Poisonous Populism: Lessons from Europe

Le Pen Corbyn

The rise of fringe political demagogues isn’t just an American phenomenon, DPR foreign correspondents Allen Jones and Steve Brenner observe.

Ernest Hemingway, the voice of the Lost Generation expatriates, once wrote, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

That quote seems fitting for our experience as DPR foreign correspondents. We both came to Berlin for the semester expecting a break from the unending three-ring circus that is the American presidential race. Instead, we are constantly reminded that Europeans are fascinated by the meteoric rise of Donald Trump and that the Trumpian brand of angry populism is truly a global phenomenon.

The rise of fringe candidates is not unique to the U.S., nor should it be surprising. Across the western world, decades of flat wages and stagnant economic growth are leading to a loss of faith in governmental institutions and a rise in dogmatic populism. These tensions, therefore, are nothing new, but the financial crisis brought them to a boiling point.

Some cases should be obvious, others less so. The anti-immigrant rhetoric and bombast of the far-right easily grabs headlines and dominates airtime, while the far-left increasingly finds supporters among disaffected, socially liberal millennials. While the political forces behind increased polarization are indeed asymmetric in the U.S., a push towards the fringe of the political spectrum is not exclusively a right-wing phenomenon.

Consider the Labour Party in the recent U.K. general election. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband, a stalwart of previous governments, represented the core of the post-Blairism, left-leaning party establishment. He sought a center-left agenda, promising a change of course from the Conservatives’ handling of the British deficit and the National Health Service.

Seeking to draw contrast to Cameron, Miliband leaned even farther left as the election neared, spooking the middle class with the threat of economic instability and drawing criticism from his own shadow chancellor on business policy. Coupled with Miliband’s awkwardness as a politician and a lack of enthusiasm within the party, this leftward shift was fatal. Labour was trounced at the polls.

In a surprising response to this defeat, Labour rejected a return to the center and elected relatively unknown, highly liberal backbencher Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader.

Corbyn has already drawn substantial criticism for his far-left rhetoric, including his alignment with Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA) throughout the 1980s and his tacit endorsement of his “friends” in Hezbollah. He is staunchly anti-NATO and even called the killing of Osama bin Laden a “tragedy.”

These extreme views could be expected from a small fringe party or a soapbox monologue at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, but coming from the leader of the U.K.’s official opposition, they are shocking.

Corbyn’s unrealistic economic prescriptions for reducing income inequality, including the large-scale re-nationalization of industry and massive new quantitative easing measures, are also troubling and invite comparisons to Bernie Sanders’s proposed $18 trillion in social program expenditures. Even though these policy proposals remain highly unrealistic and politically infeasible, Corbyn and Sanders show no signs of backing down.

Elsewhere in Europe, a turn towards multiculturalism and backlash from the refugee crisis have given new life and political legitimacy to formerly irrelevant nationalist parties.

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen recently capitalized on the success of anti-EU parties in last year’s EU elections by forming a new, far-right coalition within the European Parliament. Members of the bloc advocate a retreat from the EU, trade protectionism, and severe restrictions on immigration — components of the same brand of populist nationalism espoused by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

With her stock rising in France, Le Pen’s new platform could finally give the National Front the legitimacy needed to translate popular momentum into actual votes. The French may scoff at Trump-Mania in the U.S., but with their presidential election only two years away, they could soon find themselves in a similar predicament.

Much like the U.S., Europe finds itself at a tipping point, confronted by a series of unprecedented challenges. Millions of refugees continue to flood into the continent, youth unemployment shows no signs of improving, Greece remains on the brink of insolvency, and fights over austerity policy threaten the survival of European institutions. Now, more than ever, Western society desperately needs serious, pragmatic policymakers who are willing to find common ground.

Populism, both on the left and the right, is nothing new, often rising in popularity during periods of economic hardship. What is new, however, is the vehemence and the broad appeal of today’s demagogy.

With our general election still a year away, Americans can learn valuable lessons from the state of European politics. The likely foredoomed leadership of Jeremy Corbyn should serve as a warning to backers of Bernie Sanders, while adherents of Trump, Cruz, and Carson should note the consequences of political gridlock caused by anti-immigrant nationalists.

Our founding fathers, as wary of radical political factions as they were of any tyrant, created a federalist structure that requires a certain degree of tolerance and compromise to function. Legislation is designed to move slowly and only with a broad consensus. Today, however, prudent compromise has become synonymous with spinelessness and corruptibility. On both sides of the Atlantic, political pragmatism and centrist governance is shouted down by a new, toxic strain of populism that casts policymakers as villainous agents of the few against the many.

It’s time for Americans to acknowledge the obvious: though Mexico will not pay for a wall, and university education will not be free for every American, we can seriously address immigration and student debt as policy issues if we are willing to compromise.

Europe’s political upheaval serves as a cautionary tale for the future of American political discourse. It’s fine to be angry, but anger in itself is not a solution.

Steve Brenner and Allen Jones are third­ year public policy students at Duke University.They currently study abroad in Germany at Humboldt­ Universität zu Berlin.

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