The Rise of National Populism
Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, Pelican Books, 2018, 344 + xxxii pages, $16.95 softcover, $10.99 kindle.
National Populism, by two British professors of politics, Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, is a defense, not just an analysis, of its subject. It explains the legitimate grievances of national populists and explains which groups are likely to become populists. The authors believe the movement “will have a powerful effect on the politics of many Western countries for many years to come,” and they issue a warning to Donald Trump if he fails to serve his supporters.
National Populism is written in a casual, breezy style, and its sweeping coverage of political and social history is a welcome context for its findings. It’s packed with data but mostly in footnotes, so the average reader won’t find it tedious. It is a sign of reluctant elite recognition of the obvious that this book was named a Sunday Times book of the year.
“National populists prioritize the culture and interests of the nation,” write Professors Eatwell and Goodwin, “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 authors show convincingly that national populists are not “fascists.” In fact, they often want more democracy: more referendums and local control. National populists speak in the name of “plain ordinary people” against an out-of-touch elite. They don’t push authoritarian solutions.
Some national populists claim they are defending the existing welfare state from immigration and globalization. The Danish People’s Party, the authors note, calls itself “the real social democrats.” The Sweden Democrats also argue that the welfare state will be crushed by Third-world newcomers. “Mass immigration or welfare,” is one of its slogans.
The authors point out that national populism is not only for “old white men,” noting that Marine Le Pen, draws more support from young people than old people. National populism is thus not a “last gasp” of a dying generation, but a rising movement.
It is driven by four trends.
- Distrust of politicians and institutions that make citizens feel they have no voice.
- Destruction of a national group’s identity through immigration and rapid ethnic change.
- A feeling of deprivation among those who think they are losing out because of economic changes.
- De-alignment created by the weakening of political parties and established institutions.
Remarkably, the authors repeatedly refer to the “legitimacy” of limiting immigration, arguing that opposition to demographic transformation is not “racism.” The massive ethnic transformation of the West is “largely unprecedented in the history of modern civilization,” they note, and add that left-populists such as Bernie Sanders are handicapped because they “neglect” the “intense concerns over ethnic change and the possible destruction of the wider group identity, and ways of life.”
Nationalism, is “the belief that you are part of a group of people who share a common sense of history and identity and who are linked by a sense of mission or project.” This idea of a “national mission” helps explain identity. Although most national populists do not link identity to ethnicity, overwhelming majorities in Western countries think, for example, that immigrants must speak the language to be part of the country.
Anger with elites is partly motivated by the sense that they are separate from the nation: They support globalist trade policies, mass immigration, and bailouts for banks. They are “cosmopolitan, distant, and at times self-serving.” The current leaders of the European Union, who talk so often about protecting “democracy,” have abandoned the traditional national mission.
This helps explain why national populists want more accountability. Many Americans will be shocked to learn how European integration was forced though with little democratic input. The authors admit national populists who denounce elite scheming are not “without credence.” They note that George Soros does fund civil society campaigns that tend to support the EU, British financiers did oppose Brexit, and “Deep State” intelligence agencies have hurt the Trump Administration with serious leaks.
College education and the “experience of college itself” separate elites from populists. Opponents and supporters of Brexit were more sharply divided by education than by social class, income, or age. Likewise, whites without college degrees overwhelmingly supported President Trump, and the authors write that “white male workers” are especially likely to believe their status has declined relative to other groups. They’re right: In 2017, the share of GDP going to workers was 4 percent lower than it was in 1970. Inequality has increased in Western countries.
The authors claim it is not surprising so many struggling workers “turned to Trump, who promised to push the pendulum back in their direction.” They argue that President Trump could create a “national-populist-lite form of Republicanism” if he keeps his promises, but point out that his tax cuts mostly helped rich people. Trump supporters oppose cuts in social security even more than Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters do. Yet President Trump is talking about abolishing Obamacare, restarting a policy battle that motivated Democratic voters in the 2018 mid-terms. If President Trump keeps acting like the conventional Republicans he defeated, he won’t win enough white working-class voters in 2020.
The authors acknowledge that they do not discuss how national populists communicate with their audience, the media’s distortion of their message, or attempts to silence populists. These are vital questions. Governments, journalists, and tech companies hate and fear nationalists. Most are happy to see them silenced. Some nationalists will modify their message, but others may lash out when they lose faith in the marketplace of ideas and peaceful solutions. In any event, national populism will not be stamped out.
In their conclusion, the authors predict that mainstream parties will co-opt elements of national populism. They cite the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte’s anti-immigration posturing, which successfully drew enough support from Geert Wilders to secure Mr. Rutte’s victory. Yet in the most recent Dutch election, Thierry Baudet led a new populist force to victory. Nationalist voters will not settle for talk.
In arguing that populism will be adapted and coopted, National Populism is too sanguine. There’s no time for half-measures. Rising non-white populations fuel national populism. They also make it harder to win elections. National populists are likely to become more active and radical. Their views will not just be a force in Western politics; they will remake it.