How Political Outsiders Are Cooking Up Populist Storms

How Political Outsiders Are Cooking Up Populist Storms

French National Front (FN) far-right party Marine Le Pen President attends a press conference in Paris, France.

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Why you should care

Because this is how political leaders like Hitler got started. 

When it comes to political kitchens around the world, some like heat more than others — but many are feeling burned. While lifelong politicians suggest we leave the cooking to traditionalist chefs, anti-establishment figures such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Frauke Petry in Germany and Donald Trump in the U.S. are grabbing their aprons and rolling up their sleeves.

Populism’s recent surge around the globe, from Finland to Venezuela and over to Poland, has a lot to do with political, economic and social insecurity. Globalization inevitably leaves some wanting, feeding disillusionment and scapegoating — whether it’s foreigners or the elite bearing the blame — and it’s giving rise to shockingly simple populist solutions like building fences and killing off prisoners (was Duterte just kidding?). But all this interconnectivity is doing more than fuzzy the notion of “nation state”: It’s ringing an alarm bell for the sanctity of democracy itself, and destinations farther south may be set to boil over next. To Catherine Fieschi, founder of the London-based cultural strategy consultancy Counterpoint, the success of folks such as Trump and Bernie Sanders, as well as Petry, France’s Marine Le Pen and Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache, is a symptom of a serious problem in democratic delivery. They’re the “canary in the mine,” she says — a signal that the “democratic promise is being broken.”

All it takes is broken democratic promises … mixed with increased income and sprinkled with a perception that elites are confiscating the fruits of that growth, and voilà — a recipe for trouble.

Politics as usual doesn’t help, and supporters of Le Pen, Duterte and friends tend to tune out rehearsed politicians spouting the same-old, same-old. But, some experts argue, voters are also fueling the fire in a surprising way. Populist politicians channel raw emotional anger, explains philosopher Jeffrey Howard, an assistant professor in political theory at University College London. Traditional politicians seem to assume that voters will respond solely to arguments. But our political beliefs, Howard says, “are underwritten by deeply felt moral convictions about justice and injustice” — stuff that triggers emotions. And with traditional politics being rooted in the notion that those who govern are better informed, the fact that average Joes and Janes have more information at their fingertips means that part of the electorate is saying “all this information is online, and politicians are no more an expert on this than I am,” Fieschi explains. Cue the outsider who speaks off the cuff, plays to the electorate’s fears and tells them they can fix all that ails.

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Head of the Austrian Freedom Party Heinz-Christian Strache speaks during a demonstration in Vienna, Austria.

Source Joe Klamar/Getty

The promise of globalization was that everyone would move upward. In reality, rather than floating to the top like well-cooked carrots, some are sticking to the bottom of the pan. The new “haves” are ticking off the “have-nots” — frustration that’s bound to grow with any upheaval, whether it’s a financial crisis, mass migration or a natural disaster. This has many fearing that their children will be worse off than they are, says Anton Pelinka, a professor of politics and nationalism studies at the Central European University in Budapest.

Those left scrambling to catch up are most likely to be swept up by figures like Trump and Strache as they cast blame and champion simple solutions to complex problems. This is done, Pelinka says, by making a clear distinction between them and us. This always involves a clear understanding of who we are not, he explains. Think: “We are Poles, not Russians. We are Poles, not Germans. We are Europeans, not Muslims.” But Europe and America aren’t alone. While Trump, Le Pen and Strache may grab their respective reins this year, next year and in 2018, respectively, any democratic nation can cook up a populist storm.

It’s probably not over yet in Latin America, and we’re seeing it play out in Europe and America, but there are telltale signs that it may soon emerge elsewhere, Fieschi says. All it takes is broken democratic promises, either in emerging or full-fledged democracies, mixed with increased income and sprinkled with a perception that elites are confiscating the fruits of that growth, and voilà — a recipe for trouble. Such a situation could be stirring in places like India, Fieschi says, as it has a burgeoning middle class but a real fragility about all that growth. Meanwhile, in South Africa, racial tensions and a lack of distribution and poverty still abound amid economic expansion. “You still have a white elite, but also a Black elite that is seen as having confiscated the fruits of freedom, fruits of growth,” Fieschi explains.

And once populists take power? They usually don’t solve anything, argues Michal Krzyzanowski, a professor in media and communication studies at Sweden’s Örebro University. “But they’re going to keep pretending that they have clearer, quicker and more robust” solutions, which makes them electable, he says.

Bridging the gap between the governing “experts” and voters who say politicians have lost legitimacy will take increased local involvement and better civic education, experts say, nodding to Canada’s experiment with citizen consultations. More controversially though, Fieschi suggests politicians stop rocking the vote … with Brexit-like referenda. They’re a sign that politicians have given up and are “passing the buck” back to voters, she says. Politicians also need to do a better job and stop making promises they can’t possibly keep. Those are “like catnip for populists,” she says. François Hollande, you listening?

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