Los Angeles — It’s been three years since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump sent shock waves throughout the world.
Those events in Britain and the U.S. symbolized a broader revolt against elites by frustrated voters in other countries. The populist revolt was a reaction to elites’ reckless and anti-democratic push for ever greater integration. Many critics have tried to paint these uprisings in scary terms by branding them as rooted in racism or xenophobia. I myself part company with the more radical populist movements on some issues — especially those that want to shut down legal as well as illegal immigration.
But it’s unarguable that many populist concerns are rooted in the understandable desire — of people who feel neglected, even held in contempt, by distant, self-interested liberal elites — to have a voice. That is especially true in Europe, where a suffocating European Union bureaucracy threatens both to hold back economic innovation and to trample on many of the continent’s traditions.
Even a neoconservative such as the late Charles Krauthammer recognized the need to rein in a European Union that was trying to absorb or co-opt the key functions of the nation-state. “The task today is to address the sources of Europe’s economic stagnation and social alienation rather than blindly pursue the very drive that led to this precarious moment, he wrote in 2017. “If the populist threat turns out to have frightened the existing powers out of their arrogant complacency, it should be deemed a success.”
The fear of the European Union’s apologists is all too real. In elections to the European Parliament last May, the percentage of seats held by populists of all stripes — whether left-wing populists, right-wing populists, or others who aren’t easily defined, such as the Five Star Movement in Italy — rose to 29 percent of the total vote.
Populists are succeeding in the most unlikely of places. Swedish Democrats, for example, are now tied for first place among all parties in the latest polls in Sweden, with 23 percent of the vote. But even in prosperous Sweden, only 27 percent of voters believe that the country is heading in the right direction, while 50 percent think that it is going in the wrong direction.
The American Freedom Alliance, a U.S. nonprofit group, convened a conference of all strains of European populism in Los Angeles this weekend. Speakers included (among others) Daniel Hannan, a key leader in the Brexit movement ub Britain, and Thierry Baudet, a former academic whose three-year-old party came in first in local elections in the Netherlands this year.
During the discussions, it became clear that much of the conventional media wisdom about populism in Europe is out of date. British academic David Goodhart noted that populist parties are generally portrayed in the media “as little more than a refuge for bigots, Rust Belt rejects, victims of the Great Recession, and angry old white men.”
In reality, the vote for Brexit in Britain took place as unemployment was at its lowest rate since the 1970s. Goodhart noted that Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party draw the bulk of their support from a diverse alliance of skilled workers, middle-class Conservatives, affluent pensioners, and the self-employed. Switzerland’s People’s Party often places first in elections in a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.
Similarly, the hostility of populist movements toward immigration is misunderstood. While certainly racists who oppose immigration often cast their votes for populist parties, it would be foolish to ignore the many populist voters who believe that the EU has prevented their countries from undertaking legitimate steps to control the pace and scale of immigration. Dismissing these voters as yahoos or white supremacists doesn’t help anyone understand why people are angry at their leaders.
Much of that anger stems from the fact that an educated elite increasingly controls the political process in Europe. They have little connection to many of the people they purport to represent. In Britain, only 3 percent of members of Parliament have ever labored in a working-class job, while 18 percent have no work experience outside politics.
But these observations escape the elites who are now lashing out at the populists pressing them at the polls. Matthew Tyrmand, a Polish-American journalist who closely studies populist movements, told me, “Elites would do themselves a favor by realizing that they should at least address popular demand for more control over borders, the need for governmental transparency, and support for greater political accountability.”
But instead, in country after country roiled by populist uprisings, elites are steadfastly refusing to grapple with the legitimate sentiments of working-class voters, dissidents from politically correct identity politics, and people who feel their voices aren’t heard. So long as they choose to remain deaf, they can expect populism to continue to grow in its fervor and influence.