Authoritarian Populism, Liberal Democracy, and the Myopia of Global Elites

     With the French public about to vote in a run-off election for the country’s next president, commentators in the mainstream media are cautiously optimistic that centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron will defeat Marine Le Pen’s right populist National Front. Thus, Europe will be saved not only from another movement to exist the EU but also from a racist inward thinking regime that represents a threat to liberal democracy, tolerance, and prosperity. Mainstream media has focussed largely on the National Front’s anti-Semitic and fascist past and on the party’s intolerance towards immigrants. This perspective underestimates the depth and nature of popular disillusionment. The reality is that the very emergence of populist authoritarianism is a symptom of the breakdown of the representative capabilities of liberal democracy. Regardless of who wins the French election, both liberal democracy and the global order will continue to be in trouble.

The Failure of Liberal Democracy

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

     As I have argued in the previous post, populism makes an appearance in contexts where political institutions have failed to channel and address deeply felt popular concerns. Political institutions lose their legitimacy as large swaths of the public blame unresponsive political establishments for what is regarded as the current unhappy state of affairs. Curiously, political establishments continue to demonstrate enormous rigidity and lack of empathy even as populist movements expand their base of support—this failure of traditional parties to respond appropriately raises the spectre of ongoing threats to democratic politics and practices. Traditional political elites regularly dismiss the agendas of populist movements as the unfortunate consequences of the political manipulations of irresponsible populist leaders who play on the population’s basest (and racist) sentiments. Recall Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of Trump supporters as the “deplorables.” This attitude persists despite evidence that support for these populist movements is strongly rooted in very real material deprivations. This is the case for both Trump and Brexit as I have pointed out earlier. It is also so for France, where support for Marine Le Pen is found in the de-industrialized east and northeast of the country and among the country’s unemployed youth.

     Academic studies are attempting to dismiss this side of the story by demonstrating the greater salience of race and identity issues, over economic concerns, in explaining support for populist authoritarianism. This perspective misses the reality that issues of identity, security, and material welfare are inextricably linked. It also ignores the all-important psychological component of political choices. Unemployment and precarious employment breed fear and insecurity. They are conditions of exclusion; exclusion that prevents people from participating fully in society, which, in turn breeds anger and intolerance. Further, political unresponsiveness to economic exclusion fuels feelings of lack of control (the belief that one is politically excluded as well), stoking anger and support for a strong leader who will identify the source of the problem and fix it. At the same time, in the twenty-first century a new phenomenon has entered the mix of populist triggers: that of terrorism. Another source of profound insecurity, terrorist acts also fuel popular support for invigorated rules, top down control, and support for the political right. This is a normal psychological reaction and cannot be tackled by explaining to people that more people die in car accidents than from terrorism. Furthermore, the way in which all of these factors intertwine is complex and highly conducive to scapegoating in which an easily identifiable enemy becomes the focus. I am not suggesting that racist attitudes are unimportant, but it is essential to grasp how economic and political conditions have created the conditions for these attitudes to flourish. 

Neoliberalism and Elite Myopia

     If populist support has psychological and emotional components—fear, insecurity, and feelings of social and economic exclusion, then the phenomenon cannot be addressed, as some have suggested, by providing correct or better information to the public. It can only be confronted by effectively addressing the insecurities that are at its very base. However, the context of economic globalization has made this very difficult. This is so because of the uncompromising attitude of political establishments, whose perspective continues to hold that the free market will lift all boats. It has not done so. Moreover, it has given rise to intolerable levels of inequality, involving obscene concentrations of wealth—another reality that has fueled populist angst.  France, where the traditional political left fell into disrepute due to its compromises with neoliberalism, illustrates the implications of traditional elite myopia. The country faces sharp political polarization in which the candidate facing off against Marine Le Pen in the May 7 election, far from offering any compromises to the neoliberal agenda, is offering more of the same:  support for the European Union as currently constituted, fiscal discipline, a cut in corporation taxes, and further flexibilization of the country’s labor regime. Should he be elected and his policies do nothing to address sources of populist unrest, that opposition will surely grow and become increasingly radical. 

Populism and the Global Capitalist Order

Marine Le Pen with Supporters

Marine Le Pen with Supporters

     Even when populist leaders are elected, however, the likelihood that they will effectively address employment and other material concerns of their popular support base is fraught with difficulties. I would argue that this is the place to start since addressing the insecurity created by acts of terrorism is considerably more difficult. However, populist calls to address material issues generally result in two discouraging outcomes. One is illustrated by the case of Donald Trump, who, as I argued in my previous post, has already abandoned his popular base and is taking the line of least resistance, moving toward an ever closer alliance with the economically powerful. The second scenario, more likely in the Le Pen case, occurs if a populist leader does attempt to keep economic and social policy promises. Such efforts will immediately encounter resistance from the powerful economic establishment, which, along with traditional political elites, is fiercely resistant to any alteration in the globalist agenda. The era of neoliberalism, in rendering the world’s economic elite even more powerful, has reduced the ability of nation states to discipline it. Struggles between populist leaderships committed to their popular base usually do not end well. This is so because business support and confidence is needed for employment generation; but business can readily veto policies they do not like through disinvestment. In addition, faced with business intransigence, populist regimes with already existing authoritarian tendencies are likely to become more so, thereby further eroding business confidence along with already fragile liberal democracies. These developments are amply illustrated by Latin America’s long history of populism. There is no reason to think that these tendencies will be substantially different for the U.S./Western European versions. 

     The only solution is for establishment economic and political elites to see the writing on the wall and make some much needed compromises in their globalist agendas. Hopefully, it is not too late.