Pushing against the populist tide

Winner of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s 2017 Student Essay Competition organised in partnership with Foreign Affairs Magazine


Populism has become an increasingly powerful political force in recent years. As exemplified by Trump’s election in the United States, the nativist Brexit campaign, and the competitive showing of Marine Le Pen in France, populist forces have gained ground throughout the developed world. But populism is not limited to Europe and North America: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have also used nationalist and populist rhetoric to achieve electoral success. And while the rise of populism is certainly not inexorable – Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen defeated far-right nationalist Norbert Hofer in the 2016 Austrian presidential election, and centrist Emmanuel Macron trounced the nativist, anti-EU Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election – it is difficult to argue that populist movements are categorically receding. After all, the recent electoral success of Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, a country with one of the most stable political systems in Europe, demonstrates that populist messaging continues to attract an audience. This suggests a worrying future for the international system because absent shared support for liberal values, multilateral institutions, pluralistic societies, and free trade, much of the institutional and normative glue holding the post-war order together will begin to dissolve.

As a contested concept, populism is difficult to define, and the sources of its success are perhaps even more difficult to isolate. Nonetheless, it is possible to identify unifying trends among populist parties and movements throughout the world. One clear facet of populism is a belief in the existence of a select group that stands in opposition to malevolent forces in control of the state. However, populism varies in its manifestations based upon the specific circumstances of the country in which it resides. As noted theorist of populism Cas Mudde argues, “Thin-centred [sic] ideologies such as nationalism and populism habitually appear in combination with very different concepts and ideological traditions that are key to their capacity to make sense to larger constituencies.” Despite important variations among populist groups, their exclusive form of politics is a constant.

The unique nature of each populist narrative complicates the process of identifying the causes of populist sentiments and, by extension, makes combating populist movements more difficult. Some populist parties focus on ethno-cultural tensions while others highlight economic inequities. In most cases, however, these issues are merged into convoluted narratives that exploit both cultural and economic fears. By way of illustration, consider some of populist Marine Le Pen’s positions in the recent French presidential election. One of her major commitments was a pledge to withdraw France from the European Union unless it transformed into a loose federation without any kind of common currency, suggesting a more economic-oriented populism. This economic focus further manifested in her promise to lower the retirement age, increase tariffs, and expand welfare benefits. However, Le Pen also utilized ethnic fears to mobilize her supporters, committing to curb migration, provide free education only to French nationals, and prioritize French citizens in housing and employment decisions. These policies of cultural and ethno-cultural populism also assumed a religious bent arising from Le Pen’s linkage of immigrants and refugees to terrorism and threats to strip dual citizen Muslims of French citizenship if they held extreme views. In short her policy preferences seemed to exploit both economic and ethno-cultural fears.

Perhaps it is impossible to fully separate ethno-cultural from economic support for populist parties. But regardless of peoples’ particular motivations for supporting populist movements, successful populism of any kind poses a real threat to international cooperation and stability. Consider the economic views of populists like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. Both seek to reimpose protectionist measures and undercut multilateral free trade agreements like NAFTA and the Eurozone. These policies risk turning back the clock on trade liberalization and returning us to a world of zero-sum mercantilist politics. To understand how dangerous this could be, compare the 2008 financial crash with the Great Depression. In 2008, multilateral cooperation and adroit intervention by international institutions ensured that the economic crisis never became as acute and desperate as that of the 1930s. Instead of a world war, we witnessed continued, if imperfect, collaboration and cooperation among the nations of the world. Not only would the large-scale success of populist parties make the world more vulnerable to economic shocks but it might also create an economic crisis in its own right by systematically disrupting global trade and financial flows. Fortunately, the international economic order is resilient, and it has so far been able to absorb the blows of Brexit and Trump. However, this has only been the case because most stakeholders are committed to upholding the system and have worked to support it in the face of the populist challenge. Were several more major economies to embrace populist parties, however, it is doubtful that the world could avoid another economic crisis.

The danger posed by ethno-cultural populism is just as acute. Beyond fomenting domestic strife and ethnic polarization – a development witnessed increasingly at events like the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia and nationalist gathering in Warsaw during Poland’s Independence Day – this form of populism could also negatively impact international relations. For example, one can imagine an enduring enmity developing between the United States and Mexico given President Donald Trump’s inflammatory comments about the character of undocumented Mexican immigrants and insistence on building a border wall and renegotiating or withdrawing from NAFTA. Of course, integration of groups from different regional and cultural backgrounds is difficult, and certain concerns are valid. But when politicians exploit racial and religious fears to mobilize their political base, they risk creating lasting animosity both domestically and internationally. Finally, by defining values along religious or cultural lines, ethno-cultural populists risk eroding liberal democracy, a core principle of the liberal order. As countries as varied as Iraq, Myanmar, and Thailand have demonstrated, unconstrained governments that attempt to create dominant in-groups by shutting out ethnic, political, and religious minorities create unstable and illiberal democratic systems. These regimes are antithetical to liberal values and are prone to destabilizing civil conflicts that can generate instability throughout entire regions.

Given the risks of populism, responsible stakeholders should seek to block its advance and push it back to the political fringes. Unfortunately, the diverse motives and political preferences of populist voters complicate this goal. Some voters are motivated by economic grievances, others by racial animus, many by both, and a few by other factors entirely. Pushing back against populist movements will, therefore, require a broad strategy that addresses both cultural and economic issues.

Perhaps the most effective way to combat the growth of populist movements is for mainstream political parties to more aggressively promote reform agendas that actually represent changes from status quo policies. The common refrain from the center that “there is no alternative” to the status quo is both uninspiring and incorrect. Instead of passively defending the status quo by informing aggrieved voters that they are wrong to feel angry and distressed, the center-right and center-left should provide meaningful reform proposals that offer to ameliorate the causes of voters’ anger. At the same time, moderate parties should attempt to offer a compelling and clear defense of the current liberal international order and the values that undergird it. By reminding voters of the multitudinous, if often hidden, benefits of a globalized and peaceful world, centrists can undermine excitement in the novel, but reckless, policies of populist demagogues. By developing and promoting a meaningful reform agenda within the framework of the current liberal order, centrists can signal to discontented voters that they take voters’ concerns seriously and plan to improve the system from the inside.

Beyond improving party messaging, non-populist countries should continue to promote liberal values and engage with international institutions. The recent resuscitation of the TPP agreement despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal from that trade pact is an example of this approach, and it serves to undermine the narrative that there is a great populist wave throughout the world. Countries must be careful not to directly condemn populist parties simply due to their principles, though, as this approach risks creating a rally ’round the flag effect in which citizens perceive an attack on the ruling party as an attack against their country and choose to support the incumbent populists against foreign condemnation. In other words, countries should combat populism indirectly through promotion of trade and international institutionalism rather than force the issue with sanctions and rhetorical condemnation.

Populism is a somewhat nebulous and slippery concept with several causes and many manifestations, making it a difficult force to isolate and contest. However, the risks it poses to the stability of the international system demand that action be taken to prevent the entrenchment of populist parties throughout the world. By developing innovative new platforms and demonstrating a commitment to the foundations of the international order, the center can hold. But meaningful action must be taken now to ensure the international order is not swamped by the populist wave.

This piece also appeared on Foreign Affairs. 

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