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TEMPORARY WAVE OR PERMANENT TIDE?

Tharindra Gooneratne wonders whether the notable rise in populism is long term in nature

There is a famous scene in the Oscar-winning classic Braveheart where Mel Gibson’s character William Wallace claims: “I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men.”

If this incident took place today, Wallace would have been branded a populist.

Populism is an often misconstrued term but in essence a political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people. It is often associated with anti-establishment views and its origins can be traced back to the Roman Empire where a progressive movement known as the Populares was championed by Julius Caesar himself.

As the definition suggests, populism is not a wholly negative concept. For example, the French Revolution helped abolish feudalism and established the rights of the common man. On the other hand, populist movements also led to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

So populism can be a force for good or catalyst for calamity.

Even though populism has influenced global politics for centuries, 2016 will likely go down in history as its watershed moment.

The wave began when a populist candidate of a party founded by former Nazis came within striking distance of the Austrian presidency. It gained momentum with Brexit where the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) promise to curtail immigration resonated with millions of British voters. And its most profound impact was in November last year when Donald Trump’s message to ‘Make America Great Again’ catapulted him to the most powerful seat on the planet.

In each of these instances, grassroots campaigns organised by populist candidates proved far more effective than those by mainstream parties.

What exactly is the driving force behind such populist movements?

The answer is quite straightforward as portrayed by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Almost every single populist movement in history has been preceded by a period of economic malaise. Declining quality of life, stagnant wages and rising inequality cement anti-establishment sentiments among the local populace. It is during such periods that a populist candidate emerges, drawing on the feelings of ill will of the people and directing their frustrations at a scapegoat – usually the government and other mainstream parties.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the West has been burdened by economic woes that partially explain the emergence of anti-elitist parties. But there’s a far more important phenomenon that has taken place over the past century: the globalisation of labour. Today, there are approximately 250 million international migrants who represent over three percent of the global population.

It is interesting to note that the UK and US (both featured prominently in last year’s populist wave) are also among the five leading countries with immigrant populations. Austria, which kick-started the wave, has seen a large influx of immigrants over the years with almost 20 percent of the population having a foreign background at present.

This growth in immigration has played right into the hands of populist candidates who find them to be ideal scapegoats for a nation’s economic woes. The rise in terrorism and the escalation of the refugee crisis in Europe have also helped since national security can now be included as an additional reason to tighten national borders.

According to the Pew Research Center, almost 80 percent of Trump’s supporters identified immigration as one of their top issues in the run-up to the presidential election.

A second theme of most populist candidates is an aversion to free trade. Once again, a scapegoat is identified and this time it’s ‘foreign trade partners that suck out millions of jobs.’

But such claims are often unsubstantiated. For example, statistics indicate that over 80 percent of job losses in America between 2000 and 2010 were due to automation rather than international trade. It is machines and not trade partners that eliminated over four million jobs in the US during that period.

By identifying immigration and free trade as catalysts for economic malaise, populist candidates are essentially branding themselves as harbouring anti-globalisation views. The risks of such views manifesting in the local populace are immense.

Firstly, it helps pass the blame for a country’s economic woes to a third party – in this case, immigrants and trade partners. This fuels xenophobia and leads to domestic instability such as when hate crimes in England and Wales rose by 42 percent in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote. Finally, such views create a race to the bottom as countries begin establishing protectionist policies, which lead to a vicious cycle of higher tariffs and inflation, and lower trade.

It should be reiterated that populism is not a harmful concept but it can be dangerous if it stirs emotions at the expense of rationality. That populism has become a strong force in global politics today is beyond debate.

What remains uncertain is whether this represents a temporary wave or a more drastic permanent tide.