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European Disunion

What the rise of populist movements means for democracy.

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

In 1830, the King of France sent a young engineer to England to study a sensational invention: a steam train that ferried passengers from Manchester to Liverpool. Once he arrived, as Tony Judt recounts in The Memory Chalet, the engineer

sat by the track taking copious notes as the sturdy little engine faultlessly pulled the world’s first railway train back and forth between the two cities. After conscientiously calculating what he had observed, he reported his findings back to Paris: “The thing is impossible,” he wrote. “It cannot work.”

It is tempting to scoff at the engineer who disregards the evidence barreling in front of him at 30 miles an hour. But I must admit to having a soft spot for him. For it was, I think, not the mathematical equations in his notepad that misled him, but rather his all-too-human refusal to believe that his understanding of the world could so swiftly prove mistaken. So it is hardly surprising that, as one political shock has followed another over the last year, people who once seemed perfectly rational have come to resemble the young French engineer.

For decades, political scientists have claimed that “democratic consolidation” is a one-way street. Once a country is affluent and has been ruled in a democratic fashion for a long time, they argued, democracy becomes “the only game in town.” Citizens become deeply supportive of democracy and reject other regime forms out of hand. Major politicians accept the need to play by democratic rules. Extreme candidates are rejected at the ballot box. It should be clear, however, that this is no longer the case. Many Americans now believe that democracy is a bad system of government, and a striking number are even open to authoritarian alternatives. Over the past two decades, according to data from the World Values Survey, the proportion of Americans who express approval for military rule has more than doubled. Last October, a month before the election, another survey showed that 46 percent either “never had faith” or have “lost faith” in American democracy.

Had you asked a group of pundits and political scientists two years ago whether they would revise their most basic assumptions about American politics if Donald Trump were elected president, most would have answered with a resounding “yes.” But by the time Trump was moving into the White House, those same people had already found a way of fitting his victory into their long-standing narratives. Scholars who made their careers by arguing that America was becoming more liberal, for instance, now explained Trump’s victory by suggesting that the shrinking of the GOP’s electoral base makes it easier to mobilize. Their theories failed to predict Trump’s victory—and yet it turns out they are vindicated by it.

A desire to downplay threats to democracy extends beyond American politics. In coverage of the recent presidential elections in France, commentators were intent on emphasizing the signs of continuity and disregarding the signs of change. Neither the candidate of the historically dominant center-left party nor the candidate of the historically dominant center-right party managed to qualify for the run-off. With 33.9 percent of the vote in the second round, Marine Le Pen gained more votes than any extremist candidate in French postwar history, nearly doubling the record set by her father 15 years earlier. Young people were far more likely than older people to vote for her. Yet much of the media celebrated Emmanuel Macron’s victory as a triumph over populism, and intimated that the populist wave was finally cresting. The defeat of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party last December brought similarly demonstrative sighs of relief. “The thing is impossible,” one article after another seemed to say. “It must not be.”

The instinct to reach for the consolation of the ordinary is as touchingly human today as it was in the nineteenth century. But it is just as dangerous. If we take seriously that the populist moment may turn into a populist age, we need to analyze the evidence barreling in front of us. A recent spate of books on the rise of populism, especially in Europe, offers some initial answers: The authors enumerate the defining features of populism across the continent; they attest to the danger that populists, on both the right and the left, pose to the survival of liberal democracy; and they explain why there is real reason to doubt the resilience of seemingly stable political systems. But they barely begin to explain the underlying reasons for the populist resurgence—or to show how liberal democracy might survive it.

The list of movements that have historically been called populist is strikingly long and varied. There are the populares of Ancient Rome, the agrarians of nineteenth-century Wisconsin, and the Peronists of twentieth-century Argentina. Even today, the populist label is applied to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan as well as to Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, to Italy’s Beppe Grillo as well as to France’s Marine Le Pen. Yet the movements they lead are united by no clear policy agenda. Some favor state ownership of the means of production, while others want to privatize prisons; some seek to put politics under religious tutelage, while others are stridently secular. But all these populists do share one important trait: a common political imagination.

Athens, 2015: Youth unemployment has buoyed the left populist party Syriza.
Yorgos Karahalis/Bloomberg/Getty

In What is Populism?, Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of political science at Princeton, argues that populists have a unique way of describing the political world, setting a “morally pure and fully unified” people against elites “who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior.” Anyone who has followed the recent politics of the United States and Europe will recognize both the populists’ claim to represent the silent majority of “real” Americans (or Germans, or Turks) and their attacks on elites as corrupt traitors—as globalists, who, in the contemporary American parlance, inhabit a swamp the populist hero promises to drain. While most politicians claim to speak for the people, or seek to remedy the injustices of the status quo, populists alone claim that they have what Müller calls a “moral monopoly of representation.”

According to Müller, it is this posture that makes populists inherently dangerous. Because they see themselves as the only legitimate political actors, they seek to take over the judiciary, to gain control of the media, and to co-opt other institutions. And while other political forces might, to varying degrees, engage in similar practices, only populists can “undertake such colonization openly.” The openness of the populists’ challenge to pluralism makes them much more dangerous than more covert enemies of democracy. When Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, started to colonize the state, his opponents warned that he was trying to undermine the independence of key state institutions. But instead of acknowledging the danger he posed, Orban’s supporters celebrated his policies as a sign that he was truly determined to put the “real people” in the driver’s seat.

For this very reason, Müller points out, it is naïve to assume that populists lack the discipline to govern. Far from leading a chaotic or inept government, Orban successfully went about the business of destroying Hungarian democracy. Since then, governments from Poland to Serbia have followed suit—and populist leaders from Spain to Sweden are now waiting in the wings to reenact his script.

For some people to count as the “real” people, others have to be excluded. But just as populists differ on their policy prescriptions, so, too, do they differ on the exclusionary principles they deploy. They can draw distinctions between people along economic, religious, or moral lines. They can pit producers against parasites, the devout against the blasphemous, or the heterosexual against the homosexual. But over the past 20 years, by far the most salient division has been ethnicity. All over Europe, countries that have long defined themselves as monoethnic and monocultural have experienced mass migration, and are now struggling with the slow and painful transition to a new model of membership in the nation.

Eight years after its first publication, Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe remains the most insightful and infuriating treatment of this challenge. According to Caldwell, the United States largely succeeds in turning successive waves of immigrants into “true Americans.” It is not clear whether the reason for this success is America’s cultural self-confidence, or its greater diversity of immigrant groups, or even the higher pressure to succeed on the job market in the absence of a comprehensive welfare state. But the upshot is unambiguous: The children of newcomers do not behave much differently than the children of natives. “Mass Hispanic immigration,” Caldwell writes, “can disrupt a few local habits, and the volume of the influx can cause logistical headaches for schools, hospitals, and local governments. But it requires no fundamental reform of American cultural practices or institutions.”Many Europeans have accepted that their societies will need to become truly multiethnic, and that they should regard people of different ethnicities or skin colors as compatriots; but a sizable number have not. Many immigrants, meanwhile, have learned the local language and adopted the basic values of their new societies; but a significant minority have not. The resulting tensions have, for the past decades, opened up the most decisive political cleavage in much of Western Europe.

Progress in Europe, by contrast, has been limited. Although countries such as Germany and France have differed significantly in their approaches to immigration policy, they and other European nations have mostly failed to assimilate newcomers. Across the continent, immigrants have very high unemployment rates. Many of them speak the local language poorly and refuse to adopt the country’s customs. They are twice as likely as natives to say that they do not feel a sense of connection to their country. There is strong segregation and self-segregation: More than half of Europeans admit that they don’t have a single friend of a different race. And most of these divisions actually seem to deepen from generation to generation.

For Caldwell, these observations imply nothing less than a slow-moving cultural revolution:

Europe finds itself in a contest with Islam for the allegiance of its newcomers. For now, Islam is the stronger party in that contest, in an obvious demographic way and in a less obvious philosophical way. In such circumstances, words like “majority” and “minority” mean little. When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident, and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.

The horror scenario that Caldwell stops short of describing is fully realized in the plot of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission. Faced with the choice between a far-right candidate of Le Pen’s ilk and the leader of a moderate Islamist party, the French political establishment decides to back the Islamist—who, of course, turns out not to be so moderate after all. In the end, the narrator, a scholar of French literature, happily converts to Islam and, even more happily, takes three young wives.

Critics of both Caldwell and Houellebecq have largely faulted them for their sensationalist description of contemporary Europe. But though I disagree with the extent of their pessimism about the gulf between immigrants and natives in Europe, I fear that their real miscalculation lies elsewhere: As the recent surge of far-right populists shows, Europe might turn out not to be quite as self-abnegating as Caldwell and Houellebecq assume. On the contrary, the danger facing Europe is as likely to stem from the scapegoating of minorities as from its submission to them. When push comes to shove, Europe is likely to choose a far-right extremist over an Islamist—and the ultimate outcome could be far more bloody than Houellebecq imagines.

Among the most puzzling of recent political developments on the continent is that anti-immigrant sentiment has been just as ferocious in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania as in Western Europe, even though the number of immigrants to Central and Eastern European countries is much lower. Orban’s popularity in Hungary, for example, was waning over the course of 2015—until an influx of refugees began to dominate the political debate, and Orban took extreme measures to keep them out of the country.

This is one of many riddles that Ivan Krastev—a Bulgarian political scientist who casually wields the dialectical wit to which Slavoj Zizek so desperately pretends—solves in After Europe. “Since the Berlin Wall fell,” he observes, “Europe has put up, or started to erect, 1,200 kilometers of fences expressly designed to keep others out.… Attracting tourists and rejecting migrants is the short version of Europe’s desired world order.”

While most nations in Western Europe retain some hope that they will be net beneficiaries of this new order, the residents of Central and Eastern Europe have come to take a very bleak view of the future. The two best hopes that Bulgarians have of escaping economic and cultural stagnation, Krastev quips, are Terminal 1 and 2 of Sofia’s international airport. A lot of Bulgarians have taken his joke to heart. Over the past quarter-century, one in ten has left the country. By 2050, the Bulgarian population is projected to shrink by more than a quarter. The demographic trend is similar in many other countries in the region. As a result,

alarm over “ethnic disappearance” can be discerned in many of the small nations of Eastern Europe. For them, the arrival of migrants signals their exit from history, and the popular argument that an aging Europe needs migrants only strengthens the growing sense of existential melancholy. When you watch on television scenes of elderly locals protesting the settlement of refugees in their depopulated villages where not a single child has been born for decades, your heart breaks for both sides—the refugees, but also the old, lonely people who have seen their worlds melt away.

A few decades ago, Central and Eastern European politicians frequently boasted of their language skills. Their ability to speak fluent English signaled that they could represent the modern face of their nation and bring home the benefits of globalization. But as the national mood has turned more somber, the ability to succeed away from home has turned from an electoral asset into a liability. A politician’s ability to speak fluent English, or to garner a degree from a prestigious American university, now suggests that he is likely to abandon his people in search of greener pastures as soon as times get tough. “At the very heart of the populist challenge,” Krastev suggests, “is the struggle over the nature and obligations of elites. Unlike a century ago, today’s insurgent leaders aren’t interested in nationalizing industries. Instead, they promise to nationalize their elites. They don’t promise to save the people but to stay with them.”

Western Europeans tend to discount the political similarities between the parts of the continent that were once separated by the Iron Curtain. By showing that the Eastern half of the continent often acts on the same anxieties as the Western half (or indeed, the United States), Krastev makes clear just how much self-flattery is involved in that assumption. As the last months have shown, the fear of cultural loss and the desire to renationalize elites are powerful political forces in Michigan, Middlesbrough, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern as well as in Macedonia.

If the differences between Eastern and Western Europe are sometimes overstated, those between Northern and Southern Europe are often underestimated. Across the continent, growing inequality and the stagnation of living standards have hit young people especially hard. Yet in the North, the basic promise of an affluent society remains open to the bulk of young people: If you manage to get a good education, and are willing to work hard, you are likely to find a decent job and to lead a materially comfortable life.

That same promise is now routinely broken in the continent’s South. The figures tell a stark story: In countries like Greece and Spain, up to a quarter of the total population—and up to half of young people—have been out of a job at some point over the past decade. That bitter reality has generated widespread skepticism of the fundamental premise of meritocracy: the belief that it is worth trying hard at something because hard work will meet material reward and social recognition. It has also fueled the rise of left-wing populist movements—including Greece’s Syriza, Spain’s Podemos and Italy’s Five Star Movement—which propose that meritocracy was always a con, the system is rigged, and rewards should be shared more equally among the population.

Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement, has turned to anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Matteo Minnella/OneShot /LUZ/Redux

Especially popular among the young and downwardly mobile, these movements share an irreverent style that can be inspiring. Back when Silvio Berlusconi held office in Italy, no politician, journalist, or entertainer channeled righteous anger at his outrages more effectively than Beppe Grillo, who delivered multihour, expletive-laden rants at huge rallies across the country. At the time, it was as hard to dislike Grillo as it would be to dislike John Oliver. Whereas the far-right populists of Northern Europe direct much of their anger against the most vulnerable scapegoats, Grillo and other populist leaders in the South tend to reserve their fury for a “political caste” that really is deeply corrupt.

John Judis, in The Populist Explosion, captures something of the difference between Grillo and Le Pen when he distinguishes between “dyadic” and “triadic” forms of populism. Left-wing populism, he argues, tends to set up a dichotomy between the people and the elite, pitting the bottom of society against the top in a clean match-up. By contrast, right-wing populism sets up a triadic antagonism between the people, the elite, and a third segment of the population that is supposedly being coddled by the political establishment: Muslims, immigrants, effete intellectuals, and so on.

The implication seems obvious: While triadic populism is pernicious, dyadic populism is benign. But reality, unfortunately, is a little more complicated than that. Many populists who seemed benign at the beginning of their political rise quickly proved just as willing to scapegoat vulnerable minorities as their right-wing counterparts. Grillo, for example, was long regarded as a hero by the left, and the Five Star Movement was originally animated by progressive ideals. The five stars that gave his movement its name each symbolized a leftist political demand: to keep water utilities in public ownership, to improve mass transit, to prioritize sustainable development, to grant Italian citizens a right to internet access, and to protect the environment. Yet Grillo has increasingly turned his considerable rhetorical skill against immigrants. (“Now is the moment to act,” he wrote on his blog last December, a few days after the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin. “The migrant situation is out of control.”) Greece’s left-wing prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, has meanwhile entered government in coalition with a far-right nationalist party and has quickly begun to undermine the country’s free press.

The problem with the left populists is not just the inflammatory rhetoric to which they increasingly stoop. While their diagnosis of society’s problems is often accurate, and their passion for economic justice genuine, their solutions are just as simplistic as those propagated by the populist right. Like their counterparts, they promise their voters that politics is simple, and that all of society’s problems could be solved if only somebody who truly represents the people were elected to high office. And like their counterparts, they are likely to disappoint their followers if they actually gain power. In fact, what is truly notable about these movements is that, on both politics and economics, the new crop of populists ultimately wants to overthrow rather than to fix the current order.

There is another reason why the story of the young French engineer has been on my mind over the past few months: I’ve been wondering what Tony Judt, who told the story in a posthumously published essay collection, would have made of the present political crisis.

It seems clear that Judt, who passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010, would have been willing to contemplate the possibility that democracy might now be in real peril. “Grotesquely unequal societies are also unstable societies,” he wrote in Ill Fares the Land. “They generate internal division and, sooner or later, internal strife—usually with undemocratic outcomes.” And since Judt was deeply worried about the fate of social democracy, there is also little doubt that he would have put a lot of his hope in a programmatic renewal of left-wing parties. “Social Democrats all across Europe,” he lamented briefly before his death, “are hard-pressed to say what they stand for.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that this programmatic renewal has barely advanced. For decades, the battle lines of economic policy—more or less taxation; a bigger or smaller welfare state—seemed deeply entrenched, while the language of politics narrowed and atrophied. It is only since the shock of the global financial crisis, as we have experienced an unlikely intellectual renewal of the far left and an equally unlikely political renewal of the far right, that this language has started to lose its hold. Like a sea of fog that slowly retreats as the sun rises, its disappearance has revealed vistas both riveting and terrifying.

The range of ideas that can now be seriously entertained, both in politics and economics, has radically expanded. But our efforts to grapple with the political crisis we face have not been sufficiently ambitious. We’ve made real progress in understanding the nature of populism, moderate progress in analyzing its causes, and barely any progress in identifying its potential remedies. The fate of liberal democracy may now hinge on whether we are able to formulate a reformist, forward-looking vision for a better politics—one that unites citizens in pursuit of a more tolerant and prosperous future, rather than pitting groups against one another or concluding that our political system is beyond remedy. But to mount an effective defense against the false promises of populism, we will have to do more than define the threat: We will need to formulate the ideas, the slogans, and the policies that are capable of renewing liberal democracy.