By Yashodhara Varma
Periods of populism inspired by strongmen are inevitable but do not offer any conceivable threat to the status quo of liberalism in international relations. In fact, despite the hostile relationship between the two ideologies, populism’s tendency to support direct democracy can support and coexist with liberalism.
Over the past two years, globalism has been harshly challenged by a wave of populism. In 2016, the United Kingdom held a referendum in which voters, fueled by economic and nativist incentives, decided that the country should leave the European Union. In the time immediately following the event, tumult in worldwide markets demonstrated the uncertainty surrounding this decision, dubbed “Brexit.” In 2016, Donald J. Trump, a political outsider, was elected the President of the United States of America, promising to put “America first.” In France’s 2017 presidential election, moderate Emmanuel Macron narrowly beat out populist and nativist opponent, Marine Le Pen.
While some have referred to these actions as unprecedented novelties, this perspective does not account for historical context. Spikes in populist sentiment are reactionary and inevitable. Immediately following times of great international upheaval, economic crisis, influxes of immigrants, and what is perceived to be a disproportionate focus on minority sentiment, there has been populist backlash. At these times in history, the working class individual feels forgotten by elite lawmakers. In the United States, such periods led to the populist accession of George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Donald Trump. In the twenty-first century, there exists a “globalistic populism;” populist movements are inwardly focused but outwardly inspired.
President Trump applauded Brexit, encouraging Americans to put their country first just as the UK had.
In many cases, populism can affect positive change. Thus, liberalism stands to benefit from populism. The rise of populism engenders greater civic engagement and an advocacy for direct democracy. Amendment XVII to the United States Constitution provides for the direct election of US Senators and was a result of populist movements. Periods of populism display a strength of governmental systems. Citizens are often concerned about their perceived lack of representation in government or the potential of devolution into oligarchy. A reform-minded citizenry that believes in its power to affect change is a sign of a healthy democracy.
International laws should serve all people, not just those of prominent stature and social standing. If the working class is fearful of free trade programs, their concerns should be accounted for.
Any international systems that only benefits elites should be reexamined.
Certainly, the recent populist elections and referendums throughout Europe paint an image of a base which rejected globalism and liberalism. Nonetheless, those who stand by the liberal agenda should not be concerned about the future of the international order. Populism and, by association, nativism and protectionism, ebbs and flows, so the fundamental system of international relations is not in danger. The populist momentum behind Brexit is beginning to slow. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s approval ratings decreased 11 points within the last month, compared to the growing upswell of support for her opponent, democratic Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Despite the political ascent of men like Donald Trump, support of globalism and free trade is bipartisan and wholly uncontroversial. Most major employers in any country have significant financial interests abroad. Roughly fourteen percent of the United States’ GDP is held abroad by American companies. Thus, the twenty-first century economy is inherently globalized. With international alliances such as the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as a plethora of international deals, nations in the modern world are intertwined. A few strongmen leaders cannot change that. In the case of Brexit, the United Kingdom remains interconnected politically with the other member states of the European Union. Nearly a year after the referendum, there are hundreds of negotiations to complete before the UK is no longer an EU member. President Trump’s executive order that temporarily suspended immigration from some Muslim-majority countries was struck down by a federal judge. Existing frameworks, from international groups to checks and balances within a Constitution, provide a robust barrier to protectionism, isolationism, and nativism.
In name and in practice, populism is a rejection of liberalism, elitism, and globalism. The protectionist and nativist aspects of populism are short-lived and of relatively low impact. Yet, they are inevitable. Instead of dismissing or being fearful of populism, liberals should listen to the concerns of the “silent majority” and harness the democratizing power of populism when possible.
Yashodhara Varma is a sophomore at Maggie Walker High School in Richmond, Virginia, where she is involved in and leads Environmental Club, the Model Congress Club and the Varsity Swim Team. She has worked with multiple legislators from across the state to support bipartisan legislation.