Our group’s discussion on Brexit was focused on the role of nostalgia in both establishing and maintaining populist movements. A reoccurring theme that becomes increasingly evident when examining the history of populism within Europe is the dependence on a grand historical myth which can be used a point of contrast in order to reinforce and ideology of victimization and lost glory. This is seen in the rhetoric of historical populist movements such as that of the Italian fascists which harkened all the way back to the roman empire in order to portray modern Italy as a fallen power which had become victimized. Keeping this in mind it was interesting to see similar rhetoric used by the Brexit campaign in order to rally middle class Britons against the European Union. Throughout the campaign proponents of Brexit consistently portrayed the UK as power in terminal decline contrasting its current state with its former glory as the head of the British Empire. The blame for this decline was then pinned on various scapegoats which acted as symbols of the European Union whether they be bureaucrats in Brussels or migrant workers from Eastern Europe. While this narrative is plagued with historical inaccuracy as the UK was in steep economic decline prior to joining the European Union, not to mention the fact that the “greatness” of the British Empire was built of the exploitation of its non-British subjects rather than hindered by it, it had an undeniable impact on the course of the Brexit referendum. Not only does the image of a victimized and declining nation connect with a middle class which has been plagued by both austerity and stagnant wages, but the focus on a former glory exclusive to Britain prevents a sense of solidarity from forming between the British middle class and its counterparts across Europe. The decline of the middle class due to the relentless assault of austerity crippling the welfare state is not exclusive to Brittan. It is a reality across Europe which requires cooperation and solidarity across national boundaries in order to effectively address, the isolationism advocated by the Brexit campaign will do nothing but worsen the situation. The true tragedy of anachronistic propaganda of the “leave” campaign is that it has blinded much of the British middle class to its most valuable ally that being the middle class across Europe, in favour of a delusion desire to restore Brittan to a semi-mythical state of glory that was supposedly experienced in the distant past.
The Italian election which took place earlier this month brought on yet another painful blow to supporters to the EU. The Eurosceptic populist parties the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord, dominated the ballot box gaining a combined 330 seats. The Italian election is only the most recent in a long string of disasters to plague the EU.
In the short span of less than 2 years, the UK has left the EU, Marie Le Pen and Geert Wilders were both only narrowly defeated in their respective elections, the far right Alternative für Deutschland party has gained seats in the German Bundestag, and the Italian Parliament has been overtaken by Eurosceptic populist parties.
This shift towards the populist right has done more than simply destabilize the EU, it has put the very existence of EU at risk. Although few of these rising populists would openly advocate for their nations to pull out of the EU they openly challenge the fundamental values which form the foundation of the EU. Values such as respect for human dignity, equality, freedom of movement, and pluralism.
The rise and success of these populist movements has been increasingly rooted in one particular issue which has come do dominate European politics, that issue being the migrant crisis.
- Those who campaigned for Brexit notoriously scapegoated migrants as the cause of Britain’s economic decline.
- Both Le Pen and Wilders made the supposed threat posed by Muslim migrants to secular Europe the xenophobic foundation their far-right campaigns.
- The AfD in large part owes its success to the decision of chancellor Angela Merkel to admit nearly a million migrants to Germany in 2015.
The results of the Italian election are simply the most recent example of the issue of immigration resurfacing to the benefit of Eurosceptic populist parties.
While many are quick to dismiss this tactic of exploiting the issue of migration and scapegoating migrants as xenophobic propaganda, what has become abundantly clear is that regardless of it’s validity it’s a tactic that has the potential to succeed.
What does this say about European voters?
While many are eager to point to the populist right’s successful use of scapegoating and propaganda as evidence for deep seeded racism within European society, few are examining the situation with proper consideration for its historical context.
This pattern of scapegoating a vulnerable minority in order the reinforce the view of a victimized majority is nothing new to historians who have studied the rise of historical populist movements. While this aspect of populism is widely acknowledged by both the media and the political establishment which have gone as far to describe emerging populist parties such as the Front National as neo-fascist. There is a second aspect that has contributed to the historical rise of populism which is almost entirely ignored.
Like its historic counterpart the modern rise of populism within Europe has been facilitated by a catastrophic economic collapse which has created victimhood among ordinary Europeans. Like the Great Depression which proceeded the rise of populism in Europe during the 1930’s, many have seemingly forgotten the European Debt Crisis which proceeded the migrant crisis and the following rise of populism.
In the face of insurmountable debt, nations such as Spain, Greece, and Italy accepted austerity cutting social spending in exchange for debt relief. This dismantling of social services has disproportionately impacted the poor and the middle-class.
This newfound sense of fear brought on by rising unemployment and a rapidly declining standard of living was unfortunately coupled with the sudden influx of an unprecedent number migrants into Europe which naturally have required a significant degree of aid in order to resettle within European society. Taking this into account it is hard to imagine a situation in which right wing populists would not have experienced a dramatic rise by scapegoating migrants.
The political establishment of the EU can no longer afford to simply ignore the efficacy of the populist right and its xenophobic tactics. It can also no longer dismiss the fears of migration as being inherently rooted in racism while ignoring the historical context in which this migrant crisis is occurring. The EU must walk a fine line between maintaining the support of its member states and defending its core values by living up to it’s humanitarian obligations. The only way in which both of these needs can be met while also disarming the populist right is by reprioritizing public welfare and the protection of welfare state. It is only by addressing the genuine economic fears of working class Europeans that the political establishment of the EU can effectively dismiss the fictitious fears which the populist right is desperately attempting to propagate.
2. New York Times
In his piece “From Fascism to Populism in History”, Federico Finchelstein establishes what he views as the thin distinctions between the ideologies of populism and fascism. According To Finchelstein, both populism and fascism follow the same historical tradition of authoritarianism with differing approaches towards attaining and maintaining power. While fascism remains openly rejects the democratic process in favor of traditional despotism and totalitarianism, populism supposedly works within the confides of democracy in order to establish an authoritarian form of democracy. Taking this into account populism can be seen as the historical evolution of fascism following the atrocities committed by the fascist regimes of the mid twentieth century.
Finchelstein describes populism as authoritarian democracy which trumps the will of the majority often over the rights of minorities and uses the term populist pejoratively. In his criticism of populism however Finchelstein inadvertently reveals to me a dilemma of liberalism that being it’s source of political legitimacy. Finchelstein clearly argues that populism is inherently apposed to liberal democracy given it’s tendency to subject minorities to the will of the majority, despite this political legitimacy within liberal democracy is purportedly rooted in popular support. While the protection of minorities is widely seen as a fundamental characteristic of liberal democracy at what point does the rejection of the will of the majority in favor of a minority result in the political process losing its legitimacy? While few in our society would argue that ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities should not be protected from the so called tyranny of the majority, how far can this principle extended? Do the rights of an elite economic minority trump the desires of a potentially exploited economic majority?
In the face of seemingly endless blunders and national embarrassments it can be easy to lose sight of just how Donald Trump was able to win the White House. More importantly how the Democratic party and Hilary Clinton with their collective 1.4 billion dollars’ worth of fund raising were unable to address Trump’s populist rhetoric because of their addiction to corporate funding and lost to a bombastic reality TV star.
Donald Trump’s State of the Union address put into focus the fear of American workers which handed Trump the same rust belt that had voted for the president Obama only 4 years earlier. Throughout the first year of his presidency Donald Trump abandoned his persona of the populist saviour of the common man in favour of the more comfortable role of the establishment Republican.
The man who had once railed against the influence Goldman Sachs, now fills his cabinet with their alumni.
The same man who had once preached against the wasteful neoconservative escapades in the Middle East has now escalated American military involvement in Syria and seven other nations to heights not even the Obama administration could reach.
With hypocrisy like this many could almost be fooled into thinking Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush had actually won the presidency if it weren’t for the consistent early morning twitter tirades. Despite this, the populist Trump was briefly resurrected for his State of Union address in order to remind both his supports and his detractors why so many Americans had fallen for him.
Throughout the hour-long speech three elements of the “Trump movement” came to light:
– The fear of the working class
– America’s desperation for solidarity
– The role of the saviour
Trump boasted his supposed efforts to save American manufacturing as well as to alleviate inner city poverty. At the same time, Trump condemned the sad state of America’s social safety net promising to invest in infrastructure and somewhat shockingly, fight for lower prescription drug costs and paid family leave. Trump’s populist rhetoric whether it is sincere or not, reflects the precarious state of American workers.
Wages haven’t risen in decades as unions were destroyed and replaced with precariously low paying part-time employment that lacks benefits which the American government uniquely fails to provide. This insecurity creates unimaginable terror amount working people and this fear creates the need for solidarity that Trump exploits. As Linda Gordan described in her examination of the Ku Klux Klan as a case study of right wing populism, populist movements are characterized by this designation of “the people” as victims, and the exploitation of the resulting anger and fear to demagogue against supposed threats.
The State of the Union reminded the America an “other” exists to fear which they must stand united against. In a particularly disgusting form of political theatre, Trump paraded the families of victims of gang violence during his speech showing his supporters that their fears are close to home and that they must stand in solidarity with their nation and their president.
American society across political lines glorfies economic success and achievement of the “American Dream” as a sign of moral virtue. Trump exploits this fact by presenting himself as a virtuous saviour of the common man due to his position as a wealthy businessman.
In the face of the Trump movement, the establishment Democratic party is powerless to provide a meaningful resistance. Like its Republican counterpart the Democratic party is dominated by corporate and elite interests/money preventing it from serving working people. A Democratic supermajority under president Obama failed to provide Americans with paid maternity leave or universal healthcare. Instead the Obama administration bailed out the banks, expanded American military involvement to 7 countries, and made the Bush tax cuts permanent.
This leaves the Democratic party in a position where it has no answer to the fear of the American working class and can only figh Trump on his racism and incompetence. To the blue-collar worker who is crippled by fear the desire for solidarity trumps the natural sense of disgust towards Trump’s racism and to his most fervent supporters Trump’s flirtation with the alt-right is his greatest appeal.
Photos credited to Vox and Huffington Post respectively
Our groups discussion of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here” was centered on the historical context in which Lewis wrote his piece, more specifically focusing on Louisiana politician Huey Long’s potential challenge to President Roosevelt. Huey Long was assassinated shortly before the publication of “It Can’t Happen Here”, taking that into consideration many members of our group noted that Sinclair Lewis could have very well written his novel as a warning to the American public on the danger an authoritarian populist such as Long posed to the United States hoping that Americans would be able to recognize the signs of fascism and not be blinded by their own sense of exceptionalism. I could not help but wonder what it was about Huey Long that inspired such a sense of anxiety in Sinclair Lewis that he felt it necessary to write an entire novel essentially warning Americans about the danger he presented. Following the class discussion, I did further research into the background of Huey Long that both helped me understand the mindset of Sinclair Lewis and yet also raised many question on the nature of both populism and fascism. As the then governor of Louisiana Long implemented several extremely authoritarian policies, many of which are eerily reminiscent of those pursued by Adolf Hitler during the early years of his accession to power. Long purged the state government and bureaucracy of his political rivals, filled his cabinet with a network of loyalists and forced all state employees dependent on him to contribute financially to his personal “war chest”. Despite these authoritarian tactics what makes Long’s governorship particularly interesting is that rather than simply pursuing personal gain, Long utilized his over extended reach of power to serve his community. Long implemented massive public works programs within Louisiana which helped drastically lessen the impact of the Great Depression. He was also responsible for the creation of comprehensive social programs which made great strides in expanding the adult literacy rate within Louisiana. Being both a populist with the support of the masses as well as an authoritarian who utilized many of the same tactics as reviled fascist leaders throughout history it is easy to understand why Lewis so greatly feared the potential of individuals such as Long. The question remains, why it was only under an authoritarian such as Long that the government of Louisiana was able to meet its obligations to the people of the state? A trait of many populist regimes appears to be the strange blending of both authoritarian positions of the far right and progressive and popular policy of the left. A flaw which I feel plagues many of the responses to fascism is the disregard of the legit victimization which often preludes the rise of fascist regimes and the subsequent sacrificing of progressive policy in order to dismantle and prevent these regimes. My reading of Sinclair Lewis and following research into Huey Long has left me trying to understand why democratic regimes are often unable to pursue popular policy despite mass political participation, and why individuals so often resort to authoritarianism as the medium to achieve progressive change.
Wendy Lower’s “Hitler’s Furies” examines the often ignored role of women, specifically the young women of the post World War One baby boom generation, within the Nazi regime. Lower emphasizes not only the active participation of many young women in the genocidal campaign of expansion and ethnic cleansing pursued by the Third Reich, but also the manner in which the Nazi regime simultaneously seized upon the energy and fervor of a young generation of women which had just recently gained a role within the political community while also demonizing this societal progress in order to justify their counterrevolutionary agenda.
An often ignored period of German history is that of the Weimar Republic of the 1920’s which preceded the regime of the Third Reich. As Lower explains the extreme political instability of the newly formed and deeply indebted republic saw the growth of both the far right and far left elements of the political spectrum. While the rise of the fascism in Germany during this period is well known and documented, the simultaneous rise of left wing moments namely the German social democratic and communist parties is all too often ignored. Lower makes a point to mention from the very beginning of her book that the period of the Weimar Republic was a time of historic progress for women in Germany with women gaining the right to vote and receiving formal equality under the law in 1919 despite being entirely barred from political activity only 11 years earlier.
Rather than simply ignoring the rising role of women within German society, the Nazi regime seized upon this new found youthful energy and reorganized it within their reactionary agenda. The frustration of women which had historically been completely excluded from the political process was used to encourage their active participation within the Nazi regime. Political action for women took the form of; “maintaining racial purity” by raising as many children with “Aryan” men as they were physically capable of, aiding the Nazi eugenics program in their capacity as teachers and nurses, promoting the ethnic cleansing of Eastern Europe by resettling and displacing conquered Polish, Ukrainian and Russian civilians, and by fighting against the progressive and feminist movements which were responsible their ascension within German society.
Fascist regimes have a remarkable ability to capture the energy and frustration of disenfranchised groups in order to fuel their reactionary movements. The Nazi regime was able to both use the rise of women’s emancipation and the fear this created among conservative elements of society in order to encourage participation within their counterrevolutionary regime. This characteristic of fascism raises several interesting questions. Will contemporary progressive movements such as the MeToo campaign inevitably result in a reactionary back lash and a rise in the far right? Why was the far right more successful in capturing the energy of young women in 1930’s Germany than the progressive movements of the time which were largely responsible for the growing role of women in German society? Is there a way to prevent disenfranchised groups from being co opted by fascist movements?
Marc Saurette’s lecture on the misinterpretation of history and it’s use within populist movements formed the foundation of our group’s discussion on the wider role of populism in the creation of the nation state. As Professor Saurette demonstrated, purposeful misinterpretations of medieval history has formed the basis of populist rhetoric which has been used by both modern and historic hate groups in order to stigmatize ethnic and religious minorities. What is often ignored however is that this same populist rhetoric of an ethnically homogeneous population and an “us verses them” mentality has also been an essential element in the creation of the European nation state. Take for example the creation of modern Germany which exists in an area historically populated by a multitude of both German and Non-German ethnic groups which was never a single homogeneous national entity. In the pursuit of a nation state the nationalist founders of modern Germany advocated the ahistorical view of a unified and homogeneous German people which were threatened by their Non-German neighbors, namely the Slavic peoples. This rhetoric is remarkably similar to the rhetoric used by the Nazi movement in Germany to justify their genocidal expansion eastward in pursuit of “living space” for the German people. While the negative impact of this misuse of history cannot be ignored, our group also discussed the role of populist rhetoric and the myth of an ethnically homogeneous population in maintaining stability within a state. As members of our group noted, much of the violence and instability that has plagued both Africa and Asia following the decolonization of the mid 20th century has been rooted in ethnic and religious conflict. This is in no small part due to the creation of artificial states by European colonial empires for the purpose of dividing territory among themselves, which fail to correlate to existing ethnic and geographic boundaries. This is further compounded by the fact that colonial powers often encouraged ethnic division and conflict within their colonies in order to destabilize opposition to their rule. This was tragically demonstrated in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide in which ethnic tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu populations resulted in the massacre of nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The strife that led to the genocide had its roots in the colonial system established by the Belgian rulers of Rwanda which placed the Tutsi minority in a position of authority over the Hutu majority in order to prevent the creation of a common Rwandan identity which could lead to opposition to their colonial rule. This policy of exacerbating pre-existing ethnic division contrasts sharply to the domestic policy pursued by colonial European powers such as France which aggressively sought to break apart local ethnic identities in favor of a homogeneous French national identity in the pursuit of domestic stability. This has led our group to conclude that the stabilizing effect of populist rhetoric as well as it’s ability to induce collective action, is in large part responsible for the reoccurring and drastic rise in both the popularity and scope of populist movements during times of crisis throughout modern history.
My name is Ali, I’m a second year political science student with a minor in history here at Carleton. I decided to add a history minor to my political science degree not only because of a personal passion for history, but also because it is clear to me that in order to develop a complete understanding of how a society currently functions it is necessary to have a solid understanding of the history of that society. Keeping that in mind it was difficult for me to resist registering for a course on the history of populism. The push towards increasing austerity coupled with the historic rise in economic inequality has brought both right and left wing populist movements to the forefront of political discourse in both North America and Europe. With events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump few would disagree that populism has become a major force in the modern political landscape.
In my increasingly rare free time I like to rock climb (despite not being very good at it), read, listen to music, and consume copious amounts of coffee. I have never blogged before taking this class so I am looking forward to figuring that out as well as exploring the fascinating history of populism with all of you this semester.