Populism in the West
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
The rise of populism today is undoubtedly Europe’s most serious problem. Many political analysts link it to the decline of social democracy and the center-left, with many of their traditional voters now voting for populist parties. The xenophobic use of the welfare state and the electoral decline of social democracy have prevented the formation of governments with a left-wing majority and with an outright majority in many countries. This feeds populism, although the fundamental nexus is the loss of feeling that social democracy inspired in post-war liberal democracy.
Social democracy had been the most optimistic ideology of modernity. It was very different from that of the liberals who believed that ‘government by the masses’ would be the end of private property and the tyranny of the majority. Therefore they were in favor of limiting the scope of democratic politics and of the communists who said that in order to create a better world capitalism and bourgeois democracy had to be destroyed.
These ideas developed in the period between the two world wars when democracy was threatened by fascism. It was then that Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that in addition to the terrible consequences of the Great Depression he had to face the fact that communist and fascist dictatorships might be the future of the world. So he looked for practical solutions created by a large group of people determined to attack the most common problems.
The other great political success of that era was that of Sweden’s center-left. Being aware of the growing power of fascism and the Great Depression, they developed a new vision of the relationship between the State and capitalism through their Social Democratic Party (SAP) which culminated in the defense of Keynesianism, and just like Roosevelt, offered voters concrete solutions to immediate problems. The new party promised to turn Sweden into a ‘home for the people’ without the privileged or neglected, without rulers or dependents and without plunderers or plundered.
After 1945, social democratic parties in general accepted the policies of Roosevelt and the SAP. This trend culminated in the late twentieth century with the emergence of leaders such as Blair, Clinton and Schroeder, who thought that transformation projects were obsolete and dangerous. So the aim of the left was to administer capitalist democracy better than the right. Populism therefore represented a politics of fear of crime, terrorism, unemployment, economic decline and the loss of national values, believing that this is the situation to which the other parties would lead.
Today, pessimism has spread to all countries in the West and according to a recent PEW Research survey, Europeans believe that their economic situation is better than it was ten years ago, but that does not make them optimistic about the future. In the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany, 80% say that the economy is doing well, but less than 40% believe that the next generation will live better than the current one, given that in times of great change like now, everyone relies on emotions and forgets what is rational.
That was what happened with social democracy in the post-war period, when it was said that if communism and liberalism were to work together the world could improve considerably. The problems of the 21st century are not so different from those of the 20th century and they only require a combination of pragmatic policies to solve challenges such as inequality, slow growth and major changes, both social and cultural.
With major political leaders as different as Trump, Corbyn and Macron one finds that many citizens of the world want to have leaders who talk about the importance of politics and believe that if there is the will, change can be achieved. If the center-left parties do not respond to this longing, the voters will go with those who do, and democracy could collapse completely right now.
Addendum: No one thought that populism would be the most important political force in the West in the 21st century.