The populist right is transforming from an insurgent to a dominant force in western politics. Its legacy will be highly mixed.
It has become almost a cliché over the past few years to talk about the seemingly inexorable rise of the populist right in Western politics. Until late 2016 however, it was taken as read that these new radicals would remain an insurgent force, snapping at the heels of the establishment, wielding a disproportionate influence over policy direction, but not actually coming out on top. Then, the UK voted to leave the EU and Donald Trump was elected President of the United States; suddenly it became clear that the tide had truly turned. Now commentators are talking about the prospect of far-right governments in France, the Netherlands and Austria. For liberals, it feels like the apocalypse is nigh. For nationalists, the West’s salvation has come. In truth, this new political consensus will be a very mixed bag.
It now looks feasible that we will see at least a partial collapse of the European Union within the next two decades. Britain is expected to leave by 2019, by which time the Netherlands may have held a referendum and voted the same way. If a Le Pen victory in 2017 precipitated “Frexit”, the union would be all but done for. For anyone who values democracy, decentralisation and national sovereignty, this would be a very positive development. The dream scenario (of questionable likelihood) in which we return to a Europe of free, independent, democratic nation states controlling their own borders and co-operating peacefully without formal economic or political union, would be a marked improvement over the contempt unaccountable European technocrats have shown towards democracy in recent years.
Whilst it’s highly unlikely that liberals’ fear of a widespread descent into 1930s style fascism will be realised anytime soon, there is a great danger of the West losing some of its better aspects: personal freedom and economic freedom, tolerance, and international cooperation. The populist right has a mixed attitude towards economic liberty; whilst being opposed to socialism, figures such as Le Pen and Trump tend to associate free market advocacy with the current “neoliberal” and “globalist” world order they are opposing, and instead push for protectionism and a mixed economy. The loss of the positive consensus on free trade could have devastating consequences for growth and cooperation. Nevertheless, a new populist-right consensus on economics would still be preferable to the most popular alternative—socialism à la Corbyn and Hollande—and could act as a bulwark against it.
Whilst Le Pen repeatedly praises secularism and individual freedom, Wilders reaches out to the LGBT and Jewish communities, and Trump condemns political correctness, it’s hard to see how the dominance of the populist right wouldn’t also have some negative repercussions for personal liberty. Muslims especially would suffer: Wilders wants to ban the Koran, UKIP’s new leader Paul Nuttall wants to ban the burqa, and Le Pen has compared praying Muslims to a Nazi occupation. However, all of these figures express a distaste for the interference of the state in the everyday lives of citizens, and claim (with varying degrees of hypocrisy) to want greater freedom of speech and religion. Thus, populist-right governance will have a mixed but possibly net positive effect on personal liberty.
The collapse of the Middle East following the Arab Spring, the EU’s failure to manage the migration crisis, and subsequent issues of integration in places such as Cologne and Malmö, have shown us that the West has failed to orient itself correctly with respect to the rest of the world. A return to a Europe of controlled borders, managed migration, and an unapologetic reassertion of the West’s fundamental values is the professed goal of the populist right, and would be most welcome. Welcome also would be their commitment to increase social cohesion, fight terrorism, and avoid further destabilisation of the Middle East. Of course, all of this is much easier said than done, and I fear the heavy-handed tactics of a Le Pen or Wilders government might even increase social unrest and insecurity in the short term.
As I argued in a previous article on this site, a sharp jolt of cultural conservatism is needed to remedy the West’s current relativism and appeasement of incompatible cultural practices, but a push too far in this direction would destroy the tolerance and diversity that makes Europe so pleasant in the first place. Whilst uncontrolled, mass migration poses a danger to Europe, moving to the opposite extreme i.e. closing the borders completely, as many on the far-right want to do, would be a complete rejection of the openness and liberality that characterises European culture. In addition, the “enemy within” discourse that has been taken up by many populists (e.g. Nigel Farage’s description of Islamists in the UK as a “fifth column”) whilst valid to a certain extent, could prove very dangerous if hijacked by the wrong forces.
The populist right are about to become what they’ve always railed against: the Establishment. As political outsiders, not groomed for power and never really expecting to obtain it, they will have a hard time grappling with the difficulties of governance. Nevertheless, their rise will rejuvenate politics, bringing millions of disillusioned people back into the political process, and encouraging long complacent liberals to rethink their arguments and reconnect with the electorates they have taken for granted. The West will be democratised and decentralised, but personal freedom and economic stability will be threatened. Europe and North America are in for a bumpy ride.