Is European Populism a Threat to Democracy?

There are many academic articles in the international press regarding the surge in populist political parties throughout Europe and the alleged threat they potentially pose to liberal democracy.  To be sure, the numbers tell the story about this surge.  In 2000 in Eastern Europe, populist parties garnered 9.2% of the total vote whereas in 2017 they managed to take 31.6% of the vote.  The number of populist parties has gone from 33 to 63.  In 2000, only two populist parties in Eastern Europe managed 20% of the vote; in 2017, ten parties achieved that feat.  Poland is a perfect example.  In 2000, populist parties managed 0.1% of the vote.  Since the current ruling PiS party was founded in 2001, they have never dropped below 25% of the vote since 2005.

There are regional differences as concerns the political leanings of the populist parties, the reason for their recent surges, their electoral success and their effects on policy.  The greatest surge of populist parties has occurred in Eastern Europe.  They have consistently out-competed more mainstream parties and have assumed the leadership in seven countries: Bosnia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia.  All of these are considered “right wing.”  The only notable “left wing” populist parties are strong in Kosovo and Slovakia.  The main message of these parties is a heavy emphasis on nationalism and being against immigration.

In Western Europe, their influence has been less-pronounced.  They have achieved some relative degree of success in Austria and Switzerland.  While most people were agonizing over the gains of the AfD in Germany, the base of support in that country is in the former East Germany and Bavaria regions.  In Southern Europe, populist parties have had much greater success, but they are leftist.  For example, Greece has been ruled by a populist for decades, they form the bedrock of the Spanish government and will likely play a greater role in Italy after elections in May.  Unlike immigration and nationalism, in Southern Europe the rage is against economic and political elites and corruption.

Finally, there is Northern Europe where populists have not had much success, but are gaining in power.  For example, Sweden’s Sweden Democrats are expected to gain power after elections in September.  They are already Sweden’s third largest party.  In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party is the 2nd largest and populists are well-represented in legislatures in Norway and Finland.  Since the early 2000’s, the governments of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have had to rely on populist parties.

Every indication is that these parties will continue to grow in the near term.  But, after the recent surprising gains by the AfD in Germany, polls indicate that their support has either stagnated or reversed.  In Britain, the UK Independence Party which was behind the Brexit movement now polls in single digits and in Latvia support for the National Alliance has dropped 50%.

Obviously, Europe’s political landscape is undergoing an upheaval, certainly the biggest since the end of the Cold War.  However, placed in historical perspective, the period from World War II to the present has been one of remarkable political stability.  Much of Europe’s modern history was not known for political stability.  Perhaps the drive towards populism is a form of restoring the European political norm.  The fear, of course, is that this populism will break a barrier and lead to authoritarian governments, or a rejection of liberal democracy.  But, in Europe, opposition to liberal democracy reached its peak in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

The recent history indicates that the hand-wringing may be for naught.  The last time the Freedom Party seized the reigns of power in Austria, they governed in a rather conventional style.  Although more nationalistic and having more restrictive immigration policies, their institutions remained intact.  Regardless, many critics today are becoming confused between legitimate policy changes and the alleged subversion of democracy.  Pew Research has shown that support for representative, liberal democracy remains high in the United States and throughout Europe.  It certainly is preferred to the alternatives.

Instead of criticizing and fearing the rise of these parties, perhaps the better solution is to look at what is spurring their popularity and electoral success because something in their message is resonating with European voters.  The obvious impetus was the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 that saw an huge influx of Muslim immigrants as the EU hung a huge, neon “Welcome” sign on Europe.  The recent disagreement between the EU and member states like Hungary and Poland is not an argument about democracy, but within democracy.  Many of these countries see their sovereignty taking a back seat to the EU’s designs and this fits nicely into the beliefs of many Europeans that the EU in Brussels has a serious disconnect with the people.

As Europeans have seen the effects of this influx of immigrants, they have witnessed their national character altered.  And just as Europeans have altered their views on immigration, their governments have adapted to those changes.  That same Pew Research study mentioned earlier also found a high degree of dissatisfaction with the performance of their elected officials.  There also is a healthy distrust of government in general.  But, this is not a sign that democracy itself is threatened; it is a sign that elected government officials and political parties are in need of necessary repairs.

It is easy to ignore or denigrate the supporters of populist parties and say their worries are the result of envy, blind rage, or racism.  Those who vote for them are genuinely concerned about their national identity, immigration and terrorism.  Additionally, globalization has created massive economic and social upheaval.  Today, the people of Europe have greater perceived economic insecurities than their parents or grandparents.  Throw in some widespread immigration of a foreign culture and one can see why there is anxiety and turning to populist parties.  In fact, more than any other factor, immigration was the top reason people voted for populist parties in Western Europe.  It explains why there was this surge in their popularity: the refugee crisis of 2015-16 had a greater recruitment payoff to the populist cause than the 2008-09 financial crisis.  To many Europeans, they saw a new demographic who had no intention of assimilating into their cultures and they reacted at the ballot box.

One thing is particularly obvious about populism: it is rhetorically bombastic, but devoid of detail on policy proposals.  For example, you are likely to get policy prescriptions like referendums approving the forbidding of minarets which is what happened in Switzerland as if that is going to stop immigration.  Also, populism is not anti-democratic, although it is anti-liberal democracy.  Even still, holding out these populist parties as a threat to democracy and a necessary stepping stone to authoritarianism and then fascism is seriously off the mark.

And alleged threats to democracy are not necessarily unique to populist parties.  We have seen policy prescriptions that fundamentally defy certain freedoms from so-called mainstream parties.  Angela Merkel’s administration recently passed a law that allows the government to fine people for “hate speech” on social media.  This is a Leftist populist policy prescription that negates the fundamental right of free speech.

All of this should sound eerily familiar to us Americans.  Trump’s main themes in 2016 were (1) getting tough on immigration, (2) the negative effects of globalization, (3) the changing culture and character of the Nation, and (4) the unresponsive, ineffective political elite.  It is as if he took the most resonant messages of the Left and Right European populist parties and parlayed it into the Presidency.  Like the European populists, he was long on rhetoric but short of specific policy details.

Most ashamedly, those who voted for Trump have been denigrated by the elite and accused of holding grievances, being misinformed if not stupid or, worse, being racist.  Very few of their statements take into account the very real anxieties and worries voters had regardless of who he was running against.  The election of Trump is not an indictment of democracy, the Electoral College, or American democratic institutions.  Nor will his Presidency lead us down the road to authoritarianism or fascism.  His election is an indictment of an out-of-touch group of elected officials.  Just as European populism is a wake up call to the “powers that be” in Europe (mainly the EU), Trump’s dalliance in populism is a wake up call domestically.

One thing is certain, however: democracy will survive in Europe just as it will survive in the United States.  The “problem” may be more pronounced in Eastern Europe because they have a relatively short history with democracy and its institutions.  The United States and Western Europe has a longer and more enduring history.  So, hold the rhetoric: Germany will survive the AfD and America will survive Donald Trump.