From Trump's America to Europe, citizens of many advanced democracies are frustrated. Populist politicians are succeeding in the most unlikely places. In normally staid Sweden, the populist rightwing Sweden Democrats earned third place in Sweden’s recent parliamentary elections. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has been under challenge from the far-right Alternative for Deutschland, which is challenging Germany’s postwar limits on civic debate.
While as with all political debates, there are local variations, voter frustrations across much of the transatlantic democratic space derive from several fundamental insecurities. Many citizens feel they've been left behind by the globalized economy and are uncertain about their economic future and that of their children. They are worried about the physical security of their families in an age of terrorism and political hate speech and threats. They are nervous about the cultural change they see in their societies as migration from conflict regions and troubled neighbors to their country occurs. There are few refuges to escape these fears - even online, due to state sponsored and rogue actor actions, their privacy and personal data are not safe and no one - government agencies or the tech companies they originally put their faith in - seems up to the challenge of protecting their personal information.
Many citizens feel they've been left behind by the globalized economy and are uncertain about their economic future and that of their children.
Across all the countries experiencing a rise in populism, voter frustration with governments’ inability to deliver is high. With the populist moment leading in some cases to minority governments in Europe, greater polarization in the United States, or in the case of Germany, governments unable to tackle challenges, that frustration is likely to only grow.
Yet will populism's rise continue unabated or will something reverse the recent trend? While it's difficult to see at present, there is some light on the horizon. Here are a few reasons the current populist moment may be temporary and even beginning to peak.
Populism often leads to false saviors. Populist movements often fizzle and ultimately disappear in part because of the difficulty their leaders face when given the opportunity to govern. Populist campaign slogans often don't translate into a coherent governing agenda, let alone one that can be implemented through parliamentary systems or the complex checks and balances of America's constitutional republic.
Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 67 that "Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honours of a single state." It was because of this concern about the persuasive appeal of populists that the Founders built a system of checks and balances to limit the president's power. In many European countries, populist parties have only achieved enough support to be spoilers, destined to sit outside of government and criticize the governing majority. Such tactics are often seen as successful by voters for only so long, especially if the voters' fundamental concerns are unaddressed. In other countries, like Italy, Hungary, or Poland, populist governments don’t just have a domestic opposition to contend with, but also the regulations imposed by European Union institutions in Brussels.
Democratic citizens who are drawn to populists will often end up sorely disappointed, even if they don't lose faith with the populist figure, they will ultimately realize that the individuals they placed so much faith in to change the system, to shake things up, were no different than those who came before them.
Populism leads to short-termism. The advanced democracies of North America and Europe face significant challenges. Our economies are changing, many countries have broken immigration systems and in some, there are growing rural/urban and economic divides. After seventeen years of counterterror operations with perceived little to show for it, our foreign policies are under challenge. Yet in some countries, basic tasks such as agreeing on a budget or keeping the government funded appear to be a challenge. This democratic malaise evident in many parts of the transatlantic space is likely to bring societal challenges to the forefront sooner than may be expected. Some voters who supported populists may become so disheartened by the results that they abandon the political system. For democratic societies to thrive, elected officials are eventually going to have to find a way to tackle the many challenges facing their countries.
Populism creates vulnerabilities. It's not just domestic political actors that can take advantage of citizens’ frustrations and the turmoil often left in populism’s wake. In the social media age, democratic societies have become more vulnerable to foreign manipulation and interference. Europe has long been on the front lines of this challenge, but the United States is now the target of multiple operations by a growing list of authoritarian actors, especially Russia and China, often attempting to exploit political grievances on both sides of the political spectrum.
What is needed to counter the current populist wave is in effect a "responsible populism" - leaders who can win not by inciting hate or pitting one side of the political spectrum against the other, but can inspire a coalition willing to tackle shared challenges.
Because of these reasons, the current populist moment will ultimately be unsustainable. Democratic citizens who are drawn to populists will often end up sorely disappointed, even if they don't lose faith with the populist figure, they will ultimately realize that the individuals they placed so much faith in to change the system, to shake things up, were no different than those who came before them.
The current populist moment will ultimately be unsustainable.
What is needed to counter the current populist wave is in effect a "responsible populism" - leaders who can win not by inciting hate or pitting one side of the political spectrum against the other, but can inspire a coalition willing to tackle shared challenges. Far too many conventional politicians continue to play into the populists' hands. Sensitive issues like immigration and cultural changes are regarded as off limits rather than confronted head on. Then Senator Obama’s comment about rural voters that “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” is a perfect example of this dynamic. Recognizing and refusing to automatically delegitimize the origins of populism is the first step toward addressing the valid concerns that many democratic citizens have about life in the twenty-first century.
Jamie Fly is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Future of Geopolitics Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Fly participated as a panelist at the Pacific Council PolicyWest debate on the future of populism.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily relfect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.