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Stage Set for Post-COVID Battle Among European Heads, Hands and Hearts

A man wearing a protective mask walks past the EU Commission headquarters amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Brussels, Belgium, Sept. 18, 2020.

Populist-ruled countries the United States, Brazil, Mexico, India and Britain are among the worst impacted, so far, in terms of coronavirus cases and deaths, prompting commentators and analysts to argue the pandemic could mark the beginning of the end for populism, whether of the political left or right.

But in Europe, recent polling by the Politico Europe newspaper suggests liberal and establishment opponents would be premature in writing off populism. Support for populist parties has remained relatively stable since the pandemic struck the continent and there are signs that skepticism about the European Union, a key populist issue, is rising rather than ebbing.

And in Europe, with the exception of Britain, populist governments in some countries, including Poland, Hungary and Austria, have been credited with doing a good job in curbing viral transmission and keeping deaths low, undermining establishment claims that populism has mismanaged the pandemic.

A new book by British author and political commentator David Goodhart suggests post-pandemic populism is likely to remain a transfiguring political force for some time. In “Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century,” Goodhart, an analyst at Policy Exchange, a London-based research organization, argues “status inequality” will continue to drive a political rebellion that has already led to Brexit and the upending or disruption of establishment parties from Italy to Germany.

In a previous book, “The Road to Somewhere,” published in 2017, Goodhart placed the roots of populism in a conflict over values, dividing voters into two groups. Those in the larger group feel they are far from somewhere. They are rooted in their communities, tend to be socially conservative and often didn’t attend college. Those in the smaller but more powerful group feel they could come from anywhere. They tend to be more metropolitan, socially liberal and, more often than not, university graduates.

In his latest book he expands on the theme, dividing voters between the highly educated, the Heads, manual workers, the Hands, and those who mainly care for others, the Hearts. He maintains populism is a backlash against the Heads, who have become too powerful. “In the language of political cliché,” Goodhart writes, “the ‘brightest and the best’ today trump the ‘decent and hardworking.’ Qualities such as character, integrity, experience, common sense, courage and willingness to toil are by no means irrelevant, but they command relatively less respect.”

FILE - People queue at a testing site amid the coronavirus pandemic in Southend-on-Sea, Britain, Sept. 16, 2020.
FILE - People queue at a testing site amid the coronavirus pandemic in Southend-on-Sea, Britain, Sept. 16, 2020.

That is building resentment, and not just when it comes to jobs or wealth. Alongside an income inequality there is a status inequality, which will continue to drive populism, along with different definitions of identity and clashes over the future shape of the European Union.

Both euro-federalists, those who want closer political integration among the EU’s 27 member states, and populist euro-skeptics see political opportunities arising out of the coronavirus pandemic.

The former says the crisis will bring home to people the reasons for greater political and economic integration — that the big challenges, from public health to climate change, require closer coordination and more centralized decision-making.

But populists say the absence of solidarity and the squabbling among European nations during the pandemic is what many people will take away from the crisis. Deeper integration, they say, will just place more power into the hands of faraway elites, compounding Europe’s long-standing crisis of political accountability.

Other close observers of European politics agree that just a dose of “more Europe” will allow populism not only to survive but likely thrive after the pandemic, whatever the results are of this November’s U.S. elections.

“Populism is tied to the hollowing out of advanced democracies. Political elites have become estranged from voters after decades of declining participation in elections, in party membership, and in the civic activities that created links between the electorate and the government,” says Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based research group.

Balfour says a political void has emerged, which populists have filled “bypassing the traditional institutions — from parliaments to newsrooms.”

In a recent commentary for Carnegie Europe, Balfour says the populist challenge isn’t just on a national level but feeds through to the European Union, which is “unable to keep up with the transformations of the twenty-first century.” Populist politics “pose deeper questions about legitimacy, representation, and political participation. Who are ‘the people?’ Who decides? And for whose benefit? Filling those voids meaningfully requires a total rethink of the relationship between the local, national, EU, and global levels of governance — instead of the top-down reform the EU has habitually pursued.”