Does the ‘populist backlash’ really exist?

1 Apr 2018

In a world where 650,000 voters in the UK had voted Remain instead of Leave, and 80,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had opted for Hillary Clinton, how different would the political climate be? As you might have guessed, both scenarios would have produced a different result to the one which actually occurred. As ‘Soft Brexit’ and ‘Continuity Remain’ supporters never tire of reminding us, the margin of victory for Leave in the EU referendum was small, and polls since have shown a consistent, if similarly, small, lead for the public thinking it was wrong to vote the way it did. A fact that is less often repeated, but perhaps even more striking, is that the 80,000 votes Clinton required to win the presidency could have been gained by winning over supporters of [ill Stein, the Green Party candidate.


Given that an alternate timeline could conceivably have seen a victory for Remain and a second President Clinton, is it premature to speak of a “widespread revolt against the political centre”, as, Gavin Hewitt did in 2016? Any two variables, such as Michael Gove choosing loyalty to David Cameron over his deeply-held Euroscepticism, or a slightly better voter-targeting campaign in swing states, would produce a vastly different media and political landscape. Far from worries about a global trade war, the greatest concern of the Western world would be, perhaps, how to best make use of the quietly understated global economic recovery currently underway. Talk would be rife of the ghost of the financial crisis finally being banished from political life.


Such talk would, of course, be premature. 80,000 voters switching from Stein to Clinton would not change the fact that 63 million Americans were admiring enough of Donald Trump to cast a vote in favour of him becoming leader of the free world. A narrow Remain vote would not have suddenly reversed the years of stagnant wage growth that has plagued the UK. But it would likely have produced a more nuanced debate about how to best deal with the plight of the ‘left behind’ — those in deprived areas such as the Rust Belt in the US and the North of England who have been most affected by the financial crisis and the general decline in the manufacturing industry as a result of globalisation.


Indeed, 2017 was a year that reflected the more subtle reality of Western political life better than its predecessor. Trump was inaugurated and began to make good on some of his least palatable campaign promises, such as a targeted country-specific immigration ban distinctly lacking in evidence, but his approval rating is at record lows, which reflects a genuine regret from some of those who supported him as well as the fact that he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. As for Britain, it was always slightly strange that the results of both the EU referendum and the 2017 General Election were explained as backlashes against austerity, when just one year prior to the first vote a Conservative Party promising to continue to cut the budget deficit had been re-elected without the need to rely on a coalition partner — as well as voters from deprived northern areas, the Leave camp drew much of its support from relatively well-off parts of the South, many of whom were perfectly content with the way their country was being run but were merely persuaded by the arguments put forward in favour of withdrawal.


The other region of the world which has seen a rise in support for populist parties in recent years is continental Europe. Yet even there, commentators have a tendency to focus on election results which most confirm their initial suspicions. In France, only 21.3% of the electorate chose Marine Le Pen in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, with Francois Fillon only 1.3 percentage points behind, and she was beaten decisively in the second round. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party performed significantly worse than expected in the Dutch general election. A similar story is true of Podemos, the Spanish anti-capitalist alliance which suffered a decline in votes in the 2016 general election, leading to it finishing in third place.


Granted, elsewhere populist forces are most certainly on the rise, most notably in Italy, Austria and Germany. Yet this article is not a denial of the existence of anti-establishment feelings across the Western world, but a call for a less polarised debate. Liberal capitalism is neither secure as it has ever been, nor on the edge of collapse. Even as Trump has attempted to tear up the global trading system and push through damaging domestic policies, he has been constrained by the American Congress, and the Democrats look certain to make gains in midterm elections this year. UKIP, which made a large contribution to forcing an EU referendum in the first place, looks spent as a political force, and in 2017 the two main British parties received their largest combined share of the vote for a generation. Albeit shakily, a new Grand Coalition has been formed in Germany, keeping the nationalist Alternative for Germany in opposition (for now).


The continued success or failure of anti-establishment parties, and their opponents, depends on the views of the voters who elect them. What is clear is that although the decisions of a few hundred thousand voters in two countries have produced seismic political events, they do not change the fundamental facts of public opinion. Populism is neither the political juggernaut it is portrayed as currently, nor the defeated minnow it would be seen as had a small number of votes gone different ways — as it so often does, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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