Populists are here to stay

Jordi Vaquer in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski and Jakub Bodziony · 15 November 2016
“For many years European elites believed that populists cannot take over the power; it simply sounded too terrible and crazy. It somehow created a false sense of security, the unconscious hope that in stable democracies populists would always lose in the last minute. That bubble burst with this year’s results in the UK and USA.”

Łukasz Pawłowski: What does the election of Donald Trump tell us about the American society? According to a very popular narrative, it’s yet another example of how badly the so-called “elites” have once again misunderstood the so-called “ordinary people”. Do you agree with such interpretation?

Jordi Vaquer: There is an increasing readiness to characterize politics as a conflict between the elite and the public, which is the classic populist way of thinking about politics. The fact that we are analyzing the elections United States and referendum in Britain in these terms is already a proof of how successful the populist narrative is. There is of course an element of truth in the fact that the working class is disenchanted with how the economy has changed, in particular in terms of the low growth of their salaries as compared to the general prosperity of their country. So economy matters.

But identity also matters. Many  losers of the economic transformations of the last four decades did indeed support Brexit, far-right Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, or Donald Trump. In fact, Trump won amongst all income groups except the two lowest, where  Hillary Clinton came first: the white working class supported Trump, but so did a majority of the well-off. In Britain the leave vote won in deprived industrial areas, but also in relatively affluent areas of the English south-west and in East Anglia.  Nationalists’ and populists’ supporters are not necessarily the biggest losers of the changes we’ve experienced over the last couple of decades. Identity anxieties, which are not only found in the native working class but in all income groups, are a crucial part of the explanation.

ŁP: You work for an organization which supports open society. What indicators have you noticed in the recent years, which could help us understand this dramatic shift in both European and American politics?

It is a process that started years ago. Before Donald Trump there was the Tea Party, and before Brexit there was UKIP which achieved really good results in the 2014 elections to the European Parliament. Next year we may see Marine Le Pen winning the presidential elections in France, but the National Front was created already in 1980s. Until recently, radical right parties in France and other countries were not in the position to change governments,. They were often dismissed as serious power players. . But as their public presence grew, they not only started to benefit from the grievances of the people, but actively fanned the resentment and anxiety on which they thrive.

Whenever nationalists and anti-immigration parties begin to grow, the general concern for issues like migration and security also grows, because people can see it in mass media and in parliament. The current social mood is a result not just of the European crises starting around 2008, but also of  long-term economic and social transformation. For many years European elites believed that populists cannot take over the power; it simply sounded  too terrible and crazy. It somehow created a false sense of security, the unconscious hope that in stable democracies populists would always lose in the last minute. That bubble burst with this year’s results in the UK and USA.

How will those parties change democratic politics?

It will depend on the national context. They might transform political systems so fundamentally that fully democratic politics will no longer be viable, as some argue already happened in Hungary. Of course British, American or French institutions are much stronger than those in Poland and Hungary, but there is a possibility that crucial aspects the institutional balance will be transformed. If so, it will be really difficult to return to the previous stage.

I definitely do not share the hope that when the populist are elected to power it becomes very difficult for them to govern and, as a result, they just fall apart and disappear. In Austria or Italy, where populists have been involved in massive corruption scandals, they lost ground, but then they came back under renewed leadership. The Danish People’s Party has  supported several governments, successfully pushing its agenda, without suffering a loss of popularity. In my opinion, what we see is a permanent change of political landscape rather than just an aberration.

Jakub Bodziony:We are being told that the elites need to better understand the society but how do you understand the society which seems to have contradictory wishes? Donald Trump did not offer any coherent programme and yet won the support of millions of Americans.  Paul Krugman, in a very emotional commentary written on the election night said he no longer understands the country he lives in.

Many societies are currently divided in three major parts. Roughly one third  is a comfortable space which the people that are in power in the most Western Europe states understand very well: they vote for parties and options that are consolidated, and their electoral behavior is fairly predictable. There is another third that votes for options which for to the first third seem simply crazy – like leaving the European Union or electing Donald Trump. They are not a new big majority: we need not forget that Trump did not even win the popular vote, while Brexit happened because of the 52 percent of those who voted, which is around one third of the population.

Then there’s the last third of the society, which doesn’t like these propositions but doesn’t vote either. We should not imagine that all the people are all of a sudden supporting populist ideas. There is, rightly, a lot of interest in who votes for national-populists. But it is equally important to understand those who, despite the huge stakes, don’t vote.

JB: How should we move forward from where we currently are?

I don’t think it is a coincidence that fact-free discourse comes after the long dominance of an of orthodox, neoliberal paradigm that denies any alternatives. In Poland, the hegemonic discourse said the EU always was the only solution, capitalism the only system, and there was no space to think differently. After so many years of telling people that salaries of the poor can’t rise as fast as those of the rich, or that the global trade is always better than a local industry, they’ve been told so many ‘facts’ which do not fit into their reality, they are now ready to move into fact-free reality. If I know that so many things I hear from the experts do not make sense in my world, why would I believe in other things they are saying? So the way forward is to bring back economic policy to the center of debates, to address the issues of inequality, corruption and privilege on which populists thrive, and to confront them on the identity front.

ŁP: But how do you do politics in this kind of world? How can we have a discussion if I tell you that European Union has its benefits and you reply that it is actually a huge conspiracy by the biggest global companies aimed to enslave us all.

I don’t have the solution. I know that in some places that were first and biggest victims of the economic crisis national populists discourse has not succeed. So, even though Greece lost about 25 percent of it’s GDP the Golden Dawn gets less 10 percent of the vote. Economic crisis really badly affected Spain, Ireland and Portugal and yet that did not boost the support for national populist parties.

We need to go back to the real politics which creates the real alternatives, a space where you vote and it makes a difference in your life. This hasn’t happened in many places for a long period of time. In the Eastern Europe voting has for a long time not been about the policies, it was simply about the people who would implement them.

JB:The majority of young voters voted both against Brexit and against Trump. Is it a generational conflict then, with the older generations supporting radical changes and the youth more in favour of defending liberal democracy?

You have to be careful about imagining young people as being a strong liberal constituency. The case of Poland is particularly interesting. In the 2007 elections young Poles, especially those who lived abroad, voted for liberal, pro-European, centrist option. In 2016 they voted for a  populist and anti-European Kukiz. In many European countries the xenophobic, populist parties’ voters are considerably younger and radical than average. It is not a s  rule across Europe that younger is less prone to voting populist, nor is the opposite true. In the case of Britain, it is a well-known fact that voters over 65 clearly  voted to leave, but it is less known that the over 85, the generation of the war,  voted to stay. So it is not only the issue of age, but also of generational experiences.

ŁP:How are these results going to affect the European Union? Do you think that the insecurity about Trump’s presidency is going to strengthen all those advocating for a closer union, or to the opposite, that is going to have a destructive affect on the EU, because it’s going reinforce all the populist movements?

We don’t know. Donald Trump might not be very active in foreign policy and hand it to his own team of experts, which means no dramatic change. On the other hand, the U.S. might stop being a moderating force, which puts pressure on governments in countries like Poland or Hungary. In that case it will become much harder for other countries to pressure governments in Budapest and Warsaw to abide by democratic standards, and the EU will be undermined from within. The third, most pessimistic scenario assumes Trump will imitate Russian policy based on a “divide and rule” paradigm and which also actively seeks to undermine the vision of united Europe.

Which one is most probable?

I don’t think that United States will act to directly undermine European unity. It could happen indirectly if they stop expressing concern about places like Hungary or Poland, if they endorse Brexit, and normalize relationship with politicians like Marine Le Pen. American embassies have been working a lot on things like Muslim integration in Europe, and I don’t think that a Trump administration will continue such programmes. I also think that Americans can be less active in general in the world; TTIP will not happen and probably Europe will become a region of secondary interest, after Asia.

JB:What do you think about the future US-Russia relations? Can we expect Russian military offensive in eastern Ukraine in spring?

Obama tried to restart the relationship with Russia and it only made Putin more aggressive. Trump more accommodating to Russia might have the same consequences. I think that Donbas will stay an open conflict, and status of Crimea will not change. Also in Syria it’s very unlikely that Trump will bring a new solution; it is there that I would expect the first signs of a more confident Russia.

ŁP: Barack Obama at one of his rallies for Hillary Clinton said about Donald Trump: “If somebody can’t handle a Twitter account, they can’t handle the nuclear codes”. Do you fear that Trump’s presidency might lead to some serious military conflict?

Probably there is more danger that this will happen with this president than the other, mainly because of Trump’s inexperience and his character, but this remains unlikely. I am more worried, however, about the decisions he may take in extremely important issues like global warming, migration, or the rights of  foreign-born people in the United States. Trump’s presidency may also accelerate the transfer of global power from the West to the East. This is not necessarily a bad thing: from the perspective of many, many people, we live in a very unbalanced an unfair world. But it will not feel good for us, in Europe.