European Populism Is Here to Stay

Matthew Goodwin, New York Times, October 20, 2017

Yet another European country has swung to the right. Nearly 58 percent of Austrian voters cast ballots last Sunday for the center-right People’s Party or the far-right Freedom Party. It is likely that the two parties will form a governing coalition.

Since the 1980s, the Freedom Party has been associated with anti-immigration xenophobia, anti-Semitism and, more recently, Islamophobia.

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Many analysts continue to misdiagnose the root cause of the populist surge. Too often they blame economic forces when, as a growing pile of research shows, it has far more to do with values.

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Throughout the campaign, and like a growing number of mainstream politicians in Europe, Mr. Kurz talked of slashing benefits for migrants, closing Islamic schools, banning foreign funding for mosques and taking harsh measures to deal with the refugee crisis.

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Mr. Kurz and his party also pushed through a ban on face coverings that took effect this month, a law that has been applied to ski masks and party costumes but is widely seen as an attack on Islamic burqas. Those caught wearing face coverings could be fined up to 150 euros (about $180).

The election of Mr. Kurz will bolster those people throughout Europe who are deeply critical of the humane approach to the refugee crisis taken by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. There will be increased demands for a more assertive defense of Europe’s Christian culture, values and borders. Hungary, Poland and other states in Central and Eastern Europe will point to the Austrian election results as further evidence of a glaring disconnect between pro-refugee liberals in Brussels and anti-immigration, socially conservative voters.

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The Austrian Freedom Party is in the headlines today, as it was in 1999, during a time of low unemployment in Europe, when the party reached 27 percent of the vote. Similarly, Marine Le Pen caused waves earlier this year, but it was in the 1990s when her father first attracted a large share of the working-class electorate in France.

These populist revolts have been a long time coming and have staying power. There are no easy answers for the left, but one thing is clear: The traditional strategy of strongly condemning populism while avoiding the tougher job of bridging the values gap has broken down.

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