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Is there a global wave of populism?

Local circumstances, individual talent and a dash of pure chance might have brought about the political results we have seen across the world, not populism.

Is there a global wave of populism?

I was really pleased to see this new essay in The Monthy by Andrew Charlton and Lachlan Harris, because it draws further attention to the decline in public support for our two major parties, a phenomenon which is gradually reshaping Australian politics (Peter Hartcher focused on it earlier this week too). But I have some reservations about Charlton and Harris' focus on 'populism' as key driver of this change here and around the Western world. They conclude that:

If this populist groundswell is allowed to run unchecked in Australia, it could gather enough momentum to shift our place in the world, as Brexit did for Britain, or rupture the tensile meniscus around our multicultural society, as Le Pen has done in France, or upend our support for the principle of open markets, as Sanders and Trump did in the US.

I very much agree that the steady erosion of public support for the two major parties is an under-appreciated phenomenon, and that it could lead to big changes in our foreign policy and place in the world, but why blame populism?

It is perhaps a stuffy academic habit, but let's start with a definition. A crude working one would be that populism is a preference for majoritarianism or 'people power' at the expense of representative democracy; populism tends to disdain democratic institutions such as the courts, the parliament and the free press if these interfere with 'the general will'. Another definition is that a populist is someone who claims to stand above or apart from politics-as-usual; it is the guise of the outsider who has come to clean up a corrupt system. This is closer to where Charlton and Harris come out, and it allows them to lump the Greens in as a populist movement.

But either way, it's not clear that a rise in populism explains recent developments in Western democracies. We probably wouldn't even be talking about 'a global wave of populism' if not for Trump, who clearly exhibits many of the characteristics of a populist. Charlton and Harris cite a US poll showing that Republicans who believe 'people like me don’t have a say about what the government does' were 86.5% more likely to favour Trump than his rivals in the GOP primaries.

That's a compelling figure and fits nicely with the 'populism' story, though without historical context (have any previous major-party candidates commanded similar support?) it is hard to judge its true significance. And the evidence for Trump as a populist phenomenon is otherwise weak, as I argued in an earlier post.

It is hard to think of a more establishment figure in the GOP than Mitt Romney, yet Trump beat Romney's share of the vote in 2012 by just two percentage points. Moreover, it barely needs mentioning that Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, and in fact, the 2016 election was close enough that any number of factors, including the weather, could have decided the result. It seems risky to base judgments about global sentiment on such slender evidence.

Charlton and Harris also cite the Syriza party in Greece, which 'led a historic rejection of the prevailing economic orthodoxy of austerity...only to make a U-turn immediately thereafter. In government Syriza has implemented many of the austerity policies it railed against and has quietly morphed into a tame partner of international financial institutions'. But what the authors don't mention is that despite abandoning economic populism in its short first term in government, Syriza was comfortably returned to office in September 2015. So was populism really the source of Syriza's popularity, or was it something else?

We must also account for the role of individuals in all this, brilliant people who are able to parlay electoral victories from inchoate popular sentiments that in some cases don't even enjoy majority support. Pundits and the Democratic Party clearly underestimated Trump's talent in this regard, and in the case of Brexit, I would recommend this wonderful piece about the role played by clever designers and marketers in getting the referendum over the line.

In sum, I would caution that, while it is attractive to look for universal causes ('the Orwell temptation'), there may not be one. It's possible that local circumstances, individual talent and a dash of pure chance have brought about the results we have seen in the UK, Europe, Greece, Australia and the US.

If there is anything approaching a global phenomenon, I would point not to a change in the people but in the major parties; it is the big, old parties that are drifting away from the people, not the other way around. That might explain why Syriza was returned despite its support for economic austerity (Syriza is a relatively young party), why the Republican Party backed a candidate who was not really a Republican, why the Democrats went close to backing a presidential candidate (Sanders) who was not really a Democrat, why Corbyn is so popular among the Labour Party base yet so hated by his parliamentary colleagues, and why in the 2016 Australian federal election Labor recorded its second-lowest primary vote since 1934, with the Coalition not far behind.

Photo: Getty Images/ Brett Carlsen

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