Following last year’s Brexit vote in Great Britain and Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, it seemed that populist-nationalism was an ascendant force in global politics. But in the wake of recent electoral results in the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands, many political commentators and pundits have concluded that populist-nationalist movements are now on the wane.
The Economist declared that Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential elections was “a symbolic defeat of the forces of nationalism and populism,” while Vox claimed that Theresa May’s electoral shortfall in the United Kingdom’s general election proved “that nationalism may not be as powerful a force in global politics as it looked last year.”
Similar arguments have been made by various politicians and leaders, and in countless other publications and columns, all with the same conclusion: the populist-nationalist political movements that seemed so formidable eighteen months ago are now essentially dead.
However, the economic and political forces that fuelled these movements across Europe and in North America have not gone away. Despite recent electoral failings and the subsequent epitaphs from the the pundit class, populist-nationalist movements are still very much alive, and likely to grow stronger.
The decline of establishment conservative parties
A clear example of the persisting impact of populist-nationalist movements has been the remarkable decline of the established conservative political parties across Europe. In France, Republican presidential candidate François Fillon conceded defeat and endorsed centrist (and eventual winner) Emmanuel Macron over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. A month later, the establishment Republicans suffered their worst-ever electoral performance in the Fifth Republic, and the nationalist Le Pen won a seat in the Assemblée nationale for the first time.
This phenomenon is evident to varying degrees across Europe, even in comparatively prosperous and politically stable EU countries like Estonia. The establishment Estonian conservative party, Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (an amalgamation of two parties that have existed since 1999 and 2001), lost 9 of its 23 seats in the 2015 election and has slumped to single digit support in polls over the last six months. Many of its supporters have defected to the nationalist Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (formed in 2012) which won seven seats in 2015 and continues to increase its popularity despite the apparent excesses of its far-right platform.
While the populist-nationalist political parties in Europe have yet to achieve an outright electoral victory of note, most have been increasing in support and prominence at the expense of established conservative political parties. Consequently, the establishment parties will either have to shift further right and adopt some semblance of populist-nationalist policies, or continue to lose electoral ground to the far right upstarts. In some countries, the populist right is also making gains at the expense of left wing parties.
In the United States, Donald Trump’s presidency and influence over the Republican Party has shifted the GOP from marked neo-conservative global policies of liberal free trade and interventionism to far more isolationist and protectionist policies. Although the long-term fate of the Trump administration remains uncertain, if it survives the President’s eccentricities and the various legal and congressional investigations, it will embolden populist-nationalist actors within the GOP and other right-of-centre political organizations across the globe.
Youth and the rise of nationalism
Another crucial indication of the increasing and enduring prevalence of populist-nationalist political movements has been the role of youth in energizing and motivating the rightward shift in many countries. Across Europe (especially Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) university-aged and first-time voters are showing increasing support for nationalist parties. According to Gaëtan Dussausaye, 23-year-old leader of France’s Front National youth wing, the reason for this is clear: “We’ve been told our whole lives that everything is set. Free trade. Forgetting our borders. One currency for all of Europe. Nothing can change…but young people don’t like this system. This system is a failure.”
These populist-nationalist parties in Europe have presented themselves as disruptive, anti-establishment movements focused on rising youth unemployment, mass immigration, and a perceived lack of cultural identity. They have been aided by far-right, youth-focused grassroots groups such as the Identitarian movement in France and Germany. These groups market themselves with clean, professional, and sleek branding that eschews the provocative language and look typically associated with the far right. This approach, coupled with high-profile demonstrations, rallies, and publicity campaigns, has Europeans taking notice, and their populist-nationalist positions are becoming more widespread, especially among youth.
The internet plays a considerable role in promoting and spreading populist-nationalism. Advocates have developed techniques to effectively “manipulate news frames, set agendas, and propagate [their] ideas,” which in turn has led to an increase in ‘alternative’ news sources and a growing distrust of the mainstream media. Prominent internet personalities touting populist-nationalist views such as Canada’s Lauren Southern (formerly of Rebel Media), and Milo Yiannopoulos (formerly of Breitbart) are also effective at raising the profile and appeal of such views among young people. VICE News Canada calls them a “re-emergent band of provocateurs espousing age old extreme views, in a shiny, youthful package.”
A threat to mainstream liberalism and conservatism
For many, the prospect of populist-nationalist political parties increasing their popular support and improving their electoral performances is troubling. Among many conservatives, these movements are uncomfortably close to authoritarianism and in direct opposition to the fundamental principles of liberty and freedom that are so integral to mainstream conservatism. Worst still, there is a belief that the radical excesses of populism and nationalism will lead to guilt-by-association that threatens the electability of conservatives.
Liberals abhor the far-right positions of populist-nationalism as the worst expression of the politics they despise. As much as they compete with conservatives, they much prefer dealing with the conventional ‘principled’ opposition posed by traditional, mainstream conservatism. Thus, both mainstream conservatives and liberals find common ground in their fierce dislike for populist-nationalist movements, albeit for different reasons.
For its proponents, the increased prominence of populist-nationalism is evidence of its political legitimacy, and its supposedly essential role in countering both the destructive policies of progressivism and ineffectualness of mainstream conservatism. Success will embolden them to continue promoting and advocating for their positions in an ever more public, concerted manner.
The cleavages between populist-nationalist movements and other parties are exacerbated by the ongoing issues of terrorism and the refugee crisis. Many established parties have adopted positions that have come to accept frequent acts of terror and porous borders as the ‘new normal’ that must be simply endured. However, proponents of populist-nationalism reject this approach, and are adopting hardline positions in response, in the form of travel bans, closed borders, and increased scrutiny of immigrants. These issues highlight the stark contrast between populist-nationalist movements and the established political parties, and every new terrorist action against the West will attract more people to the more radical positions of the far-right.
While Canada has not yet spawned a credible far-right political movement, there is growing support for many views aligned with populist-nationalism: increasingly, Canadians are in favour of screening for Canadian values among potential immigrants; enforcing the border amidst an influx of illegal refugees; and adopting hardline stances against terrorists.
The growing appeal of these political positions, which has found expression amongst the youth and peripheral political parties across Europe, could eventually find expression in a Canadian political party. Donald Trump’s victory in the United States demonstrated the power of populist-nationalism in North America, as well as its implications for mainstream political parties, who must now also face the risk of being taken over, not just supplanted. Despite recent electoral results, it is premature to write off the populist-nationalist political movement. It has profoundly disrupted the western political status quo already, and is likely to be a significant force in global politics for the foreseeable future.