continue to survive.

The times they certainly are a’changing, but not in quite the way Bob Dylan sang about in the 1960s, or in the way for which Barack Obama was calling only a short decade ago.