Bad news, democracy fans. National populism may be in your future and it may have less to do with globalization, inequality, or migration than you imagine. Think tribal.
The left has always struggled to make sense of national populism which seeks to prioritise the culture and interests of the nation, and promises to give voice to a people who feel that they have been neglected, even held in contempt, by distant and sometimes corrupt or self-serving elites. And today’s thinkers, writers and groups on the left have subscribed to a number of theories, all of which are incorrect. They claim this volatility is simply a shortlived backlash against something – whether immigrants or “the system” – rather than a positive vote for what national populists are offering, not only more restrictive immigration policies but also a more responsive political system and more equal economic settlement.
Another misconception, building on Marx, is that the likes of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Matteo Salvini are driven by people’s concerns about economic scarcity, competition over wages or jobs, and, particularly today, by the effects of the post-2008 financial crisis and austerity. A third is the mistaken belief that all these awkward and troubling movements are essentially a reflection of lingering racism in society, and perhaps even latent public support for fascism. Others argue, again wrongly, that voters are being ruthlessly manipulated into voting for the populists by dark and shadowy right-wingers who control the media or big tech.
...The idea that Brexit can be explained away via references to big tech firms, that Trump is merely a byproduct of racism, or that the dramatic political shifts in Europe can be resolved by redistribution and tackling inequality, are mere comfort blankets. What we need to focus on instead is how in most western democracies the rise of national populism has coincided with the fall of social democracy. National populism has recognised how the foundations of politics are moving while the left, for the most part, has clung to outdated theories.
... So what is really going on? National populism is revolving around four deep-rooted societal shifts: the “four Ds”. First, there are high levels of political distrust, which are being exacerbated by populist leaders who paint themselves and their followers as victims of a political system that has become less representative of key groups. Second, many people have strong and entrenched fears about the perceived destruction of national cultures, ways of life and values, amid unprecedented and rapid rates of immigration and ethnic change. Accompanying this distrust and fear are anxieties related to deprivation and the loss of jobs and income, along with a strong sense that they and their ethnic and social group are being left behind relative to others in society.
Finally, many political systems in the west are having to grapple with a new era of dealignment, in which bonds between voters and traditional parties are breaking down, and hence the path for new political challengers is much more open.
When you take a closer look at these four currents it becomes abundantly clear that there is nothing ephemeral about national populism, and we will be living in an era of heightened volatility for many years to come.If that has soaked in let's go back a year to when our prime minister declared Canada a "post-national state" that had no cultural mainstream, no core identity. Not only is Trudeau a neoliberal up to his eyeballs but he saw fit to proclaim Canada no longer a nation state. What, based on getting just shy of two out of five voters in 2015, His Majesty up and pronounces the Canadian nation-state dead? Then he applauds politely when Morneau tells the plebs they had better get used to the idea of a life of "job churn."
How many of the "four Ds" does Justin Trudeau ring? Why, all four. Political distrust - look at the whoppers he told to trick us into voting for him. Destruction of national cultures, ways of life and values - he checks that box. Anxieties related to job and income insecurity - that's exactly what Morneau said is in store for the Canadian rank and file.
Then there's the final D, dealignment, the breakdown of the bond between the voters and government that routinely caters to special interests over the public interest. Trudeau aces that one, summa cum laude. He ensured dealignment when he cravenly jettisoned his solemn promise to enact electoral reform.
When it comes to defending liberal democracy in Canada, the Conservatives are worse but the Liberals are still terrible. And, so long as we have those two rotten alternatives, national populism may well lie in our not distant future.
It's not all doom and gloom. You don't have to be consigned to some rightwing authoritarian future. There is a cure. It's called "progressive democracy" and the basis for it is right here if you want to read it.