Understanding Why Right-Wing Populism Succeeds

11th July 2019 / United Kingdom
Understanding Why Right-Wing Populism Succeeds
By Simon Wren-Lewis: I have just been re-reading “Populism and the People” by Jan-Werner Müller in the London Review of Books (May 2019). It is the most concise and I think perceptive account of the most worrying political development of our time: the rise of the right wing populist. This is Trump and Farage, but also Orbán in Hungary, Erdoğan in Turkey, Kaczyński in Poland,  Modi in India and Bolsonaro in Brazil. What they have in common is a:

“populist art of governance … based on nationalism (often with racist overtones), on hijacking the state for the ends of partisan loyalists and, less obviously, on weaponising the economy to secure political power: a combination of culture war, patronage and mass clientelism.”

But there is one standout paragraph for me, and so I will reproduce it in full.

“But have so many people really been converted to the views of the far right? Contrary to the domino theory propounded by pundits, and by the populists themselves – first Brexit, then Trump, then Le Pen etc – the fact remains that no right-wing populist has yet come to power anywhere in Western Europe or North America without the collaboration of established conservative elites. Farage did not bring Brexit about by himself; he needed Michael Gove, Boris Johnson et al to assure voters that it was a jolly good idea. Trump wasn’t elected as the leader of a spontaneous grassroots movement of – as the cliché has it – angry white working-class males; he was the candidate of the ultimate party of the establishment and needed the support of Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich – all of whom vouched for him. What happened on 8 November 2016 can in one sense be explained in the most banal terms. Citizens who identify with the Republican Party came out and did what voters do on election day: they cast a ballot for their party. What took place was utterly normal, except that the candidate himself wasn’t quite so normal.”

This process can seem perfectly normal if you take it for granted that the right has to sell out to the far right if it is to survive, and the right has no other choice. But it is not inevitable that the Conservative party sat back and allowed its ranks to be swelled by ex-UKIP members, who promptly started trying to deselect candidates who spoke out against No Deal. It was not inevitable that Cameron pledged to have a referendum on EU membership where he allowed the Leave side not to specify what kind of Brexit they were proposing. And in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Tory opposition and their backers in the right-wing press did not have to start using immigration is a political weapon. It was not inevitable that Osborne chose austerity, which helped create the conditions for Brexit.
As ever, this is about going for short term gains that have the risk of far greater longer-term costs. No doubt someone at Conservative party HQ thought that increasing membership had its advantages. The Conservative focus on immigration lead to the rise in UKIP, and in 2010 setting up immigration targets that were never going to be hit strengthened UKIP even further. It was that strength that led Cameron to make his ill-fated pledge. Osborne’s austerity might have embarrassed Labour and shrunk the state but it intensified anti-immigration attitudes.
But I think, in the UK at least, there is something more, and that is the normalisation of the far right by the BBC, coupled with a demonisation of the left by the centre more widely. That the BBC has been pressured by the government and its press into adopting a more favourable stance towards the Conservatives than Labour is well known and beyond dispute, except of course at the BBC. But I think that has also led to the normalisation of the far right, which is equally dangerous. It is made up of a lot of little things: unchallenged coverage of the Brexit party launch, not bothering to highlight links between Bannon and Johnson (here is ITV’s coverage), inviting a far-right representative on Newsnight straight after the Christchurch terrorist attack, and so on. It is worse at the BBC, but other broadcasters are not totally innocent. The Brexit party is not a party but an organisation where no one can challenge the leader, a leader who is well versed in 1930s fascist imagery.
Coupled with the centre’s normalisation of the far right is a demonisation of the main opposition to the Conservative party. To quote Gary Young:

“Throughout this time media elites, drawn from the same class as their financial and political counterparts, have mostly been obsessed by the crisis in leadership in an ostensibly “unelectable” Labour party, which has had the same leader for four years – and gained seats and vote share in the last general election. Those media elites have called pretty much every major political event, from Brexit to the last two elections, incorrectly.”

When the democratically elected leader of a party of half a million is considered beyond the pale, you get an environment that inevitably enables the rightward drift of the other main party. Every news organisation worth its salt should be hounding Johnson about his failure to rule out proroguing parliament as a direct attack on democracy. Just as it makes no sense to balance truth with lies, it makes no sense to tolerate attacks on our democracy. Without that kind of defence from our media and politicians, it becomes an easy slide to the populism that Jan-Werner Müller talks so incisively about.
Simon Wren-Lewis is Emeritus Professor of Economics and Fellow of Merton College, University of Oxford.

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