There is nothing new about populism as a phenomenon, of course. It has been around since the ancient Greek city-states and in recent times was ascendant through much of the 20th century in its fascist form, generally classified as “right wing”, and its communist form, classified as “left wing”.
Keep in mind, however, that the word “Nazi” is an acronym of the German party’s full name: National Socialist German Workers’ Party. In other words, it saw itself as a blend of right-wing nationalism and left-wing socialism, established to promote the greater glory of a Germany humiliated after World War I and the German working class, decimated by the excesses of capitalism, leading to massive unemployment in the 1930s.
Twentieth-century populism was, thus, characterized by the politics of rage and resentment, coupled with an ideological underpinning. The new populism is different, in that although the causes include rage and resentment on the part of a large proportion of the populations affected, and nationalism is by no means absent, the new populists are sustained by a strong and widespread disenchantment with and opposition to the political, economic and social elites of the societies involved and the political parties that represent them.
Although the new populist phenomenon exists elsewhere, in places such as Australia, I will limit my comments to the US and Europe.
The causes are economic, political and social. In the economic sphere they can be succinctly characterized through quotes from two recently published books: The Great Leveler by Mark Schneidel and The Great Equalizer by David Smick.
Schneidel writes: “The richest 1% of the world’s households now hold a little more than half of global private net wealth.… The wealthiest 20 Americans currently own as much as the bottom half of their country’s households taken together.”
And Smick: “The richest 1% in America received almost 60% of the growth in wealth between 2009 and 2014.”
In other words, a concentration of wealth in the Western world that can only be described as obscene. This coupled with rapidly growing technological change, especially advanced robotization and 3D printing, has resulted in a shrinking middle class, masses of unoccupied people, and in the US a population half of which is dependent, in whole or in part, on government handouts.
I say unoccupied, rather than unemployed, because the very misleading way in which unemployment is measured in the US excludes the millions of men and women of working age who have simply given up looking for work.
In the political sphere, and mixing sports metaphors, politics has gone, in many countries, from baseball to boxing and then into bullfighting; opponents into enemies; from differences of opinion to good versus evil; and widespread contempt, verging upon hatred, toward the traditional political class and its parties. Civil discourse has been changed to name-calling, shouting down those deemed unacceptable, and most recently a violent attack in the US on Republican members of Congress practicing for a baseball game.
How ironic. In baseball, you try to win; in boxing, you try to knock out your opponent; in bullfighting, you try to kill him (and it is not always the bull who gets killed).
Socially, class enmity, ethnic/religious bigotry, political “correctness” and incivility pervade society. A refusal to listen to any opinions except the “correct” ones. In academia, graduating classes made up largely of bigoted ignoramuses, coddled and encouraged by politically correct faculties and administrators. A precipitous decline of the family and the institution of marriage.
To quote commentator David Goldman, “… we are not clever or strong enough to reinvent ourselves. To the extent we succeed, we become monsters.” Which echoes the words of Voltaire: “He who can convince people to believe absurdities, can convince them to commit atrocities.”
Misinformation and disinformation are everywhere; truth is what the politically correct say it is. Objectivity is prejudice and bigotry is virtue.
The new populists can be divided into three categories: two are throwbacks to the populist totalitarians of the last century, on one side Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, on the other Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. The first emphasize nationalism and encourage xenophobia; the second emphasize class distinctions and encourage class hatred.
The most representative of the new populists, because the least ideological, are the only two on this list who actually won the highest position of their respective countries: Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron.
In the months leading up to their respective triumphs, neither Trump nor Macron was given the slightest chance of success by either the pundits or the media. They can be characterized as populists of the center.
Trump captured the Republican nomination from his traditional rivals and cannot be considered in any real sense a Republican. Macron established his own party, which in slightly over a year elected him president and achieved an absolute majority in the French National Assembly, an astonishing and unprecedented feat. The traditional French parties have been decimated, and no one will be surprised if the same happens to the Democrats and Republicans in the US.
Where will the new populism lead? Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope in Macron’s triumph, since he cannot be considered an extremist. Note, however, that although he is a vulgarian, Trump is not an extremist either. He is certainly not even a conservative, of either the social or financial variety.
Nevertheless, unless the US and the major European countries adopt programs to encourage the spread of wealth in their societies, through such mechanisms as cooperatives, employee stock-ownership plans and community investment trusts, extremism will eventually triumph, as it did in too much of the world in the 1930s.