Hope and optimism can seem in short supply in 2020. Not just because we are in the middle of a pandemic, where stagnation is the result for many countries. The impotence of governments and stark divisions in so many “Western” countries have created seismic shifts in political and societal attitudes. Many countries of the developed world and beyond have been swept by so-called “populist” opinions, which have been in resurgence after a long period of political stability. Voters from all shades of political background have shown their dissatisfaction and disappointment with the status quo and have moved further to the left or right to find a solution to their feeling of disenfranchisement. Through history when people feel hopeless, they look for “easy” solutions wherever they come from – sometimes from ideologies that would have been shunned previously.
The rise of populism and nationalism is nothing new when people feel powerless to improve their lot there is a tendency to move towards movements that give them hope of a better life. They are offered a vision of the future to aspire to and regardless of any accompanying unpleasant ideology they are “hooked” by that tempting offer. Rassemblement National (the former Front National) in France and the Lega in Italy have either already tasted significant electoral success. Other, younger parties - including Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Vox in Spain or Syriza in Greece - have made significant electoral advances and may not be far from achieving some significant political power. While Narendra Damodardas Modi has been Prime Minister of India since 2014, leading the Hindu nationalist right-wing BJP.
Elsewhere populism has impregnated mainstream political parties. Including, the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland under the Kaczyński brothers, Fidesz in Hungary under Viktor Orbán, and the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While erstwhile traditional political parties which have been part of the post-war capitalist, neoliberal consensus have also moved toward illiberal policies in response to the populist challenge. The Conservative Party in the UK has for example gradually moved from the centre-ground to embrace political positions that were previously the preserve of the UK Independence or the Brexit parties. At the same time jettisoning senior members who were not prepared to abandon their traditional beliefs. In the USA the Republican Party has in its adoption of populism, impregnated by Christian fundamentalism moved significantly to the right, abandoning the centre-ground to the Democrats. Trump offered a simplistic and optimistic vision for voters in 2016 “Make America Great Again” – harking back to some imagined better place and time. This sort of message was interpreted to mean different things by different factions including religious zealots and white nationalists. The dissolution of voters with the establishment swept Trump and the Republicans to power showing that even rhetoric which sows division and distrust can be effective in motivating an electorate. Trump’s version of nationalism and divisive politics has been very effective in mobilising a considerable section of American society.
If we look at History, populism isn’t new. Hitler was a populist offering a nationalist vision of a greater Germany with striking imagery and propaganda. The imaginative vision, however, hid a darker purpose and evil agenda, which the population at large chose to ignore. It is a method of garnering support adopted by demagogs and would-be dictators in many countries and has successes when the population feel aggrieved and without hope.
The rise of a nationalist agenda has gone hand in hand with rampant populism. In the UK the populism of the Conservatives in England is likely to embolden nationalism in Scotland as much of Scotland’s population reject the Conservative agenda and feel nothing in common with the Conservative cabinet, dominated by former public schoolboys. If people feel they are repeatedly ignored by an aloof and distant elite, it plays into the hands of populists and nationalists. History teaches us resentment and discontent have to be addressed or there will come a reckoning. The Scottish National Party have attempted to adopt a left of centre agenda to enable its supplanting of the Labour Party in Scotland, which is different from the right of centre populism adopted by nationalist parties in the rest of Europe. However, the SNP is not without xenophobic elements which regard the “English” with contempt and however the leadership tries to quiet these elements they run through the SNP like the writing on a stick of rock. It is sad that xenophobia isn’t effectively challenged in the SNP and this belief that the Scots are “different” from the English isn’t rubbished. So many of our peoples share a very mixed British Isles heritage – one only need to look at the number of Scottish surnames in any “English” city to understand that the UK is a melting pot and has been for centuries.
Our UK electoral system which favours government by a party that doesn’t represent the majority opinion of its people is a major driver in splitting the United Kingdom. The electoral system for the UK doesn’t reflect the will of the British people and while we suffer the “tyranny of the minority” there will be grievances that will foster nationalism and populism. Vested interests of the two major parties in the UK are likely to hold up electoral reform and prop up a parliamentary system which isn’t representative.
Populism has gone beyond being a force to be reckoned with, to becoming one of the main challenges for democratic societies today. Populism is on the rise all over the developed world. The economic decline which affects many traditional industrial areas is a breeding ground for dissatisfaction and it is little wonder so many people feel “left behind”. In 2016 Trump capitalised on this frustration felt in the “Rust Belt” states to sweep to power. The Trump supporters proclaimed cultural and economic reasons to embrace this populism and a more extreme political position. Some, no doubt feel uneasy in a society that has become more tolerant and multicultural and therefore is very different to the values of their upbringing. I can understand, as someone in their 7th decade, how people brought up in the ’60s and 70’s feel disorientated. I recognise that despite an upbringing that was loving and permitted me to explore my own beliefs and values I can still be prejudiced. I am a product of my time and I understand that in order to live with my conscience I need to actively suppress outdated ideas and values and embrace a world that my children and successive generations can make even better. If we are to tackle this rise in populism, it is essential to fix the problems of the many places that have increasingly come to believe they just don’t count.
The liberal world order that has been challenged is not without blame as it has been ineffective in challenging multinationals and their control of national economies. There is some justification in the assertion that giving free rein to the post-war capitalist economy ignored the rights of individual workers in favour of corporations and profit. The 2008 financial crisis was a result of corporate greed and a lack of effective oversight. The changes in the world economy since 2008 don’t indicate that governments have learnt their lesson. The enormous growth of tech companies and the supplanting of many smaller companies by Amazon in the retail sector makes the scale of many multinationals influence dwarf that of most countries. It is little wonder that “ordinary people” feel threatened by a more integrated and globalised economy, in which traditional manufacturing jobs have moved to other parts of the world where they can be produced at significantly lower prices.
The post-war growth in the middle class sustained the liberal consensus as many benefitted from the post-war economic boom. There was a tangible feeling of betterment which with low unemployment gave people a feeling of security. The movement of businesses to adopt more exploitative labour practices of the “gig economy” in recent years has been only one area where monopolistic or oligopolistic power has changed the face of society and reduced the feeling of individual control and security. During this same period, wealth has been concentrated into fewer individuals and the wealthy have continued to do well as others have become more marginalised.
The post-war liberal world order despite all its flaws managed to provide the longest period of peace and economic growth we have experienced. The reforms that are necessary to redress the feelings of the “left behind” are within the power of governments. They need to adopt a more interventionist approach because the problems won’t solve themselves and the economy is dominated by large multinationals that are not altruistic by nature. Governments can expand public employment to ease downturns in employment in particular areas but investment in infrastructure, to even the competitive playing field is required on a scale we haven’t seen in decades. Incentives and support for innovation targeted at “left behind” areas would help to ease the impression that some areas just “don’t count”.
At a supranational political level the fracturing of a multinational approach to solving world problems by the Trump government amongst others as made dealing with global crises in health, climate and economic decline much more difficult. The United Nations and other multilateralist organisations have been emasculated by populist governments “going their own way”. There is no doubt these organisations need reform because in many cases they haven’t adapted with the times. They are less democratic than is acceptable now and the methods of funding them are less than transparent. Yet we need an organisation like WHO to coordinate efforts and share information in times of health crises and walking away from them rather than seeking reform is not only irresponsible it is dangerous.
So where do we find hope and optimism for the future? Well, firstly the UN and other multilateral organisations are trying to reform from the inside but vested interests are blinding some governments from the need to move this reform faster. There is a recognition that despite flaws there is value in these multilateral organisations and if populism and isolationism is to be combatted these organisations need to evolve.
In terms of national governments and the EU bloc, there are proven methods that can be used to transform infrastructure and with the need for an economic stimulus post-pandemic, this should be any governments top priority. Governments need to revert to Keynesian economics and build our way towards economic growth. Governments need to use all their levers of power to regenerate the areas suffering from stagnation and re-engage in regional development. The “Green” economy with the need to care for our planet more has to move up the agenda and it offers opportunities to grow our way out of the current economic malaise. China by investing in solar energy has made significant advances bring down the cost of electricity for all of us and there is so much more that can be done. We have to remember that in revitalising areas that have been left behind we mustn’t make the mistakes of the past by centralising control and trying top-down change. The nations, regions and communities must be given an opportunity to participate and contribute so that they feel closer to the solutions and their own salvation. Real participation is ultimately the way to counter populism. In doing so our politicians have to convey a sense of optimism and hope that offers more than empty promises or rabble-rousing rhetoric.
Ritchie Cunningham 1st November 2020