Is populism here to stay?

Opinion FT

Is populism here to stay?

Surveys show that the public appetite for ‘strongman’ leaders goes hand in hand with renewed political engagement

Has the west hit peak populism? It is a question that foreign-policy experts in Europe and the US have recently been asking with renewed urgency.

It is also something that many voters might be wondering about too.

After all, populist politics has exploded in the west this decade. According to an index compiled by the Bridgewater hedge fund, for example, the proportion of voters in industrialised countries choosing anti-establishment candidates surged from about 7 per cent in 2010 (its level during most of the postwar years) to 35 per cent in 2017.

The last time we saw anything comparable was in the 1930s, when the figure peaked at 40 percent. And though Bridgewater has not publicly updated the index since 2017, the proportion would probably be even higher now.

Places as diverse as Italy, Brazil, Hungary and Sweden have been displaying increasingly populist tendencies recently. So too has Britain, judging by the battle over Brexit.

What is most startling is that, unlike in the 1930s, this has occurred at a time without a deep economic depression.

True, this decade’s growth has been unevenly distributed: as Denis McDonough, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, told the FT Weekend Festival last Saturday, some 70 per cent of Americans remain worse off than before the 2008 financial crisis.

Yet even amid such inequality (which is less marked in Europe), there has been strong growth inthis period.

That prompts a crucial question: if — or when — an economic downturn occurs, will populism become, yes, even more popular? Or has it already peaked? Opinions are mixed.

At the FT festival, the historian Simon Schama insisted that populism is already in retreat in Europe: the recent European parliamentary elections did not produce as many victories for nationalist, rightwing candidates as some had feared, he noted.

McDonough insisted that the conditions are ripe in the US for a more centrist, anti-Trump candidate to emerge in next year’s presidential election. And some optimists might argue that the backlash to Boris Johnson’s move to shut down parliament shows that Britons are rejecting populism too.

Others may beg to differ. It is far from clear, for example, who will win the battle between Johnson and parliament. Nor is it obvious that Trump will lose in 2020 (on the contrary, most Wall Street pundits think he will win).

And if you look at recent opinion polls on the issue, these offer as much reason for alarm as for cheer.

Take a new Ipsos survey. It suggests that 64 per cent of people around the world aged 16-74currently feel a need for “a strong leader to take their country back from the rich and powerful”, while 49 per cent feel that “to fix the country we need a strong leader willing to break the rules ”and some 62 per cent “feel that experts don’t understand the lives of people like them”.

About two-thirds think the economy is rigged in favour of the rich and powerful, and that the sys tem is broken.

The good news is that these numbers have not dramatically worsened since 2016. The bad news is that they are still high.

And there are some notable trends. Spanish-speaking countries, for example, display a high and rising degree of support for populism. In the US, the same goes for voters aged 35-49 and among low- or middle-income earners.

In France, 77 per cent of people apparently want “a strong leader who is willing to break the rules”; in Britain, only 52 per cent agree, and in the US a mere 35 per cent do.

Meanwhile, a perception that society is broken is sky-high in Poland, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and Spain, and moderately high in Germany and Britain.

For another striking set of data, take a look at a survey from the Yes Foundation in Kiev, which will be released this weekend. It looked at 15 countries and found that a quarter of the population is populist, with the proportion topping 30 per cent in South Africa and Ukraine, and reaching 40 per cent in Brazil.

Populism was highest in countries where voters said they were unhappy — no surprise, perhaps. But what is thought-provoking for policymakers is that people in countries including Ukraine, Turkey, France and Brazil expressed overwhelming support for the idea that government should “play a role in looking after people’s happiness”.

It is important to stress that not all populism is bad.

A new survey from Echo, a London communications group, shows that populism is prompting anew mood of political engagement among citizens around issues such as the environment: apparently “in the UK 53 per cent of adults polled, and 57 per cent of adults in the US, claim to have written to government or companies, signed petitions and taken part in marches or protests”, while “among 18- to 34-year-olds, the activism is higher still at 64 per cent and 68 percent of those polled”.

This is striking — and welcome.

History shows, however, that populism more often produces very alarming outcomes, such as crazily short-term economic policies and ugly nationalism. So if you believe populism has not yet peaked (and I do not), it sparks the question: how do we channel this into good, not bad, outcomes?

Can we use the populist wave to reset politics to become more responsive to citizens? This is the challenge ahead. All eyes on our leaders — and voters.

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