Why 2019 will be a tough year for populists

Demonstrators march toward the Presidential Palace during a protest against a proposed labor law in Budapest on Dec. 21. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)
Demonstrators march toward the Presidential Palace during a protest against a proposed labor law in Budapest on Dec. 21. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

A specter is haunting the Western world — the specter of populism. The appeal of divisive political platforms pitting “ordinary people” against self-serving, out-of-touch elites has been on the rise for several decades. The 2008 financial crisis and the chaotic wave of asylum seekers who arrived on Europe’s shores more recently both accelerated the trend. Yet 2019 might be the year when the populist revolt starts stalling.

First, the more populists exercise power, the more apparent the costs of populism become. In Britain, the prospect of a chaotic “hard Brexit” has prompted a sense of panic and strong pushback among the Tories, possibly giving a new lease on life to Prime Minister Theresa May’s much-reviled withdrawal agreement with the European Union. And even if May loses the approaching parliamentary vote on her deal, a second referendum enjoys wider support among British parliamentarians than simply crashing out of the E.U.

Even if, for now, the economy seems to be President Trump’s forte, his trade wars have not been “good, and easy to win.” The steel and aluminum tariffs cost the Ford Motor Co. alone around $1 billion in profits. According to the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, the overall burden of new tariffs on U.S. consumers exceeds the tax increases from President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Recent market gyrations may be a harmless correction to previous exuberance — but they may also reflect the expectations of a coming economic downturn. And, as illustrated by the president’s attacks on the chairman of the Federal Reserve and the phone calls from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to top bank executives, this administration is singularly ill-equipped to navigate a more turbulent economic environment.

Second, despite recent controversy over the U.N. Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in a handful of European countries, most notably in Belgium, the salience of immigration as an electoral issue is falling. The growth of the foreign-born population in the United States has slowed in recent years and, partly as a reaction to Trump, popular support for immigration in the United States appears stronger than it has been in decades, with 75 percent of Americans saying immigration is a good thing.

British attitudes toward migration have moderated since the Brexit vote. Even in Germany, where the populist Alternative for Germany party received a major boost during the refugee crisis, the integration of Syrian asylum-seekers is proceeding better than most had expected, partly thanks to the country’s system of apprenticeships and flexible vocational training. With mainstream politicians proving willing and able to control immigration inflows, the scope for orchestrating a populist revolt against “open borders” is shrinking.

Third, in contrast to conventional wisdom, populists are just not very good at commanding popular majorities. Viktor Orban’s Fidesz received more than 50 percent of popular vote in Hungary only once, in 2010. Its recent parliamentary supermajorities are as much a result of an electoral system tailored to the party’s needs. Similarly, the appeal of Donald Trump — who famously lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton — beyond a narrow, overwhelmingly white, male and rural America is extremely limited. That, of course, bodes extremely ill for the future of a Trumpified Republican Party.

Emmanuel Macron, in turn, soundly defeated his populist adversaries in the French election last year. If his support has tanked since, mainly due to the unpopular reforms he has adopted, a replay of the 2017 election in opinion polls would not actually produce a dramatically different outcome, other than an initial redistribution of votes from the far left to the far right in the first round.

Perhaps the pendulum will also start swinging back in the East. Notwithstanding the cold weather and the holiday season, Hungary has lately experienced large protests against a range of government policies. In next year’s election in Poland, the Law and Justice Party is unlikely to sustain its current parliamentary majority. In Greece, which is also due to elect a new Parliament next year, the reformist center-right New Democracy is firmly leading in the polls.

None of this is to suggest that politics on both sides of the Atlantic is about to return to its post-war baseline. The new divides exploited by populists — between urban and rural voters, and visions of an open vs. closed society — will define democratic politics for years to come. The populist right and the populist left are bound to make significant gains in the elections to the European Parliament in May, and, in the United States, Trump’s bigotry has helped to energize the socialist and identity-politics-driven wing of the Democratic Party.

However, with U.S. party affiliation down relative to the 2000s, it is not a stretch to imagine that a radical, hyperpolarized politics does not really speak to “silent majorities” in the United States or Europe. The challenge of 2019 will consist of giving those voters a voice and a compelling policy agenda that will reinvigorate and strengthen our democracies.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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