Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Rise Of Populism in the Western World

By Nikhil DhingraPublished March 24, 2017

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Written by Nikhil Dhingra, 3/24/17 With the unprecedented U.K. vote to leave the European Union and the changing political tides which led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the Western World anxiously awaits the next cycle of European elections that will determine whether or not nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments are the new global "trend." If so, can anything be done to stop this political uprising?


Written by Nikhil Dhingra, 3/24/17

With the unprecedented U.K. vote to leave the European Union and the changing political tides which led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the Western World anxiously awaits the next cycle of European elections that will determine whether or not nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments are the new global "trend." If so, can anything be done to stop this political uprising?






"Every man a king, but no one wears a crown." Sound familiar? While this spotlight on ordinary citizens may appear recognizable to campaigns such as Boris Johnson's or Donald Trump's, this populist tune stems all the way back to the 1930's when Huey P. Long, the governor of Louisiana, ran for a Senate seat in 1932. Considered to be, "the most flamboyant populist candidate in American history," Long was referred to as the "Kingfish" and ran on a platform for a "Share Our Wealth" plan, which aimed to seize the funds of anyone with wealth exceeding $8 million and use that wealth to provide health care and an annual income of $5,000 to all American families. Despite the fact that the plan was proposed at the height of New Deal reform, when government intervention into public life was first being experimented with, FDR still considered Long to be dangerous due to the increased likelihood that he would challenge and defeat FDR in the upcoming election cycle in 1936. Unfortunately, Long was assassinated before such a campaign could take stride.


Fast forward 70 years, and populism has once again served as a dominant force in both American and global politics. A narrow majority of Britain voted to leave the European Union in an unprecedented shift in global policy. The movement, championed through a nationalistic and populist campaign led by Boris Johnson, a stark nationalist and the new foreign secretary of the U.K. (in light of the Brexit vote), also focused on utilizing anti-immigrant sentiments for political gain. Only a few months later, America elected Donald Trump as their president, whose campaign not only tested the limits of political discourse but was also fueled with a similar contextualization rooted in populist themes.

Now, the rest of the Western world anxiously awaits the steps of its citizens. The first litmus test came only a few weeks ago, when the Dutch population voted overwhelmingly against the far-right populist candidate Geert Wilders, known as "the Dutch Donald Trump," of the Freedom Party. Wilders centered his campaign around a strikingly familiar nationalistic tone: he has previously promised to ban immigration from Muslim countries, leave the European Union, and engage in a form of "direct democracy" that will give governmental power back to the Dutch citizens. Despite an 82% voter turnout, the highest the country has seen in decades, Conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Party for Freedom and Democracy prevailed as the continual majority party, winning 33 seats in the national Parliament. While Wilders had been leading polls for the majority of 2016, his party was only able to garner 20 additional seats.

From here, the future of the populist movement remains unclear. While more populist leaders have continued to ascend across Europe, especially ahead of the French elections in April and German elections in September, the Dutch elections were largely used as a gauge to measure Europe's tolerance for populist and nationalistic candidates. However, despite the small defeat in the Netherlands, populism has become the leading global political authority for the first time in decades.

In fact, the last time populism rose to such high levels of prominence was in the 1990's directly following the fall of the Soviet Union. However, the cause for this trend seemed apparent; tensions were sparked amongst ethnic lines due to the long-suppressed national desires that existed throughout the Cold War. Recently, there have been no cataclysmic political or social events that could trigger such widespread backlash.
While ISIS has been on the rise and anti-Muslim sentiments have been brewing since 9/11, no singular incident has contributed to such a globalized rise in populism. Nonetheless, the changing tide of populism needs to be effectively tackled. In light of the methods far-right candidates have employed to capitalize on emotions rather than statistics, the most appropriate response appears to be to do the same. Utilizing the stories of war-torn refugees seeking a new place to call home, parents who travel to the ends of the Earth to reunite with their children, and dilapidated schools unable to properly educate their children could be key anecdotal tools in convincing the public to place more focus on inclusive policies rather than those based off of anger and ignorance.
 
In addition, the types of voters who tend to favor populist candidates such as Trump are white, rural class, and low-income residents. While their solutions are deeply flawed, the disenfranchisement of these communities is very real and has been largely dismissed. The white rural class, particularly in American politics, has been consistently ignored by both the Left and Right ends of the aisle in an effort to refocus and redouble attention on minority and female voters. In response, these citizens have placed their support in candidates they might not fully understand, but those that channel the emotions they are feeling; distrust, anger, and fear. If these emotions can be addressed through a practical and policy-based standpoint, then maybe the neglect these communities have been feeling can be channeled towards more pro-active developments rather than exclusionary policies rooted in hatred.