By: Julia Malleck
A right-wing populist regime change is rumbling throughout the Western world. Rather than an overt or violent overturning of government, populist parties have emerged, electorally-facilitated, from within the bounds of liberal democratic institutions. Yet, the values held by these populist parties are deeply illiberal. They are shaking the foundations of the neoliberal world order—one that promotes the Kantian triangle of democracy, economic interdependence and international institutions.
Throughout 2016, right-wing populist parties across Europe gathered momentum and support. First came the pro-Brexit vote in June of 2016 which delivered the lynchpin of UKIP’s party platform and the end of 2016 brought the American election of Donald Trump as president. The year 2017 has arrived, and with it, three key European elections where populist parties stand poised to win legislative seats and positions as heads of state. Just last week (March 15), the Netherlands breathed a sigh of relief as center-right candidate Mark Rutte managed to win a plurality of seats in their general election. However, right-wing populist Geert Wilders still came in second place, a reminder that while populism may not have won the day, it’s not fading away any time soon.
The questions are the following: why is this happening now, why in the West and why is right-wing populism the chosen vehicle for political change?
Why now, and why the West?
Many have cited globalization and some of its repercussions—economic inequality, record immigrant and refugee populations, international terrorism—as triggering the recent rise in populism. This is perhaps an imprecise diagnosis because it fails to take a macrohistorical perspective.
The populist movement rising in the West is, at its heart, a reverberation of its imperial history, an iteration of the colonizer-colonized dynamic reproduced through 21st century constructions of nation-states.
The tectonics underlying the neoliberal world order, which were built on inequalities ingrained from histories of imperialism, colonization and economic exploitation, are inherently unstable. Imperial withdrawals and hastily-drawn borders have created post-colonial nation-states with shaky foundations. This has sown the seeds for 21st century conflict and insecurity. We consolidated sanitized terms for the legacy of colonization the moment the world was split into “developed” and “developing” countries.
Many of these former colonies are mired in political and economic problems. While the developed West is relatively prosperous and politically stable, the “rest” is still playing catch-up. It should be no surprise, then, that people from former colonies emigrate or seek refuge in Western nations in search of economic opportunity and security.
This is what has triggered a mass identity crisis across the Western world. Globalization, through its movement of populations, capital and technology, is eroding traditional conceptions of national identity. Populism is a reaction that seeks to reclaim that identity. Immigrants and refugees have been perceived as a threat to national identity, becoming scapegoats for right-wing populism to reframe national origin narratives and garner electoral support. (Whether the leaders of these populist movements truly believe in reaffirming their national identity, or are simply opportunists exploiting popular sentiment, is another question.)
Why right-wing populism?
Right-wing populism, as with most ideological movements, is a reflection of what it seeks to defend. Looking at the roots of modern Western nationalism, a la Bismarck, garners a better understanding of the right-wing populist movement. If populist rhetoric is anti-pluralist, racist, xenophobic, white and misogynistic, it is only a reflection of nationalism as it was originally conceived—a tool of geopolitical sovereignty for a particular ethnolinguistic group. In short, it always boils down to real estate and who owns it. Right-wing populism is the political ideology of “get off my property.” Nationalism may be a romanticized common mythology, but it is also a narrative that seeks to exclude.
Right-wing populists are able to mine the seams of racism instilled from colonialism. As such, the re-articulation of national identity has been drawn along binaries: white/black, citizen/immigrant, rich/poor, man/woman, Christian/Muslim, urban/rural. The “othering” of people has allowed populists to carve out a national identity that is concrete, absolute and powerfully consolidating.
It is along the urban/rural divide, in particular, that national identity is fracturing on both cultural and political levels. Trade entrepôts and cosmopolitan centers have been shaped into diverse ethnic, racial, linguistic and cultural hubs, which are the loci for the transnational movement of capital, information, technology and people. These metropolises most enjoy the material and social benefits of globalization. Rural heartlands have witnessed the other side to globalization—declining industries, movement of the labor force overseas and consequently a loss of prosperity. With industry and capital moving elsewhere, it is no wonder that people in the hinterlands have felt disenfranchised, cheated and stripped of agency and identity.
One can say, then, that globalization and nationalism are in tension. The recent shift towards right-wing populism signifies a negotiation and resistance toward the eroding effect globalization has on national origin stories, both in the domestic and global contexts. The migration of people from other countries represents a dilution to the “purity” of the national narrative, and the movement of capital and industry away represents a depletion of fiscal security and pride.
Perhaps this is what neoliberal capitalism and democracy were to bring to light after all. As the death knell tolls for Huntington and Fukuyama’s visions of teleological democratic progress and peace, the same old mix of racism and xenophobia has been revealed to be brewing under the foundations of post-Cold War optimism, in repackaged terms.
The neoliberal project has carried its own means of subversion and instability, but that is not to say that the recent rise in populism will spell doom for neoliberalism and its institutions. Nor is Westphalian sovereignty likely to disappear due to the effects of globalization. Neoliberalism is a construction too deeply embedded in Western geopolitics (and some might also add its importance in the Judeo-Christian tradition) for it to disappear any time soon.
Populism will have its moment, and then it will pass. We can look to Latin America as a case study of populism. The early 2000s witnessed the so-called “pink tide,” sweeping across Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina. However, it appears that the populist tide has now turned, turning back to center and center-right leaders as citizens have become disillusioned with populist leaders who have failed to deliver on their promises.
Will right-wing populism retreat to the fringes of Western political life or will it become normalized and mainstream? The answer to this question predicates on whether citizens will embrace or reject the effects of globalization on national identity.
We are seeing both strands of this in the Western world. Populist backlash fights to draw national identity back to a mythical, idealized past. Meanwhile, progressive movements seek to reshape that identity into something that is more fluid and inclusive. It is important to remember that national identity is not, nor has it ever been, immutable or stagnant. Only if Western political systems fail to acknowledge this, will we truly enter a new age of illiberalism.
Julia Malleck is a Strategic Trust-Building Initiative Intern at EastWest Institute. She is a recent graduate from Tufts University, where she received a BA in International Relations with a concentration in international security. She has also studied at SOAS, University of London, and was a recipient of the U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship to study Mandarin at Soochow University, China. Connect with Julia on Flickr.