The current political climate is uncertain. New populist parties are sprouting up around the developed and developing world, and in many places, they seem to be winning large amounts of support. In Britain, for example, UKIP and its allies in the Conservative Party were able to convince voters to exit from the European Union. In the United States, Donald Trump won the Electoral College quite convincingly, though, at the same time, he lost the popular vote by an impressive margin. Even in developing countries like the Philippines, we are seeing populist movements emerge, with characters like Duterte promoting nationalistic and personalistic politics at the expense of traditional elites and the international liberal order. Despite the clear trend toward populism, I’m unconvinced that it’s sustainable. To be sure, I have been almost entirely wrong regarding populist and anti-establishment parties in the U.S. and Europe. However – perhaps naively – I remain hopeful that sanity will be restored.
The reason for my optimism is simple: populists aren’t terribly popular. Just look at the women’s marches around the world, for example. Trump is absolutely despised, and he is facing an open rebellion from his own agencies. Moreover, Trump has the lowest approval ratings of any incoming president in recorded American history. The same trends can be seen in Europe. For example, despite a narrow but clear victory for pro-Brexit forces, more Leave voters regret their decision than Remain voters. In Austria, the neo-fascist presidential candidate Norbert Hofer – a man who lost the presidential election by .6% of the vote – was blown out of the water in the court-ordered runoff election because Austrians realized that there was a real possibility that they could end up with a neo-Nazi as a president.
This trend is also becoming apparent in countries that haven’t even held elections yet. In Germany, for example, the center-left SPD was being utterly demolished in the polls, losing voters to extremist parties on both sides of the political spectrum. However, the party received a massive boost in support after Trump’s election in November. German voters who otherwise found the center-left boring and uninspiring began to see it as a crucial bulwark against the spread of so-called alt right elements in their own country. It seems likely that the more stuff Trump bungles, the more motivated and engaged apathetic centrists will become. The real question is whether this shift will occur before or after the upcoming French and Dutch elections.
The sad truth for populist forces throughout the world is that, by and large, they are vastly outnumbered. The reason they have been able to win is that 1) mainstream forces were unprepared for their rapid increase in power and popularity and 2) their relatively more motivated supporters turned out in greater numbers than ever before. Populists tend to be from groups that feel aggrieved and demographics that have suffered the most under the current socio-politico-economic system. They have very clear frustrations and are thus easily mobilized against the status quo. The majority of the population, however, is quite content with the status quo. But because there are no specific issues for which they care deeply, they are relatively apathetic when compared with populist groups. As extremist parties and politicians begin to threaten the majority-supported system, though, these dynamics will change. The only question, then, is how quickly centrist forces can mobilize. The populists are about to awaken a giant that is far and away more powerful than they are. And in so doing, they will trigger a war that they are destined to lose. Unfortunately, their scorched earth campaign will likely make the conflict painful for everyone.