National populists prioritize the culture and interests of the nation, and promise to give voice to a people who feel that they have been neglected, even held in contempt, by distant and often corrupt elites.
The result of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States took many people, particularly from the economic and political elites, by surprise. But I predicted it! No, of course not. I was as surprised—shocked might be a better word—as everyone else around me. But the movements towards more populist positions have been increasing for some time. And the book by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism, is an excellent source to understand why.
One thing that I particularly enjoyed of this book is that the authors analyse the issues without any judgement or moral outrage. To say that this is refreshing is an understatement; it has almost become a meme to say that the Leave voter was an older uneducated racist white living in the countryside. And, for sure, all these variables correlate positively with a vote for Leave. But the model still leaves a lot of unexplained variation. Getting a deeper understanding of this variation is key; if not for pure intellectual curiosity, at least to “win back” part of these voters.
The book claims that the increase of national populism revolves around four Ds: Distrust, Destruction, Deprivation, and De-alignment. Distrust refers to the lack of trust that citizens feel towards the elites–as Michael Gove put it during the referendum campaign, Britain has had enough of experts. (Although they seem to be back with the Coronavirus!). Destruction is related to the perceived elimination of the nation’s historical identity. There are many examples of this, such as John Cleese saying that London is no longer an English city. Deprivation describes the belief that one collective is losing out relative to another. Finally, de-alignment refers to the lost bonds between voters and parties, citizens and mainstream media.
I would add, as the book points out, that the reaction to these concerns by a part of the media elite reinforces the position of national populists. Take the case of John Cleese’s claim. I like London a lot, and one of the main reasons is the fact that it is extremely cosmopolitan, with plenty of people coming from other parts of the world, a great mix of cultures and traditions. This fact, by definition, means that it is less English. In the 2011 census, the percentage of foreign-born population living in Inner London was 42.2%. Of course, someone could argue that Cleese is trying to create an us-vs-them mentality, de facto implying than non-English is worse, and hence the comments are clearly racist. Maybe that was his intention; maybe not. But the reaction is to attribute this intention to anyone that makes this type of claim. And when this is the reaction to self-evident truth (more and more non-English people have come to live in London, and hence the English tradition and identity of the city is diminishing) we end up with populist leaders gaining more trust from the voters.
There is much more in the book that I am not going to try to cover here. But an important point is that national populism appears to be here to stay. This is not just a temporary shock that will go away as people realise their “mistakes.” The underlying concerns will continue and most likely exacerbate in the next years, with raising inequalities, automation, and public spending restrain. Therefore, it is key to start thinking about how to address them so that national populist leaders do not get to decide the fate of the nations.