Populist Myths

The conventional wisdom runs like this. Globalization has produced winners and losers. Populists have preyed on the losers by employing nationalism and offering them simplistic answers to complicated issues. Democracy is therefore at risk.

Just about everything about this narrative is wrong. For starters, no one quite knows what globalization is. Economists have their definitions, political scientists have theirs, and educated folk have theirs. More often than not, the term is just shorthand for “everything that is going on today”—or life. As such, the term is useless. Sometimes, globalization is said to involve some sort of “transnational” processes. This hunch is better, but the problem with it is that transnational movements of people, products, and ideas have been taking place since the dawn of civilization. It may be that such movements have been creating winners and losers for thousands of years, but it is not clear just how that explains anything about politics today.

The confusion surrounding nationalism is just as great. Some analysts regard it as equivalent to national identity. In that case, we are all nationalists. Others—including the first nationalists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—believe that nationalism is the claim that nations should have independent states. Most of us are nationalists in this sense of the word. Still, others claim that nationalism is the same as xenophobia and chauvinism. Few would describe themselves in this fashion. But the real problem with this definition is that it confuses things: why not just call xenophobia and chauvinism?

All Parties Offer Simplistic Solutions to Complex Issues

The greatest confusion surrounds the term populism. If, as most people would agree, populism is about offering simplistic, popular answers to complicated questions, then all politicians in all democracies are, of necessity, populists. When was the last time a party or leader tried to get elected by promising hardship, difficulty, and complexity? All parties—whether centrist, right-wing, or left-wing—offer simplistic solutions to complex issues. Leftists claim that raising taxes, reducing the workweek, or raising social expenditures will save the day. Rightists insist that stopping immigration, promoting family values, and cracking down on crime will solve society’s ills. Centrists generally try to have it all. Almost invariably, no one explains just how they intend to achieve these goals and deal with the unintended consequences of their actions. Intellectuals are even worse, inasmuch as they are prone to believe that getting things right theoretically automatically translates into effective policy.

In summary, the conventional wisdom boils down to this anodyne maxim: life produces winners and losers and political parties in democracies try to win the support either of the latter or the former.

What, then, is really going on? Because something definitely is. There is turmoil, there is dissatisfaction, there are crises—above all in the countries of the developed West. Things were not supposed to turn out this way in the aftermath of our resounding victory in the Cold War. History, after all, was supposed to end with the consolidation of liberal democracy and market economics.

In summary, the conventional wisdom boils down to this anodyne maxim: life produces winners and losers and political parties in democracies try to win the support either of the latter or the former.

The Forty Years of Cold War Peace are the Anomaly

Part of the answer to this question is that life has returned to its historical norm. The forty years of Cold War peace are arguably the anomaly. Before that, human history—and not just in Europe—was characterized by far more turmoil than we are seeing today. Bipolarity produced unipolarity and, perhaps inevitably, unipolarity resulted in the nerve-wracking jockeying for power known as multipolarity—especially now that the United States may be retreating from its role as global hegemon.

Another part of the answer is that the European Union—the site of so much of the ongoing turmoil—made several fundamental mistakes and is now paying the price. The Union may have been premature, as was expansion into Eastern Europe. Adopting the Euro was definitely premature as well as poorly conceived and executed. More importantly, the very idea that some unelected bureaucrats in Brussels could manage the affairs of over twenty independent states may just have been the height of hubris—especially as the digital revolution was mobilizing and polarizing people in ways that few could have foreseen.

The United States also made some critical mistakes in the aftermath of its Cold War victory. Invading Iraq is surely one of the most egregious, both in terms of the numbers of human lives that were lost and the strategic disadvantages that accrued to America. Ignoring the threat to world stability posed by Vladimir Putin was another such mistake. In both cases, America’s “hyperpower” status may have lulled it into believing that it could do no wrong.

Populism is a Product of Democratic Politics

Finally, the so-called populists have been able to grow in strength precisely because their populism has proven to be more appealing than the populism of the center and the left. There is nothing intrinsically more persuasive about right-wing populism. After all, all populisms are alike in that they offer simplistic solutions to complex problems. The problem with the populism of the center and left is that it became routinized and divorced from reality.

The bad news is that right-wing populism is a product of democratic politics. But the good news is that alternative populisms are also a product of democratic politics.

Take one example. How should the countries of the West respond to growing immigration and refugee flows? The center-left response was: by showing compassion and solidarity. True enough, perhaps, but compassion and solidarity do not help communities integrate and pay for immigrants and refugees. Building walls, in contrast, may not be very compassionate or solidarity a measure, but it seems to suggest a potentially effective simplistic answer to a complex question, if only because some walls do in fact manage to serve as effective barriers.

Populism needs to offer persuasive simplistic solutions to be a winning formula. It also needs to address all issues simplistically. The populism of the center and left failed on both counts. It left the realm of simple-minded politics for the realm of simple-minded morals—and morals will never trump politics. And it fell prey to political correctness and refused to provide simplistic solutions to such issues as crime, race, and refugees. That left the field open to the right, which mobilized constituencies by focusing its populism on just these very concerns.

The United States also made some critical mistakes in the aftermath of its Cold War victory. Invading Iraq is surely one of the most egregious, ignoring the threat to world stability posed by Vladimir Putin was another such mistake.

The bad news is that right-wing populism is a product of democratic politics. But the good news is that alternative populisms are also a product of democratic politics. For the center and left to win back their losses, they just have to be better populists than the right.

There is some evidence in America that this is already happening. American left-wing populists have recently adopted the utterly impractical, though politically attractive, Green New Deal. Just as President Trump’s wall will not solve America’s immigration problems, so, too, his opponents’ determination to wean the United States off fossil fuels in a mere decade will solve nothing. But both projects sound great and make their supporters feel good.

Moderates will have to do better than Barack Obama’s vague “Yes, we can” slogan, but it’s now up to them—in both the United States and Europe—to beat the far left and the far right at the populism game and thereby reassert democracy’s ability to generate reasonable and popular solutions to policy problems. But for that to happen, moderates will have to stop rejecting populism and start embracing it.

Alexander J. Motyl

is a Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark. He is a specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory and the author of 10 books of nonfiction. He is also a novelist, poet, and painter.

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Saving Europe?

Judging from the recent election to the EP, Europe seems to be increasingly fragmented. However, Czechs and Slovaks, the two most Eurosceptic nations in Europe, elected the two most pro-European delegations to the European Parliament in the region. Perhaps we should not panic.

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