Politicians and journalists have a weakness for grand narratives. One of today’s goes like this: the democratic world is in the throes of a dangerous, nasty populist-nationalist moment. In country after country, it is mobilizing passions that threaten to disrupt if not destroy democracy itself. The dark clouds of fascism are about to descend. It’s just like the 1930s! Variants of this scenario have sprung up and are endlessly recycled by differing elite segments in each country. The narrative has also become the fervently held belief of the world’s transnational elite, who have applied it to phenomena ranging from Britain’s Brexit vote to France’s gilets jaunes movement to the rise of charismatic national leaders and to the election of coalitions that command majority support in their country.
The populist phenomenon does evoke modest parallels to the pre-Second World War period. But like all grand narratives, it discards facts or invents new ones to further its plot.
The West appears to be exiting the outwardly calm, elite consensus-dominated post-Cold War era. Often described as the triumph of liberal democracy or, even more grandiosely, as the “End of History,” this period now appears less durable and more transient than its proponents predicted and hoped. We seem to be entering a phase that might be described as one of national peculiarities. The movements called “populist”, “nationalist”, “far-right” or “extreme” – often all four at once – are at bottom national political movements addressing national problems for those deemed their own nationals. Like nations themselves, each of these movements is a unique political expression, arising from the particularities of a nation’s history and addressing particular causes.
The grand narrative appears to have been triggered more by populist rhetoric than actions. Populists from Brazil to Hungary have said unconscionable things about human rights, democratic norms, particular minorities and individual lifestyle modes. Bombastic speech has tainted any leader who took ship in the choppy waters of nationalism, riding its currents to defy the rising tide of progressive consensus over environmental and immigration policies. Thousands – perhaps millions – of column inches and terabytes of video have been taken up in framing the rise of populists as a lamentable mix of questionable tactics, cynical abuses and sinister causes exploiting the worst elements of the human psyche.
Populists hold office in roughly one-dozen countries on five continents, and in several more are the nation’s main opposition (either as parties or movements). But the globe-girdling hand-wringing has cast the actual policies of these movements into the shadows. The grand narrative and its accompanying din of denunciation are obscuring rather than illuminating the truth. Because mainstream coverage is largely one-dimensional, cartoonish, selective and biased – when not downright misrepresentative – C2C Journal felt that Canadians deserved a clear-eyed look at populism in a representative cross-section of countries.
In this special two-part report, C2C’s Mathew Preston examines populist movements around the world, providing snapshots on what is driving them, who leads them, how they won and what they are doing with political power.
One element of “the narrative” is that these movements, as dramatic and threatening as they may seem, will blow over, blow out or blow up. Whatever you may think of them, however, it seems more likely that this is one party that’s just getting started.
Denmark – A little mermaid with steel fins
The small Scandinavian country of 5.7 million illustrates that, stripped of the bombastic rhetoric and other aesthetic blemishes, the policies populists advocate can be a winning formula. On June 5, Denmark’s populist Danish People’s Party lost national elections – but its ideas won big. The party’s restrictionist immigration policies had become too popular merely to denounce and dismiss, let alone ignore. Instead, even Denmark’s left-wing Social Democrats took a harder line on immigration during the campaign. And, largely as a result, the Social Democrat-led bloc of parties won a plurality in Denmark’s parliament, the Folketing, and will form a coalition government.
The previously governing centre-right coalition had enacted laws banning the burqa in public, empowered immigration officials to confiscate jewelry and other valuables from migrants to pay for their care, and launched a “paradigm shift” on asylum policy, dumping integration in favour of repatriation as the end goal. The Social Democrats voted for these policies in parliament – a stunning move that’s difficult to picture happening in Canada.
Denmark’s newfound national consensus on immigration-related matters moved the subsequent election campaign’s focus to other policy areas. International voices still denounce Denmark’s political parties, but despite pushing harder in substance than some other populists who gain power, they have escaped being mentioned in the same breathe as the standard bugbears of the anti-populists: Trump, Brexit and Brazil.
Italy – “La pacchia è finite”
“The party’s over” and variations on this phrase became among the favourite sayings of Matteo Salvini, a career politician from northern Italy who grew synonymous with Italy’s great shift away from uncontrolled borders. Salvini’s memorable lines are rhetorical shots across the bows of the hundreds of boatloads of illegal migrants streaming across the Mediterranean Sea mainly from Libya for Italy’s heretofore hospitable shores.
Yet Italy isn’t reviled like some other countries with populist governments, except perhaps by the technocratic, immovably pro-European Union leadership of its neighbour to the northwest, France. Perhaps this is because Italy has been run by populists before. Or maybe because oddball politics run through the veins of Italy’s body politic. The current populist government reflects this; it is a coalition between the left-wing Five Star Movement (M5S) and the right-wing Lega (formerly the Northern League).
Italy’s status as a major entry point for migrants from North Africa and the Middle East and voter discontent over EU-imposed austerity drove the two parties and their partners to victory last year. M5S promised a guaranteed basic income, Lega a flat tax, and both strong curtailment of illegal migrants. The tax and benefit promises would have run roughshod over EU-imposed budget constraints. Italy’s discontent was about taking back control from Brussels.
Italy’s government provoked intense external condemnation when, in June 2018, the country denied docking to a ship with 600 migrants. Spain eventually accepted the ship. French President Emmanuel Macron declared the act “cynical and irresponsible” and sneered that populism was spreading across Europe “like leprosy.” Italy’s Foreign Minister shot back that Macron takes a hard line himself on migrants crossing from Italy into France. France’s “Europe Minister” said his country would not be dragged into a “stupidity contest” with Italy. One Italian critic lamented, “Italians are going backwards, socially, amid an upsurge of nationalism that displays racist animus against anything perceived to be an alien body.”
Most Italians clearly didn’t see it that way. In the previous five years they had witnessed 640,000 migrants entering their country. Many were brazenly and at times illegally enabled by international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that encourage the often gang- or Mafia-connected traffickers by rescuing the smaller boatloads at sea and dumping them in Italian ports. Voters were fed up.
Those hard facts are virtually never included in the mainstream narrative and may explain why Salvini, as the new Interior Minister, was able not merely to resist international criticism but double down. In a speech last year, he declared: “The warning has arrived for the human traffickers, as for the mafiosi and camorristi [crime syndicate]: the carnival is over.” By this year, Italy had brought about a stunning drop of 97 percent in migrant landings, arguably wresting back control of its own borders. It’s probably no coincidence the polls indicate Salvini remains Italy’s most popular politician.
Fiscal policy was the populists’ other big driver. Eurozone budget rules that restrict deficits (in order to forestall national shocks to the Euro) meant that Italians struggling in a perpetually weak economy could not be helped in a way voters felt was sufficient. Worse yet, under European Central Bank rules, Italy is being threatened with legal action if it won’t limit its deficits to levels acceptable to that unelected body. Running massive deficits for welfare giveaways might not make sense to Canadian conservatives. But in a nation of rampant tax evasion and dismal employment numbers, a universal basic income and a flat tax don’t seem crazy to most Italians. What they regard as madness is the EU’s faceless bureaucracy prohibiting policy innovations by the government they elected.
Australia – A “Bogan’s” fair dinkum practicality trumps costly green utopianism
The “populist” win in Australia offers the closest analogies to Canada’s political situation. This is largely due to the two countries’ shared culture, politics and governing system, and their similar economies. Additional factors may be the crushing political correctness permeating each country’s establishment and the accompanying obsession with climate policy. All of this crystallized in the stunning May 18 victory of Australia’s Liberals – which Down Under means conservative – in cooperation with the National Party (dubbed the “Coalition”). Even Liberal leader Scott Morrison seemed surprised on election night, declaring in his victory speech, “I have always believed in miracles”.
The Coalition won by dominating in the conservative, agricultural and resource-producing state of Queensland, thanks largely to its promises to open a huge new coal mine and to keep Australia’s coal-fired power plants online. These are practical matters on their face, but in today’s political environment they are both tied into and serve as symbolic shorthand for a voter’s attitude towards climate and energy policies.
The opposition Labour Party waffled on the mine decision while running on a far-left environmental policy that included promising that by 2030, 50 percent of Australia’s electrical power would be generated from renewable energy and 50 percent of vehicles sold would be electric. Labour also called for reducing overall carbon emissions by 45 percent, which would require getting rid of Australia’s electrical power backbone, its coal-fired generating stations. One economist’s model concluded Labour’s plan would cost the Australian economy AUD$264 billion and kill 167,000 jobs.
The charges of Labour’s climate extremism, however, mainly stuck due to the party’s willingness to work closely with the Green Party. Perhaps some Aussies had also noticed the climate extremism that resulted in B.C. after a social-democratic party jumped into bed with a green one. In any case, many Australians were shying away from green utopianism. The country had already suffered brown-outs from an earlier too-rapid transition to renewable energy sources. Cutting or limiting coal exports would stab at the heart of Australia’s economy, which is based on resource extraction and exports.
As Immigration Minister in the previous Coalition government, Morrison was castigated for turning back migrant boats, but the move proved popular. This time, he branded himself as an everyman – what Aussies call a Bogan – and decided to face down the climate crusaders, creating the axis around which the election turned. That certainly proved provocative; during the campaign, Morrison was egged at a campaign stop. Post-election, a progressive columnist wrote that, “It’s the country that’s rotten,” and that people felt “that their fellow citizens had chosen their investment properties over climate action.”
The Liberal Party is notorious for its factionalism, and Australian parliamentary rules make leaders especially susceptible to defenestration, making it hard to predict whether and how the new government’s policies will be implemented. But the fact remains the Coalition won an election all pundits, all polls, and all elites said it would lose. And it won precisely because of the factors the naysayers said guaranteed its defeat. In Oz, a strong economy, common-sense environmental policy and defence of national culture trumped the pan-global progressive consensus around energy, greenhouse gases, migration and the supposed terminal economic and social irrelevance of blue-collar workers.
End of Part I
Coming in Part II: profiles of several more fascinating countries – with leaders who say even crazier things than Donald Trump – and a preliminary take on what the future might hold.