We Are Asking the Wrong Questions about Populism

The upsurge of populism in the United States and Europe has us asking the wrong questions. The issue that should concern us is not what populists have in common. The similarities between Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage are unimportant. We also should stop wondering why voters on both sides of the Atlantic are so easily beguiled by political messages that combine rejection of the ‘establishment’ with some kind of appeal to identity politics. There has never been a shortage of voices calling for the overthrow of the elite or disgruntled voters willing to follow them and any slogan that promises that a history of victimhood can be replaced wth a future of privilege is always going to be attractive. Such mobilization against ‘the system’ is a hardy perennial of democratic politics.

The question we should be asking is why the traditional or mainstream political parties have failed to keep the populists and their supporters on the fringes of national politics. These traditional political parties are supposed to be the gatekeepers to power. In theory, the mainstream parties control the money, they have the infrastructure, they enjoy privileged access to the media, and they select what choices will be offered to the public. In practice, those parties seem to be imploding at every turn. That weakness or fragility demands explanation.

Consider what is happening to establishment candidates like Hilary Clinton and now Theresa May. Clinton has laid blame for her failure to win the presidency on a number of different doorsteps. Then FBI Director James Comey usually tops the list of complaints. But more recently she has accused the Democratic National Committee (DNC) of having neither the money nor the data required to wage a modern campaign. Where everyone assumed that Hilary benefited from the support of the DNC, she argues that the party was simply not up to the task.

Theresa May finds herself in a similar predicament. She called early elections at at time when the Conservative Party was way ahead in the polls. As prime minister and party leader, she should have been able to use the Conservative Party’s resources to dominate the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, she has suffered a series of missteps that are fueling speculation that the parliamentary party is moving away from her as a candidate. Meanwhile, Corbyn’s insurgent movement has taken over the Labour Party by attracting support from new constituencies in the British electorate.

The situation in France is even more dramatic. There, the two main parties — the Socialists and the Republicans — are being ground up between Emmanuel Macron as a non-traditional president and Marine Le Pen as the anti-system alternative. The problem is not simply that Macron is pulling away both voters and candidates during the run up to that country’s legislative elections. It is that he has managed to turn the traditions of the two mainstream parties against the current leadership and he has demonstrated an organizational capacity and an access to resources that the traditional parties cannot match. To see what I mean, just think about how easily the DNC’s computers were hacked and exploited and how effectively Macron was able to mount a response to similar attacks. The comparison is imprecise because the DNC is not part of a French political party and yet it is not hard to imagine that the Socialists would have been as up to the challenge as Macron and his team proved to be.

Dig deeper and it is easy to find illustrations of traditional parties coming up short — and over a period that stretches back into the last century. If the French situation is dramatic now, it is only because other countries have been there before. Analysts who breathed a sigh of relief with the Dutch populist Geert Wilders failed to emerge as the largest political party in that country’s recent parliamentary elections failed to note the collapse of the Dutch Party of Labour and the inability of the Liberals and the Christian Democrats to win enough seats to form a government. There were many decades during which these three groups commanded the overwhelming majority of the vote. Now Dutch coalition negotiations hinge on whether two one-time upstarts, D66 and the Green Left, can find enough common ground to join a government. The mainstream parties have also retreated in Belgium. In Austria, the two main parties dropped out of last year’s presidential elections and look likely to struggle when they go to the polls for early elections this autumn.

The Italian case is the most emblematic. There Christian Democrats squared off against Communists for much of the Cold War period. That hegemony of government and opposition collapsed spectacularly once the Cold War ended. The only political party to survive the transformation of the Italian political system was the populist-secessionist Lega Nord. Now even the successor parties are splintering with the result that the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) is widely expected to emerge as the largest group in the Italian parliament following the next round of elections. The only question is whether the vestiges of the old political order can maintain the support of the M5S to reform the country’s electoral system.

The answer to the question why traditional political parties are collapsing into irrelevance has a number of different dimensions. Money is easier to come by given the right direct marketing operations, campaign infrastructure is less important than celebrity for high-level contests, privileged access to the media can be bypassed via social networks, and candidates with enough money or fame can simply anoint themselves even in the face of opposition from ‘the establishment’. Here it is worth recalling the letters signed by Republican foreign policy experts against Donald Trump; the fact that they were right does not mean their opposition was effective.

This answer to the question about the weakness of mainstream or traditional political parties is more troubling than anything we might say about populists or populism. It suggests a weakness inherent in the institutions and procedures we use to shape democratic politics. Populist challengers have always existed; now they seem to have the advantage. If the experience of Italy is indicative, that could be dangerous for the longer-term stability of democratic institutions.


This essay was originally published on The Cipher Brief. You can find the edited version here.