The Populist Threat

"Therefore Europe!" Berlin, August 2017.

Populism can make its presence felt among any group of ordinary people in any democratic country which is being subjected to stressful forces. As a result of such stress, this group of people may identify itself with a leader who they believe can provide them with more material support and hope for the future than the elite politicians running the country.

Indeed, the whole dynamic supporting populism relies on the fact that some group of ordinary citizens does not view the government as legitimately and properly representing their interests.  As a consequence, they lose respect for the institutions associated with representative democracy (political parties, legislatures, courts) and are perfectly willing to bypass these institutions when necessary through recourse to direct political action.

Such direct political action often (though not always) involves some measure of illegality. It frequently takes the perfectly legal form of using referendums to bypass national institutions.  Populism always expresses itself in the form of a direct and unmediated relationship between “the people” and their leader. This leader is typically charismatic—meaning that, by force of personality and sheer animal magnetism, he or she can form a direct bond with followers.

In the modern media age, this dynamic and outspoken leader is also usually handsome/beautiful or otherwise ruggedly “compelling” in a movie star kind of way. And there is good reason why populists possess these personal attributes. Given the grip that elite politicians have on traditional representative democratic institutions and the media, the populist leader needs to present his or her ideas theatrically to bypass these institutions and to reach the “chosen people” directly.

As economic stresses continue to grow, levels of support for representative democratic government further decline. Public distrust today of democratic institutions within the 15 “original” members of the EU is nothing less than shocking. Only 16 percent of citizens trust their political parties and only 35 percent their national parliaments. The overall level of trust in national governments now stands at 30 percent.

By way of contrast, television earns the trust of 54 percent, the army 63 percent, and the police, 65 percent. Most strikingly, political parties are the least trusted institution, and national governments are less trusted than the EU and the United Nations. To make matters worse, levels of public trust in democratic institutions are even lower in the EU’s new member states. Here, political parties only hold the loyalties of 7 percent of the people and an incredibly low 3 percent in Poland.

Anti-fascist demo flyer. Neukölln, August 2017.

At the other end of the “trust spectrum” stand the media (radio and television) and the army with trust levels in the 60 percent range. More significantly, the levels of trust for the three institutional pillars of representative democracy (political parties, parliament, and the judiciary) are higher in Latin American countries than in the newly admitted members of the EU.

And until recently, populism has received very little attention. Why is it such an understudied political phenomenon?  Due to a persistence in belief by policymakers, held over from the Cold War, that Europe remains guided by a general global movement away from totalitarian forms of government and towards democracy, in spite of the erosion of existing liberal democratic institutions in the West, and a turn backwards, towards authoritarianism, in Europe’s newer member states, and Italy.

But populism is also hard to “see.” Because it is a dynamic, unstable, and ephemeral force operating within representative democracies, it is as difficult to pin down as are quarks by physicists. Compare, for example, the difficulty of studying the elusive and dynamic populist to that of studying a well-known democratic leader, dictator, or even terrorist.  Unlike a Tony Blair, Kim Jong-il, or Osama Bin Laden, a populist leader such as Pym Fortuyn literally can explode upon the political scene and often just as quickly vanish from it.

Populism is also neglected because we tend to view it as a rather benign or, at worst, slightly malignant force found within a generally healthy democratic body politic. This perspective on populism is the product of our own unique historical experience with it. Our inattention to the political implications of populism also results from the fact that the last great burst of populist turbulence in Europe occurred more than 60 years ago.

Benito Mussolini exploded onto the Italian democratic political scene in 1919 when he first ran for a seat in Parliament. A short 2 years later, the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, asked him to form a new government. While Adolph Hitler emerged less quickly within Germany’s post-World War I democratic Weimar Republic, he eventually formed part of a larger cluster of populist politicians.

Populism has shown an ability in the past to quickly and dramatically alter the strategic environment in Europe.  The last great burst of populist turbulence in the 1920s and 1930s dramatically changed the political terrain. We need to pay more attention to populism because it significantly altered the political environment in the EU since the turn of the century.

“Stop asylum fraud.” Neukölln, September 2017.

In the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War has resulted in the creation of institutional structures that are often fragile at best. The forces of grassroots democracy that the process of democratisation has unleashed threaten to overwhelm representative institutions in countries where these institutions are either over or underdeveloped.

Under such conditions, populists who have the ability to directly connect with “the people” or even shape peoples’ views of their collective identity, will be empowered to reshape democracy itself.  All democracies produce populists, and all of these populists share the common characteristics of charisma, dynamism, and “curb appeal” to a popular constituency (“the people”).

And in all cases, these populists cater to people who view them as providing answers to problems that elite politicians are believed to be ignoring. The lack of trust that citizens of the have in their democratic institutions is reflected in low voter turnout for recent elections. It is no coincidence that the same countries that saw low voter turnout for these elections also experienced a rise in populist success at the ballot box.

A burst of populist turbulence in Europe is something that, by definition, would not be easy for security planners to prepare for at the last minute.  Take, for example, the political impact of enlargement. Most observers believe that the recent rapid expansion of the EU is a “net plus” with regard to consolidating regional democratic institutions. However, enlargement also is sowing the seeds of a populist reaction to it.

A high level of anxiety exists among many Europeans regarding where this seemingly inexorable drive for further expansion eventually will lead. And the EU’s recent agreement to launch accession talks with Turkey has raised levels of anxiety even further. The successful conclusion of these talks would result in the addition of a Muslim country to the EU whose population is about the size of Germany.

Not only does this raise the spectre of future job losses among Europe’s people, but also of the possible future loss of the region’s historically Christian identity. Imagine a scenario in which a number of charismatic populist politicians are able to bond with “the people” by tapping into the rich vein of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and apprehension that has been created by the recent activities of that rapidly expanding “quasi-state” known as the EU.

Germany against Islamophobia and fascism. Die Linke infobooth, Hermannplatz.

Picture then, if you will, a Europe where majority national groups in various countries look inward rather than “outward” to the EU for solutions to their problems. Populist politicians increasingly are likely to identify various internal and external groups who can be used to “put a human face” on the stresses and anxieties that afflict common people.

Unfortunately, this human face would probably be that of “Old Europe’s” population of immigrant workers (Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Asians, Africans) and “New Europe’s” population of minority groups such as the Roma. The responsibility for the problems that these groups are alleged to have created would be laid at the feet of elite politicians acting in consort with the incompetent bureaucrats of the EU.

Is this too stark a set of scenarios for the future of representative democracy in Europe? Not if history is our guide.

Adapted from  The Strategic Implications of the Rise of Populism in Europe and South America by Steve C. Ropp (2005). Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.