A new book examining the rise of populist nationalism across Western countries faults traditional, establishment parties for ignoring for too long popular fears about immigration and globalization.
By failing to grapple with public alarm early, they allowed both issues to become toxic and build widespread distrust of established elites, the authors say.
For mainstream politicians, especially on the center-left, the fact-laden, forensic book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, by British academics Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell, published just weeks before America’s mid-term elections, will make for uncomfortable reading.
The authors, one a sociologist and the other a historian, argue that national populism is here to stay and that the populist revolts in Europe "were a long time in the making." They dismiss the idea populist nationalism is a spasm, or merely a backlash to the financial crisis that erupted in 2008, the austerity that followed, or the refugee crisis that has swept through Europe since 2014.
Instead, they say it is “an ideology rooted in very deep and long-term currents that have been swirling beneath our democracies and gaining strength over many decades.”
Eatwell and Goodwin’s argument about the durability of populist nationalism - that U.S. President Donald Trump, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are the ‘new normal’ - would appear to have received some support from this past Tuesday's U.S. midterm elections, the results of which, many analysts say, were mixed. Democrats surfed a so-called "blue wave" to retake control of the House of Representatives, but the midterms also witnessed a “red wave,” allowing Republicans’ to strengthen their grip on the Senate.
Since 2016, Europe and the United States have seen a surge of books and studies on the rise of populist nationalism, but few have caught as much immediate attention as Eatwell and Goodwin’s highly-researched book - or been cited as much by politicians. The book reached Britain’s Sunday Times top 10 bestseller list two weeks after publication.
Unlike many other authors, they say they do not write to condemn or praise, but to understand a movement that seeks, they say, to restore “the primacy of the nation over distant and unaccountable international organizations” and to reassert “the importance of stability and conformity over the never-ending and disruptive instability that flows from globalization.”
But the authors have attracted criticism and accusations that they are seeking to ‘normalize’ a dangerous movement.
“There is undoubtedly some useful information and the authors are correct to point out that opponents of right-wing populists need better answers, but it is quite clear what this book is. It is part of a project to normalize and detoxify the new right,” argues Martin Shaw, a political sociologist and international relations scholar. In a review of the book for politics.co.uk, he accuses Eatwell and Goodwin of exaggerating political trends while presenting them “as social-scientific fact.”
Some other critics say Eatwell and Goodwin do in fact sympathize with populist nationalists, leading them to downplay the excesses of the movement.
The authors counter that opponents of populist nationalists miss important nuances about the movement. They say the search to identify one type of supporter or one motive for populist nationalism is unhelpful. They accuse their critics of wanting to dismiss the movement as just one of angry old white men
“Trump and Brexit appealed to a broad and loose alliance of middle-class social conservatives and blue-collar workers,” they write. And they note racial and age diversity in the ranks of populist nationalists - highlighting that one in three Latino men who voted in the 2016 White House race backed Trump, while Brexit was backed by one in three of Britain’s black and ethnic minority voters.” Brexit is Britain's decision to leave the European Union. Likewise, far-right politician Marine Le Pen attracted the support of younger voters in her run for the French presidency last year.
“The tendency to dismiss these movements as a political home for old, white racist men ignores the fact that Le Pen picked up much of her support not only from young men but young women in France, while in Austria, Germany, Italy and Sweden, national populists are strongest among the under-40s or draw their support fairly evenly from across age groups.” Goodwin made the comments Thursday in the wake of the U.S. mid-term elections, in an article for Britain’s The Guardian newspaper.
Longer term trends are at play, they say, breaking down the key historic shifts as the “Four D’s. They include distrust of established politicians and institutions caused by a sense among large numbers that they no longer have a voice; growing fear among some key groups about the possible destruction of national historic identity and established ways of life; and the stoking by globalization of rising inequalities of income and wealth, which has fueled a sense of deprivation, prompting a loss of faith in a better future.
All of those trends, say the authors, have inflamed a fourth one: de-alignment and the weakening bonds between the traditional mainstream parties and the people.
Some critics of the book say the authors exaggerate de-alignment and take issue with the authors’ claim that populist nationalism marks the end of “relatively stable politics, strong mainstream parties and loyal voters. In the British election last year “Labour and the Conservatives won 82 percent of the vote, their highest share since 1970,” notes The Economist magazine.