Populism falters in Australia, threatens Europe

Populism seems to be the latest political term in favour, but it is being applied across the political spectrum.

The unexpected defeat of Labor in the election Australia, after promoting  ‘populist’ type policies (like in dealing with climate change), has been seen as a setback for populism.

Washington Times: A populist surprise down under

Political trends, like the common cold, are contagious. Revolutions are often not confined to one country. The Communist revolution in Russia soon spread across the first half of the 20th century. The rise of fascism occurred in tandem across wide swaths of the world.

The period beginning in our own century might loosely be called the Age of Populism.

Gallup now says 4 in 10 Americans have embraced populism, perhaps not knowing everything about populism. The list of nations that have seen the birth of populist movements is a long one, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, Israel, Hungary, the Philippines, Mexico, India, and Brazil. Ten thousand miles away from America, a populist revolution has exploded in Australia.

Scott Morrison won his first full term as prime minister of Australia, confounding expectations that the country’s voters were ready for a change after six years of tumultuous leadership.

But Australia’s “quiet voters,” as the prime minister called them, had a different idea. Mr. Morrison’s victory — his Liberal party is in fact the small-c conservative party in Australia — took an outright majority in parliament.

Australian voters rallied to the prime minister’s bold, Trump-like message.

I thought that lack of boldness was a feature of Morrison’s campaign, compared to Labor who thought the time was right for left wing populism. Bill Shorten was seen by voters as a threat to middle Australia’s future.

I don’t think that Scott Morrison is generally seen as a populist leader. He won more because he was the least unpopular.

New Zealand contrasts with this, as popular leader Jacinda Ardern is widely praised, even though her government keeps watering down or avoiding dealing with populist policies.

Blomberg editorial: The Populist Threat to Europe’s Future

The European Union is under siege. In elections from Sweden to Spain, right-wing populists continue to gain strength, while support for traditional parties withers. Populist groups expect to make sizable gains in this week’s elections for the European parliament — giving them more power than ever before over the institutions at the heart of the EU.

Europe’s cohesion hangs in the balance. Though the Brexit fiasco has diminished the appeal of leaving the EU, populists remain determined to undermine it from within. They want to halt the momentum of European integration, curtail the authority of Brussels and limit the EU’s ability to force member states to adhere to democratic norms.

European leaders need a coherent strategy for fighting back. That requires they come to grips with the scale of the populist surge and address the legitimate grievances populists have exploited for electoral gain. At the same time, they must resist the urge to placate the demands of agitators on both the right and the left.

But Europe consists of many countries. While operating under the EU umbrella there a a variety of issues in different countries.

The landscape of populism is as diverse and cacophonous as Europe itself — from the yellow-vest protesters in France to the far-right Alternative for Germany to Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement — but common threads help to explain its appeal.

Populist leaders harness public frustration with political elites, who they cast as corrupt and indifferent to the daily struggles of voters. They draw support from citizens with low levels of formal education and those living in regions that have suffered from globalization. And populists play on cultural anxieties, blaming the loss of national identity on immigrants, asylum seekers and the faceless bureaucrats of the EU.

Both right wing and left wing activists think they can tap the support of ordinary citizens, assuming they will support their ideals. This is often flawed thinking.

Political insurgents have also benefited from the erosion of voters’ loyaltiesto traditional parties. In countries with fractured electorates, like Belgium and Sweden, the mere process of forming a government can take months, and sometimes years. As ruling coalitions become more ideologically diverse, their ability to govern effectively declines — which only strengthens the populists’ anti-establishment message.

This isn’t happening here. One of the biggest criticisms in New Zealand is that the two major parties, Labour and National, are barely distinguishable with what the do in government, especially on economic policy.

If pursued at both national and pan-European levels, political and economic reform can restore confidence in mainstream parties and blunt the appeal of populism. That work won’t be easy, nor yield results overnight. But for the sake of Europe’s future, it needs to start now.

That’s as unlikely as what is proposed is idealistic.And it’s vague – the left and the right are trying to pull economic and social reform in different directions, while governments are getting more messed up in the middle – Britain’s attempt at reform via Brexit is a continuing disaster.

Donald Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp’, but hasn’t achieved much, especially what could be called reform. His biggest claim to fame is reshuffling the swamp monsters, and tweeting nonsense.

Australia has just chosen more of the same politically and economically, with no sign of anything looking like reform. Australians voted for the status quo.

New Zealand is continuing largely the same, with even modest tax reform and social reform both being rejected by the government this year.

Populism is more popular in social media than in politics, but it is amplified by small minorities who keep getting disappointed by voters and governments.

A simplistic label like populism doesn’t fit the real world, which is far more diverse than simplistic reforms can deal with.

Populism versus liberal democracy

Can liberal democracy fight off the challenges of populism and wedge politics? Should it?

The article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

Brookings Institute:  The populist challenge to liberal democracy

For those who believe in liberal democracy, it is sobering to review the events of the past quarter-century. Twenty-five years ago, liberal democracy was on the march. The Berlin Wall had fallen; the Soviet Union had collapsed; new democracies were emerging throughout Europe, and Russia seemed to be in transition as well. South Africa’s apartheid regime was tottering. Even though China’s government had brutally repressed a democracy movement, it was possible to believe that a more educated and prosperous Chinese middle class would eventually (and irresistibly) demand democratic reforms. Liberal democracy had triumphed, it seemed, not only in practice but also in principle. It was the only legitimate form of government. There was no alternative.

Today, the global scene is very different. Liberal democracy faces multiple external challenges—from ethnonational autocracies, from regimes claiming to be based on God’s word rather than the will of the people, from the success of strong-handed meritocracy in places such as Singapore, and, not least, from the astonishing economic accomplishments of China’s market-Leninist system.

But there is also an internal challenge to liberal democracy—a challenge from populists who seek to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism. Liberal norms and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people. Thus, liberal institutions that prevent the people from acting democratically in their own interest should be set aside. It is this challenge on which I wish to focus.

Across Europe and North America, long-established political arrangements are facing a revolt.

I think at this stage it is closer to various political arrangements facing significant challenges rather than revolt.

Its milestones have included:

  • the Brexit vote;
  • the 2016 U.S. election;
  • the doubling of support for France’s National Front;
  • the rise of the antiestablishment Five Star Movement in Italy;
  • the entrance of the far-right Alternative for Germany into the Bundestag;
  • moves by traditional right-leaning parties toward the policies of the far-right in order to secure victories in the March 2017 Dutch and October 2017 Austrian parliamentary elections;
  • the outright victory of the populist ANO party in the Czech Republic’s October 2017 parliamentary elections;
  • and most troubling, the entrenchment in Hungary of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s self-styled “illiberal democracy,” which seems to be emerging as a template for Poland’s governing Law and Justice party and—some scholars believe—for insurgent parties in Western Europe as well.

This revolt threatens the assumptions that shaped liberal democracy’s forward march in the 1990s and that continue to guide mainstream politicians and policy makers of the center-left and center-right.

Are these all part of a singular attempt at revolt? Or are they largely concurrent re-evaluations of political norms (if there is such a thing) established over the last thirty years?

What has precipitated these challenges? Deficiencies in liberal democracy? The Global Financial Crisis? Are these part  of the same thing?

New generations coming up through political ranks?

The challenges of and to climate change?

The rapid rise of female participation in work forces?

Increasing pressure on gender equality, income equality?

The rapid change to communications and news distribution via the Internet?

The waxing and waning of stability versus chaos?

Sophisticated manipulation of news and debate and elections?

All of the above?

The world is a complex place, with two hundred countries and seven billion people. Rapidly advancing technology and rapidly evolving societies are bound to lead to political change and at times upheaval.

The article is long. I’ll skip to the conclusion.


Liberals are anti-tribal, cherishing particular identities while subordinating them to broader conceptions of civic and even human solidarity. But citizens often crave more unity and solidarity than liberal life typically offers, and community can be a satisfying alternative to the burdens of individual responsibility.

Preferring those who are most like us goes with the grain of our sentiments more than does a wider, more abstract concept of equal citizenship or humanity. So does the tendency to impute good motives to our friends and malign intent to our foes. Antipathy has its satisfactions, and conflict, like love, can make us feel more fully alive.

The appeal of populism—with its embrace of tribalism, its Manichean outlook, and the constant conflict it entails—is deeply rooted in the enduring incompleteness of life in liberal societies. This vulnerability helps explain why, in just twenty-five years, the partisans of liberal democracy have moved from triumphalism to near despair. But neither sentiment is warranted. Liberal democracy is not the end of history; nothing is. Everything human beings make is subject to erosion and contingency.

Liberal democracy is fragile, constantly threatened, always in need of repair.

And in need of modifying? In which case should it be given a different label?

But liberal democracy is also strong, because, to a greater extent than any other political form, it harbors the power of self-correction. Not only do liberal-democratic institutions protect citizens against tyrannical concentrations of power, they also provide mechanisms for channelling the public’s grievances and unmet needs into effective reforms.

To be sure, the power of self-correction is not always enough to prevent liberal democracies from crumbling.

Today’s economic ills pale in comparison to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and today’s autocratic regimes lack the ideological attraction that fascism and communism held at their peak.

Perhaps, for now. The Global Financial Crisis was a significant disruption, even if, for now, financial markets have returned to where they were more or less – but the political repercussions continue to be seen, and could be growing.

The current ills of liberal democracy are deep and pervasive. Surmounting them will require intellectual clarity and political leaders who are willing to take risks to serve the long-term interests of their countries. Human choice, not historical inevitability, will determine liberal democracy’s fate.

For now, democratic publics want policy changes that give them hope for a better future. Left unmet, their demands could evolve into pressure for regime change. The partisans of liberal democracy must do all they can to prevent this from happening.

There are already pressures for major change. One of Trump’s promises that helped get him into power was ‘drain the swamp’ – in other words, the throwing out of US political norms. He has barely had any success, yet.

UK exiting the European Union is pressuring wider change across the many countries that make up Europe.

Is liberal democracy worth fighting for?

Is populism good or bad? Surely popular change is what democracies should be acting on. The problem is that ‘populism’ at the moment at least does not generally have popular (majority) support. It is often policies promoted by a small part of the population.

Can we do anything except ride the waves that are getting a bit stormier than usual?

In New Zealand all we can really worry about is our own wee part of the world, remote but able to be affected by what happens elsewhere.

If we get the political and social balances closer to being right for the modern world we could show the way perhaps. But that mightn’t be what the world’s conspirators want.