John Judis has a new column on the rise of populist movements in Europe and North America:

One thing that currently unites almost all the groups—and you would have to throw in Germany’s Pirates here—is the use of social media as the principal means of mobilizing support. As the British research group Demos recounts in a new report, the rise of Grillo’s party was based on his web site and blog. With social media as its foundation, the party used techniques like the meet-ups pioneered by to mobilize in towns and cities. Social media allowed the Five Star Movement and other groups to bypass the big-money requirements of television-based party politics or the union-based politics of the traditional left.

But the rise of these groups is rooted in widespread dissatisfaction with the parties in power. Initially, many of the European groups like Denmark’s People’s Party, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, or Italy’s Northern League arose in opposition to tolerant policies toward immigration into the European Union. After September 11, they were particularly opposed to immigration from Muslim countries. But most of these groups had a working class base and were leftwing in their economic outlook. They opposed social spending cuts and were concerned about globalization’s effect on wages and jobs. Since the onset of the Great Recession, and EU’s final crisis, some of the new groups have focused on economics and political corruption.

Two quick thoughts:

(1) Back in 2011, Larry Bartels of Princeton offered a very parsimonious take on the mood in the North Atlantic democracies:

My analyses suggest that voters consistently punished incumbent governments for bad economic conditions, with little apparent regard for the ideology of the government or global economic conditions at the time of the election. I find no evidence of consistent ideological shifts in response to the crisis, either to the left or to the right, but some evidence of electoral responses to specific fiscal policy choices—most notably, a boost in incumbent governments’ electoral support associated with spending on economic stimulus programs. These general patterns are illustrated with brief case studies of elections in Spain and Portugal, Germany, and the United States. In general, my results underline the significance of retrospective voting even in periods of severe economic and political stress.

While it could be that the European populist movements Judis has in mind are more attuned to economic realities than the establishment, it is also possible that voters are lashing out at parties in power. Mario Monti, for example, is not obviously more responsible for the parlous state of the Italian economy than Silvio Berlusconi, yet Berlusconi fared very well while the center-left technocrat Monti did not. 

And the fact that the outcome in the 2010 midterm congressional elections was so different from that of the 2012 presidential election reflects a number of factors, including the larger, younger, more diverse electorate in 2012. Yet it also reflects the fact that economic conditions had improved over the intervening period, if only modestly.

(2) It’s interesting to think of the populist movements that fizzled out, like Alberta’s Wildrose Party, which briefly looked as though it might overtake the province’s dominant Progressive Conservatives yet which went down to defeat come the 2012 provincial election. To be sure, this is not the kind of left-leaning populist movement Judis praises (“they display a better grasp of economics than the bankers and politicians,” i.e., they are more likely to agree with Paul Krugman). But in 2010, the party that experienced a surge in support in the UK wasn’t a left-wing populist party or a right-wing populist party, like UKIP. Rather, it was the notionally centrist Liberal Democrats, an alliance of left-of-center civil libertarians, European federalists, Orange Book market liberals best known for sanctimony and vicious campaigning. I definitely buy that we’re living in a very volatile political moment, but I’m not sure that there is any obvious ideological valence to it. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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