The Global Resurgence of Populism as a Social Movement: Unifying the People or Creating Social Cleavages

Image Caption: Demonstrators gather in the city of Mainz at a rally in support of Alternative for Germany, a far-right German political party with populist roots.


On the 24th of September, 2017, the  Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union parties (CDU/CSU) won 32.9 percent of the total votes in the 2017 German Federal Elections, translating to 246 seats in the Bundestag, the highest among the parties in the German parliament. The election results also provided Angela Merkel her 4th term as the chancellor of Germany. The federal election may seem favorable for the CDU/CSU, having secured the most number of seats, but analysts agreed that the overall result sent a bad signal for the largest party as a result of an 8.6 percent decrease in votes since the previous election. There was also a decrease in percentage of votes of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Bundestag’s second largest party belonging to a government coalition with the CDU/CSU.

This election also captured the attention of numerous analysts due to the significant increase in popularity of the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD), a far-right German political party that gained 12.6 percent of votes—an equivalent of 94 parliamentary seats. This party, known for its firm stances on globalization, anti-immigration policies, Euroscepticism and Xenophobia gained support among Germans, especially in the Eastern part of the country. Numerous analyses generally attributed this case to the rise of populism, a prominent trend in far right parties across the globe. In Europe, for instance, the Italian far right party “Lega Nord” successfully formed a coalition with another right-wing party called the “Five Star Movement” in the Italian parliament, and recent elections in the Netherlands and Austria showed a surge of vote for far-right parties. In Latin America, economic conditions provided ideas for the people to vote for populist leaders and politicians who they think would address social issues such as poverty and inequality; however, unlike in Europe, their support is usually received by left-wing parties.

The general explanation to this global phenomenon is usually tied to the dissatisfaction of the “common people” on how present political institutions handle social problems. As a result, they would tend to elect a politician that best represents the interest of the common people; leaders that they think have the capacity to restructure the current political system.

Trends in Electoral and Party System

Most research on electoral participation often conclude that there is indeed a decrease in voter participation rates around the world for the past election periods. The research done by Solijonov shows that the global average voter turnout has decreased significantly since the beginning of the 1990s, with Europe having the most dramatic effect.[1] The World Bank supports this conclusion after analyzing declining election turnout across the world over the last 25 years: the average global voter turnout rate dropped by more than 10%.[2] Different researchers present various explanations to this phenomenon; for McDonald and Popkin, the institutional structure increases the costs of voters to gather and process the information about which vote, for which candidate, for which office, on which date, etc. such as the case of the United States.[3] Education is an important factor for Gray and Caul[4] while Geys found that population and campaign expenditure have a significant impact.[5]

Some studies also focus on the role of party system in electoral participation, such as Herzinger, who stated that a decrease of voter turnout is due to a present era where traditional parties are still rooted in 19th-century conservatism, liberalism, and socialism, presenting a mismatch between party platforms and voter wishes.[6] With political representation becoming more individualized rather than collective, party affiliation is being driven more by individual preferences and choices rather than membership in a particular social bloc or organizational collectivity.[7] This transition from class-based politics to quality-of-life politics is being driven by self-expression, ‘belonging’ and the quality of the physical and social environment. Since the 1970s at least, empirical analysis seemed to provide evidence for the view that slow, but long-term changes were affecting parties and party systems especially in Europe.[8] These changes were leading not merely to increased abstention and to greater ‘independence’ of the electorate vis-à-vis the established parties, but also to the emergence of new populist parties. By the mid-1980s, the far-right’s intervention in the discourse in brought culture to the center in an environment which was considered ripe for such intervention,[9] and from then on it has become a regular feature of politics in western democracies since at least the early 1990s.[10]

Emergence and the Rise of Populism

Most literature on the emergence of populism would agree that populism is a result of people’s distrust and suspicion to the current political system. It is either a symptom of the failure of progressive politics,[11] or a result of an identity crisis as such, or, increasingly, the result of ‘hyperglobalization.’[12] In spite of diverse manifestations in the present age of neoliberal globalization, the resurgence of populism is frequently tied to two common sources. First, it is closely linked to growing distrust of the formal institutions that organize social, economic, and political power within individual countries. Second, populist resurgence is commonly tied to discontent with systems of power that appear to preserve and entrench prevailing class structures.[13] Populists always perceive that political elites who failed to address social problems are running government institutions, and thus they rely on the juxtaposition of virtuous ‘people’ versus corrupt ‘elites’. The immediate explanation is found in the widespread disaffection with politics, growing cynicism toward the established political parties, and rapidly dwindling confidence in the political class’s ability to solve society’s most urgent problems. Thus they present themselves as the main advocates of the concerns of ordinary citizens while promoting a fundamental renewal of the established order.[14]

While present-day populist movements identify the same structural problem, their perception on numerous social issues varies. The various forms of populism, especially the ones linked to social reformism and promoted through socialist or religious discourses, were threaded with suspicion, especially within economic rationalism of neo-liberal reforms and secular–individualist ideology of civil society.[15] There is a great number of populists skeptical of the status quo because of its perceived impact to the people, some of them attributed it to the failure of economic neoliberalism, and this form of justification is inherent in left-wing populism usually founded on South America. The perception of failed economic policies preceding the rise of populist leaders is legitimized by distinct integration patterns into the global economy, the strength of labor, and regional dynamics.[16] The rationalization of the production process as well as the flexibilization of the work force, both consequences of the introduction of new technologies, have split the work force into a number of core industries complete with secure, full-time workplaces and a growing marginalized periphery with insecure, often part-time.[17] Workers often lack convertible skills necessary to adjust to these new circumstances. Being the main victims of economic dislocations, workers may express their resentment by opting for the only political alternative that openly rejects economic modernization.[18]

Democracy as a Value of Representation

Democracy, as an instrument of representation, is often described as a system that promotes equality and collectivism. John Stuart Mill argued that a democratic method of making legislation is better than non-democratic methods in three ways: strategically, epistemically, and via the improvement of the characters of democracy.[19] Strategically speaking, democracy has an advantage because it forces decision-makers to take into account the interests, rights, and opinions of most people in society. Since democracy gives some political power to each, more people are taken into account than under aristocracy or monarchy. Epistemologically, democracy is thought to be the best decision-making method on the grounds that it is generally more reliable in helping participants discover the right decisions. Since democracy brings a lot of people into the process of decision making, it can take advantage of many sources of information and critical assessment of laws and policies. Democratic decision-making tends to be more informed than other forms about the interests of citizens and the causal mechanisms necessary to advance those interests. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Social Contract Theory discussed the idea of general will as a result of an individual’s membership in a group. His central doctrine in politics is that a state can be legitimate only if it is guided by the “general will” of its members, even though each member submits their own personal will and freedom, reaching a balance between the freedom of the individual and the authority of the state.[20] This balance is necessary because human society has evolved to a point where individuals can no longer supply their needs through their own unaided efforts, but rather must depend on the co-operation of others.

Rousseau first discussed that individuals all have private wills corresponding to their own selfish interests as natural individuals. He then incorporated the idea that each individual, insofar as he or she identifies with the collective as a whole and assumes the identity of citizen, wills the general will of that collective as his or her own, setting aside selfish interest in favor of a set of laws that allow all to coexist under conditions of equal freedom. Lastly, and most problematically, he argued that a person can identify with the corporate will of a subset of the populace as a whole. The general will is therefore both a property of the collective and a result of its deliberations, and also a property of the individual insofar as the individual identifies as a member of the collective.

John Rawls, in his book interpreted citizens based on the idea that they are free and equal and that the society should be fair. Citizens are equal, Rawls says, in virtue of having the capacities to participate in social cooperation over a complete life. Citizens may have greater or lesser skills, talents, and powers “above the line” that cooperation requires, but differences above this line have no bearing on citizens’ equal political status.[21] Rawls’ conception of society is defined by fairness: social institutions are to be fair to all cooperating members of society, regardless of their race, gender, religion, class of origin, natural talents, reasonable conception of the good life, and so on.

The idea of populist institutional framework without standard rules is fully compatible with the idea of populism as a spectral companion of democratic politics.[22] Populism results from a paradox at the heart of democracy. An impulse towards universal inclusion is inscribed in the democratic project. Democracy means literally ‘rule by the people’ or ‘the power of the citizens.’[23]

They admit, however, that voice can be distributed rather asymmetrically, with some voices finding themselves disproportionally amplified, while others are muted and relegated to the periphery of the circles of power. The paradox affecting democracy defined as an all-inclusive community underpinned by strong egalitarian commitments means that exclusion – especially when perceived as largely one-sided and systemic – is a problem that undermines the legitimacy of this form of government in a particularly acute way.[24] This is in line with the Platonic idea of democracy in “The Republic”[25] and Thomas Hobbes’s “Leviathan” in that political expertise is undermined by manipulation and mass appeal use to help politicians win office.[26] The new populism faced by societies today emerged because orthodox democratic alternatives failed and because of the historical resonance of populist appeals in South America. It succeeded, above all, because democracy allows electorates to make their own choices and to hold governments accountable when things go wrong.[27]

Furthermore, the new radical right does not usually oppose democracy per se (as an idea), although they typically are hostile to representative democracy and the way existing democratic institutions actually work.[28] The radical right and the radical left in Western Europe also hold fairly moderate positions regarding the ‘establishment.’ Traditionally, extreme right and extreme left parties were opposed to liberal democracy. However, current radical right and left parties are fairly moderate in this respect. Radical parties do not focus so much on the allegedly corrupted system in its entirety but, instead, focus on the political and/or economic elites within that system.[29]

In a modern democracy the politician must, of course, always be aware of the dangers of trying to ignore strong public opinion. But he must also be aware of the dangers of simply trying to flatter and follow public opinion if he thinks that, at a given moment, the public is acting against its long-term best interests.[30] In the end, the great virtue of democracy is not that it corresponds to some neat formula of rule but rather that power is vested in the people. It is clear that democratic systems are capable of producing some degree of unpredictability and forcing observers to rethink.[31]

Multiculturalism and Immigration

While populism in general considers progressive policies as detrimental to the welfare of the people, right-wing populism integrated immigration to the discourse. It has become commonplace to attribute the growing appeal of radical right-wing populism to the recent explosion of hostility towards immigrants in much of western Europe[32] primarily due to the competition in the labor market. In some aspect far-right populists also attribute immigration to security threats and terrorism after cases of bombing and attacks in Europe increase from the time that there is an influx of migrants from Arab countries. Since the 1980s, fear of immigration and immigrants has increased in Austria and Italy. In Austria, this was precipitated by the fall of the Iron Curtain and the resulting influx of economic refugees from Eastern Europe and political refugees from war-torn ex-Yugoslavia.[33] The Austrian Freedom Party and the Lega Nord claim that excessive immigration steals employment from locals, reduces wages, and places undue burdens on the welfare state. Fear has also increased with plans to expand the European Union eastwards. As high numbers of European citizens worry about their own personal security, the leaders of the Lega Nord and the Freedom Party link crime with immigration.

From this perspective, the rise of right-wing radicalism represents a response on the part of various groups in society to a rapidly changing world which threatens to destroy a hitherto stable and secure identity. Their reaction has been to reaffirm traditional values, particularly law and order, discipline, and the values of industrial capitalism, while rejecting everything perceived as “alien,” from new technologies and new “postmaterialist” values and lifestyles to the uncertainties and challenges of an integrated European market, to the influx of “foreigners.” The resulting political climate might be best characterized as a politics of resentment which right-wing radical parties have been quick to exploit.[34]

Right-wing activity can also emerge in response to threat and competition posed by the changing racial composition of a population.[35] The rise and success of radical right-wing populism in western Europe can thus be interpreted as the result of the increasing social and cultural fragmentation and differentiation of advanced western societies.[36] Radical right populist parties of exclusion also emphasize that dominant European cultures have the same right to protect their own cultural identity from the so-called ‘invasion’ of other non-European cultures.[37] Oesch suggests that, compared to economic parameters, cultural impact is more associated to the rise of right-wing populism. He stated that far-right electorates appear more afraid of immigrants’ negative influence on the country’s culture than on the country’s economy.[38]

Generally, the debates over multiculturalism are so fractured—ranging from questions of how to balance collective rights with individual freedoms, to debates over establishing a framework for equality between groups without sacrificing individual rights within groups—as to short-circuit any possible consensus.[39] While globalization becomes more dynamic over the past decades, nationalist sentiments also increase in order to cope up with the mobility of people. The inclusion of minorities inside a country often lead to conflict, as small group people demand more recognition of their own identity, nationalists would tend to contradict due to the perceived implications on national unity. While policies on immigration have been consistent in Western societies over some time, the rise on support to far-right movements signal that cultural diversity is a threat to the traditions of people.

Conclusion

In general, the two types of populism vary in terms of understanding the causes of social issues, however both agree that globalization has a great role in the development of these issues. For the left-wing, liberalization of economic policies is being driven by globalization which caused production to increase, and, in order to meet the demands of world market, labor is being replaced by technology to facilitate faster production. For the far-right, globalization increases human mobility, thus making it easier for people to move and migrate.

While populist parties are generally considered as the current ideal solution for the common people, the extreme dependence on this group to solve social issues may receive backlash in the future. Considering that the support of this movement came from are those who are disappointed the current political institutions, a failure to deliver solutions promised by the populists during election periods may implicate the trust and support of the people.


About the Author

Mark Angelo Gajardo is a Bachelor of Public Administration graduate at the National College of Public Administration and Governance of the University of the Philippines. His research interest includes Global Security and International Political Economy, as well as issues on European Politics, Asia-Pacific Security and International Institutions.


Endnotes

[1]Andrej Solijonov, Voter Turnout Trends around the World (Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2016), 8.

[2] World Bank Group, World Development Report, 40.

[3]Michael Mcdonald and Samuel Popkin, “The Myth of the Vanishing Voter,” The American Political Science Review 95, no. 4 (2001): 970, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055400400134.

[4]Mark Gray and Miki Caul, “Declining Voter Turnout in Advanced Industrial Democracies, 1950 to 1997,” Comparative Political Studies 33, no. 9  (2000): 1790, https://doi.org/10.1177/0010414000033009001.

[5]Benny Geys, “Explaining voter turnout: A review of aggregate-level research,” Electoral Studies 25, no. 4 (2006): 641-649, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2005.09.002.

[6]Richard Herzinger, “Power to the Populists,” Foreign Policy 133 (2002): 78, https://doi.org/10.2307/3183561.

[7]Kenneth Roberts, “Party-Society Linkages and Democratic Representation in Latin America,” Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies / Revue Canadienne Des études Latino-américaines Et Caraïbes 27, no. 53 (2002): 27, https://doi.org/10.1080/08263663.2002.10816813.

[8]Jean Blondel, “Party Government, Patronage, and Party Decline in Western Europe,” In Political Parties: Old Concepts and New Challenges, ed. Richard Gunther, José Ramón Montero, and Juan J. Linz (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 233-256.

[9]Ferruh Yilmaz, “Right-wing hegemony and immigration: How the populist far-right achieved hegemony through the immigration debate in Europe,” Current Sociology 60, no. 3 (2012): 375, https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392111426192.

[10]Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition 39, no. 4  (2004): 551, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x.

[11]Michael Sandel, “Populism, liberalism, and democracy,” Philosophy & Social Criticism 44, no. 4 (2018): 354, https://doi.org/10.1177/0191453718757888.

[12] Michael Cox, “The Rise of Populism and the Crisis of Globalisation: Brexit, Trump and Beyond,” Irish Studies in International Affairs 28 (2017): 14, https://doi.org/10.3318/isia.2017.28.12.

[13] Vedi Hadiz and Angelos Chryssogelos,“Populism in world politics: A comparative cross-regional perspective,” International Political Science Review 38, no. 4  (2017): 401, https://doi.org/10.1177/0192512117693908.

[14]Hans-Georg Betz, “The Two Faces of Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe,” The Review of Politics 55, no. 4 (1993b): 679, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0034670500018040.

[15] Juraj Buzalka,“Europeanisation and Post-Peasant Populism in Eastern Europe,”  Europe- Asia Studies 60, no. 5 (2008): 769, https://doi.org/10.1080/09668130802085141

[16]S. Erdem Aytaç and Ziya Őniş, “Varieties of Populism in a Changing Global Context: The Divergent Paths of Erdoğan and Kirchnerismo,” Comparative Politics 47, no. 1 (2014): 55, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2261178 .

[17]Hans-Georg Betz, “Politics of Resentment: Right-Wing Radicalism in West Germany,” Comparative Politics 23, no. 1 (1990): 47, https://doi.org/10.2307/422304.

[18]Daniel Oesch, “Explaining Workers Support for Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western Europe: Evidence from Austria, Belgium, France, Norway, and Switzerland,” International Political Science Review 29, no. 3  (2008): 351, https://doi.org/10.1177/0192512107088390.

[19]John Stuart Mill, “That the ideally best Form of Government is Representative Government,” in Considerations on Representative Government, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991), 45-69.

[20] Susan Dunn, “Introduction: Rousseau’s Political Triptych,” in The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses, ed. Susan Dunn (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 9-13.

[21] John Rawls, A theory of justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971), 221-228.

[22] Benjamin Arditi, “Populism as a Spectre of Democracy: A Response to Canovan,” Political Studies 52, no. 1 (2004): 142. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9248.2004.00468.x.

[23]Filipe Da Silva and Mónica Vieira, “Populism as a logic of political action,” European Journal of Social Theory (2018): 7. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368431018762540.

[24] Ibid, 8.

[25] Plato, “Book 8,” In The Republic, ed. Giovanni Ferrari (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 266-271.

[26] Thomas Hobbes, “Of Commonwealth,” in Leviathan, ed. John Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 148-159.

[27] George Philip, “The New Populism, Presidentialism and Market‐Orientated Reform in Spanish South America,” Government and Opposition 33, no. 1 (1998): 97, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-7053.1998.tb00784.x.

[28] Jens Rydgren, “The Sociology of the Radical Right,” Annual Review of Sociology 33, no. 1 (2007): 243, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.soc.33.040406.131752.

[29] Matthijs Rooduijn and Tjitske Akkerman, “Flank attacks: Populism and left-right radicalism in Western Europe,” Party Politics 23, no. 3 (2015): 196, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068815596514.

[30] Bernard Crick, “Populism, politics and democracy,” Democratization 12, no. 5 (2005): 630, https://doi.org/10.1080/13510340500321985.

[31] Philip, The New Populism, 97.

[32]Hans-Georg Betz, “The New Politics of Resentment: Radical Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western Europe,” Comparative Politics 25, no. 4 (1993a): 415, https://doi.org/10.2307/422034.

[33] Andrej Zaslove, “Closing the door? The ideology and impact of radical right populism on immigration policy in Austria and Italy,” Journal of Political Ideologies 9, no. 1 (2004): 101, https://doi.org/10.1080/1356931032000167490.

[34] Betz, Politics of Resentment, 47.

[35] Kathleen Blee and Kimberly Creasap, “Conservative and Right-Wing Movements,” Annual Review of Sociology 36 (2010): 276, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.soc.012809.102602.

[36] Betz, The New Politics of Resentment, 424.

[37] Zaslove, Closing the door?, 103.

[38] Oesch, Explaining Workers Support, 370.

[39] Augie Fleras, “Theorizing Multicultural Governances: Making Society Safe from Difference, Safe for Difference,” in The Politics of Multiculturalism Multicultural Governance in Comparative Perspective, ed. Augie Fleras (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 23-54.


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