What the latest data tell us about a key trend in Western politics
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Ever since the political revolts of 2016 the new elite have told themselves what they want to believe. After Brexit and then Donald Trump shocked this complacent and out-of-touch ruling class, many of its members put their heads in the sand, abandoned reality and smothered themselves in comfort blankets.
It was just a short-term flash-in-the-pan, they told us. It was just social media, they continued. It was just Cambridge Analytica, the bot farms in Russia, the malign influence of Dominic Cummings, Steve Bannon, Rupert Murdoch, Boris Johnson, and what was written on the side of a big red bus. It was just lies and misinformation.
Spend any time on Twitter, spend any time reading the Financial Times, and you’ll soon encounter another narrative for the new elite. All these populist upheavals, they say, are just a final outburst among old white populists, conservatives, reactionaries and racists who’ll soon be pushed aside by a new wave of liberal progressivism.
But will they? Will they really? Fast forward to today and the latest data tell us a very different story from the one that dominates the national conversation. Look at what’s actually happening on the ground and you’ll find something very different. National populism, as I predicted five years ago, is not going anywhere. On the contrary, it’s becoming a powerful and permanent political force.
Just look at what’s been unfolding around us since the Covid pandemic, the arrival of a new migration crisis and the onslaught of inflation and a cost-of-living crisis.
In America, the Republican nomination is Donald Trump’s to lose. He’s leading comfortably in the Republican primary polls, is close to 20-points ahead of Ron DeSantis and, for all the reasons historian Niall Ferguson sets out in an excellent essay here, has a very good chance of returning to the White House next year.
Either way, the fact we’re even talking about the possibility of Trump 2, the fact that a majority of Republicans will fall in line behind him, blows apart the fashionable idea that the populist moment would merely be a flash-in-the-pan.
In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which academics and commentators were far too quick to write off a few years ago, has now firmly reestablished itself as the strongest force in the eastern half of the country.
Contrary to all those commentators who told us the left and the Greens would sweep away national populism, in the national polls the AfD has just surpassed the Greens to poll above 16 per cent and does not look to be going anywhere anytime soon.
In Austria, too, where we were told a financial scandal would kill off the national populist Freedom Party, today it’s back to being the most popular party in the country — pushing ahead of both the established left and established right.
Its leader, Herbert Kickl, former speechwriter for the original charismatic populist, Jörg Haider, was not only a fierce critic of the Covid lockdowns but has also produced some of the party’s most provocative slogans, including ‘Home, Not Islam’.
In France, the once ridiculous suggestion that a member of the Le Pen dynasty might actually become the next president of France is now completely plausible. The latest polls have Marine Le Pen winning the first round of the next presidential election.
And when voters are asked how they’d vote in a hypothetical second round contest between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen wins by a comfortable ten points. It’s not even close.
In Italy, too, contrary to the general hysteria that met the election of Georgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy, and widespread predictions her rise would end in disaster, her party remains –by some way– the most popular in the country.
In fact, as the Pew Research Center notes, at the last election four in ten Italians backed one of the country’s three national populist parties—whether Brothers of Italy, the League, or Forza Italia—up from three in ten a decade ago.
Amid a spiralling migration crisis, the increasing cost of living, and a country in which, remarkably, two-thirds of Italians say they ‘no longer feel safe’, confidence in Prime Minister Meloni has been rising, not falling. Last week, 54 per cent of Italians said they trust and have faith in their new prime minister.
In Sweden, too, the once pariah Sweden Democrats just enjoyed their strongest ever result at national elections, finishing second —something that would also have been completely unthinkable ten or twenty years ago.
They too have now moved fully into the mainstream, enjoying chairmanships of influential parliamentary committees and a kingmaker role in the government which now relies on its support.
Their growing influence is further reflected in the government’s ‘Tidö Agreement’ which sets out much tougher measures for dealing with Sweden’s escalating gang violence, rising levels of immigration, and glaring lack of integration.
National populists are also breaking through in democracies that were once thought to be immune to them. In Spain, the share of the national vote going to populist parties doubled between 2015 and 2019, from 13 to 25 per cent. But much of this is because of the growth of the populist right, not the populist left.
The Vox movement polled its best ever result at national elections in 2019 before making serious regional breakthroughs in areas like Andalusia, Castile and León, Catalonia, and Madrid. Contrary to those who thought Vox would crash and burn, it remains the third most popular party in the country today.
So too does Chega! —or Enough!— in Portugal, which not only enjoyed its best ever result at national elections last year but has recently been attracting growing support in the polls, reaching record highs with support from around 15 per cent of voters.
Further east, in Hungary Viktor Orbán’s party just won its best ever result at a national election while in Poland, where Law and Justice still dominate, support for national populism has basically quadrupled during the last twenty years.
And even in smaller countries such as Belgium, where Flemish Interest has invested massively in social media to target younger people’s concerns over terrorist attacks and spiralling migration, the party is now topping the polls.
Sure, some of these parties have slipped a little, as in the Netherlands. But even there they remain a serious force on the landscape while those populists who have left frontline politics altogether, like Nigel Farage, have still found much of their agenda and voters picked up by the mainstream conservatives (it’s also worth noting that one recent poll suggested more than one-quarter of British voters would back a Farage-style voter, more than enough to cost the Tories the next election).
And just look at the demographics of all this. If you spend your time listening to certain academics on Twitter then you’ll quickly be left with the impression that national populism is about to be swept aside by young Millennials and Zoomers.
But as Sebastian Milbank points out in an excellent essay in The Critic, this reflects a parochially anglocentric view of the world:
“In Europe, nationalism is primarily a youth movement, and a rapidly growing one at that. In Italy, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria, populist right-wing parties are not only in power, but enjoy their strongest support from younger voters. In France and Spain, the youth have abandoned centrist parties and now vote for either the far-left, or the far-right — the majority of French under-30s voted either for Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2017.”
He’s spot on. As I pointed out five years ago, national populist electorates are far more diverse and younger than much of our commentary implies. And for that reason alone these movements were always going to be more durable than many people thought.
Marine Le Pen, for example, is as popular among 18-24-year-olds as she is among pensioners. She’s more popular than women than men, especially younger women in the low-skilled hospitality and services sector. She’s also, comfortably, the most popular choice among a working-class that’s now being battered by inflation, immigration, globalisation and the breakdown of integrated communities.
It’s a similar story in parts of Germany where, contrary to the very lazy ‘demography is destiny’ narrative, national populists have emerged as the most popular choice among the under-30s. In Belgium, too, Flemish Interest has been most successful among young men. In Italy, national populists have been most popular among the younger middle-aged, the thirty and forty somethings, not the very youngest or oldest voters.
And look, too, at the age of the key players who are leading this new wave. The leader of Marine Le Pen’s slate of candidates in 2019 was just 23. The leader of the Danish People’s Party list was 29. The spokesman for Vox is 27. The lead candidate in one list for Flemish Interest was just 26. Georgia Meloni herself is only 46, hardly old, and was also raised by her single mother and lives unmarried with her partner and child. And while Marine Le Pen is sightly older, at 54, she’s twice divorced with three kids.
Many of our commentators, who came of age in an earlier wave of national populism, symbolised by the elderly and crude Jean-Marie Le Pen or Umberto Bossi, are simply failing to keep up with how this movement is now attracting a new generation of young, telegenic, charismatic, and social media-savvy figures who don’t always fit the stereotypical mould of what a populist is supposed to look like and often have very different ideas about where their movements should go in the years ahead.
Look too at how their electorates are changing. In recent years, studies have pointed not only to the rise of a new generation of national populists who’ve been raised in the world of Brexit and Trump and have simply never known a world without populism but also “liberal nativists” —rising numbers of women and sexual minority voters who are socially liberal on some issues but support national populists because they fear their hard-won rights are now under threat from mass immigration and Islam.
I suspect, too, that the historic ‘gender gap’ in support for national populists, where men have been far more likely to vote for them than women, will continue to close in the years ahead as women feel increasingly under threat from not just radical Islam but radical ‘woke’ progressivism and gender identity theory, symbolised by the growing inability of mainstream politicians to even define what a woman is.
As Milbank rightly points out, the likely success of this populism “is precisely its ability to unite young Christians, fervent nationalists and concerned liberals. With liberalism having broken with traditional culture and socialism unmoored from its once-strong critique of globalisation, a new hybrid political space has opened up”.
This space is now filled with millions of voters who are both deeply concerned about the relentless and bewildering effects of mass immigration and the deeply damaging effects of hyper-globalisation, which is allowing national populists to cut across the traditional dividing lines between left and right and assemble a wider coalition.
The key point is that if you really want to make sense of why these movements are not going anywhere then, as I pointed out in National Populism, you really need to drop the comfort blankets and the seductive narratives and look at the big four drivers that are pushing millions of people away from the mainstream into the arms of populists.
Their rising levels of distrust in the established institutions and the expert class which have simply had a terrible few decades —from failing to see the financial crisis coming to failing to secure our borders, from failing to avoid disastrous foreign wars to failing to manage the Covid pandemic and then failing to see inflation coming.
Their growing fears over the destruction of their national communities, identities, and ways of life, whether due to mass immigration, collapsing birth rates or the rise of a far more radically woke new elite who increasingly derive their sense of status from other elites by downplaying if not repudiating our collective cultural inheritance.
Their closely-related fears about relative deprivation, namely their worry that their wider majority group is now being left behind relative to racial, sexual, and gender minorities or, worse, is being pushed down a new moral hierarchy in society, no longer thought to be as morally worthy as other groups in Western societies.
And now rising levels of dealignment, whereby the old bonds between the masses and the elites which used to hold politics in place are now rapidly breaking down, making politics on both the left and right far more chaotic, volatile, and unpredictable and which, in turn, is making it much easier for new challengers to breakthrough.
It’s because of these much deeper and longer-running currents that, contrary to what the new elite tell us, national populism has not and will not go anywhere in the years and decades ahead. It’s now here to stay, not least because of the new elite’s failure to reflect seriously on its own role in creating this enormous space to begin with.
Ever since 2016, the new elite have routinely blamed the rise of national populism on anything and everything that has nothing to do with them. This might help them sleep at night but it does nothing to deal with the underlying challenge.
The only way of meeting this challenge, in my view at least, is to start to address, seriously, the reasons why so many people are abandoning the mainstream in droves —from mass immigration to radical progressivism, from a heartless globalisation to institutions which no longer give sufficient voice to the countries that surround them.
Because if we do not do this then I think the future is clear —what’s already morphed into a serious political revolt may yet spiral into a full-blown rebellion.
Matt Goodwin’s Substack goes out to around 13,000 subscribers from 116 countries around the globe each week and a growing number of active supporters who make this possible. To become an active supporter then upgrade. If you would like to ask Matt to speak at an event drop him a message or connect @GoodwinMJ.
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