European Populism Is Here to Stay

An election campaign poster with Sebastian Kurz of the People’s Party near the Parliament in Vienna on Monday. Credit Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters
An election campaign poster with Sebastian Kurz of the People’s Party near the Parliament in Vienna on Monday. Credit Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters

Yet another European country has swung to the right. Nearly 58 percent of Austrian voters cast ballots last Sunday for the center-right People’s Party or the far-right Freedom Party. It is likely that the two parties will form a governing coalition.

Since the 1980s, the Freedom Party has been associated with anti-immigration xenophobia, anti-Semitism and, more recently, Islamophobia. On Sunday, about 26 percent of Austrians backed the party, giving it its highest share of the vote since 1999. Though the center-left Social Democrats came in second place, avoiding an embarrassing third-place finish, less than one percentage point separated them from the Freedom Party.

The defeat of the progressive wing mirrors the lagging support for the center-left across Europe. In 2000, 10 of the 15 national governments within the European Union had left-wing parties in power. Today, only six of the 28 national governments do. Social democracy in Europe is in desperate need of renewal.

Many analysts continue to misdiagnose the root cause of the populist surge. Too often they blame economic forces when, as a growing pile of research shows, it has far more to do with values. As long as progressives fail to address the values gap, populists will have significant influence on Europe’s political landscape.

Austria’s new chancellor will be 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz from the People’s Party, which garnered more than 31 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results. Throughout the campaign, and like a growing number of mainstream politicians in Europe, Mr. Kurz talked of slashing benefits for migrants, closing Islamic schools, banning foreign funding for mosques and taking harsh measures to deal with the refugee crisis. Some have called him “the Conservative Macron” — a reference to Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old French president — because of how, like Mr. Macron, he has distanced himself from his country’s political old guard.

Mr. Kurz and his party also pushed through a ban on face coverings that took effect this month, a law that has been applied to ski masks and party costumes but is widely seen as an attack on Islamic burqas. Those caught wearing face coverings could be fined up to 150 euros (about $180).

The election of Mr. Kurz will bolster those people throughout Europe who are deeply critical of the humane approach to the refugee crisis taken by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. There will be increased demands for a more assertive defense of Europe’s Christian culture, values and borders. Hungary, Poland and other states in Central and Eastern Europe will point to the Austrian election results as further evidence of a glaring disconnect between pro-refugee liberals in Brussels and anti-immigration, socially conservative voters.

But European populism didn’t start with the refugee crisis. It has been simmering for decades.

Beginning in the 1960s, and supported by the rapid expansion of higher education, the rise of a more socially liberal middle class fueled the spread of progressive values. The dominance of these more mobile, affluent and liberal voters was described by the academic Ronald Inglehart as the “silent revolution” — a new era in which our collective needs for physical, material and cultural security would gradually fade into the past.

But many thinkers, especially from the left, underestimated the lingering appeal of nationalism among less mobile, typically less educated and more socially conservative voters. Many of these voters were left behind in the modern economy — but not all of them.

As center-left parties embraced the middle-class liberal consensus, a coalition of working-class voters and social conservatives were cut adrift and defected to the populist right. Many countries in the West are now feeling the full force of their counterrevolution.

This is what gives populists staying power and makes them relatively immune to changing economic cycles. Americans were shocked by the election of Donald Trump, but in Europe campaigns similar to his have been attracting major support for nearly 40 years.

The Austrian Freedom Party is in the headlines today, as it was in 1999, during a time of low unemployment in Europe, when the party reached 27 percent of the vote. Similarly, Marine Le Pen caused waves earlier this year, but it was in the 1990s when her father first attracted a large share of the working-class electorate in France.

These populist revolts have been a long time coming and have staying power. There are no easy answers for the left, but one thing is clear: The traditional strategy of strongly condemning populism while avoiding the tougher job of bridging the values gap has broken down.

Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent and a senior fellow at Chatham House, is a co-author of Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the E.U.

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