Populism despite economic crisis, pandemic and war. Populist movements, from left and right, mostly associated with nationalistic or religious undertones, are increasingly infiltrating our global societies.
“It’s the economy, stupid!” said an advisor to US presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992. At the time, he was running against incumbent President George HW Bush. The US was in a recession, which Clinton emphasized during the campaign. He beat Bush. The saying became a principle of belief: Whoever creates wealth or convinces the voters that he will do so, is sure to succeed.
Today it is no longer so easy to say. Since the mid-1990s, populist parties and politicians in many democracies have shown that the reverse can also be the case. “Identity the economy”: Kulturkampf and ethno-nationalism outdo economic policy. Whoever manages to articulate the rejection of social change and the fears of the people wins elections. Even if he makes bad economic policies or harms the economic interests of his own voters. Values and identities determine voting decisions – not wealth.
The re-election of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is extreme proof of this. 52.2 percent of Turks voted for him in the runoff. The country has been in a severe economic crisis since 2018. Erdogan won – although the sesame rings are expensive and the youth have no work.
Why are authoritarian populists successful even when they run their countries down? Is Turkey an extreme case? And what does that mean for Western politicians who hope to be able to counteract the identitarian divide in society with more chip and battery factories in the Rust Belt of the USA or in structurally weak regions in Europe?
The big bang of identity politics was Brexit. Economically, almost everything spoke against it at the time, but in 2016 a majority of voters decided in favor of Great Britain leaving the European Union. They were warned that their country would suffer economically, but more important to them was “to regain control” – “to take back control,” as the Brexit slogan went. The supposed protection of being British counted for more than rates of growth.
After his election victory in 2016, Donald Trump also took little account of the situation of those who elected him in his economic policy. Under Trump, the Republicans appeared as the voice of the disenfranchised, the losers from globalization and those left behind. In this way they gained votes from the lower middle class. Millions of white men, mostly without college degrees and therefore on relatively low incomes, helped Trump win the election, re-elected him four years later, and they still stand by him today. Trump’s tax reform, which came into force in 2018, was a multi-billion dollar gift for top earners and large corporations. In the current dispute over raising the debt ceiling, his Republican Party’s cutback plans would hit the lower middle class particularly hard. So Trump is making politics against his voters – they still stand by him.
The outcome of the elections in Israel last fall is also difficult to understand from the perspective of economic policy alone. The country is adventurously expensive. According to a just-released Israel Democracy Institute poll, the cost of living is by far the most worrying issue people have. A clear majority of 60 percent also believes the government is primarily responsible for the problem. Nevertheless, the public debate is dominated by an ideological question. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition wants (so far to no avail) to curtail the independence of the Supreme Court, and they claim this is a liberating strike against a left-liberal elite who are supposedly alien to the people.
So the pattern is familiar – in Turkey it was repeated in an extreme way. Admittedly, the bad economic situation was an issue in addition to questions of identity before the first ballot. Erdogan did everything to temporarily lower the inflation rate, which was 65 percent at the end of 2022, compared to 43.7 percent in April. Before the second ballot, however, both candidates shifted to identitarian and nationalistically charged issues. Erdogan gave the tough dog fighting Kurdish terrorism. Both candidates promised to expel Syrian refugees.
Political scientists were not surprised by Erdogan’s re-election. The short-term economic situation plays a subordinate role in elections in countries with strong populist parties. Rather, they point to the long lines to explain the phenomenon: Since the 1960s and 1970s, values have become more important than material issues in many democracies. Because a relatively high level of prosperity had already been achieved, non-material issues increasingly played a role for many voters: environmental protection, for example, and equality between men, women and minorities. Liberal values, such as tolerance for different sexual identities, have since become mainstream, and religion has become less important.
But while conservative attitudes have receded in many Western societies—and in Turkey — they are still there. Depending on the country, up to 45 percent of the electorate can be added. People who held such values felt increasingly marginalized in many countries: articulating their fears can mobilize them. This observation is called “cultural backlash”.
Which values are suitable for a backlash differs from country to country. Put very simply, one could say that in Great Britain people felt threatened by the continent. In Poland, there is concern that traditional Catholic values will be lost through the legalization of abortion or same-sex marriage. In Israel, the desire for a Jewish state is mobilizing. Erdogan, in turn, embodies the victory of conservative, devout Turks over the Kemalist elite that had ruled the country for decades, Islamic faith and pride in a non-Western Turkish nation showing the West that it is not needed.
The motives vary, but the insight remains: It’s not the economy, it’s the identity. It’s not about the economy. It’s about the identity of the voters.
This is a problem for democracy. One can argue about the right tax policy, questions of redistribution, economic stimulus measures or labor market policy, but compromises can be found in economic policy. Values and identities, on the other hand, are understood as absolute. They are not divisible, one cannot meet in a middle. They are perceived as existential – just like material questions used to be.
Democracies also thrive on politicians being accountable for what they do. An election is, at least in theory, also a vote on the success of the government and the quality of the various offers. Economic indicators such as the unemployment rate, wage levels and the distribution of wealth in society could be anchors that can be interpreted, but are at least verifiable, especially in the post-factual age. But her role seems subordinate. Of course, voting has always been based on a sense of belonging, but when absurd economic decisions – in Turkey interest rate cuts in the midst of a phase of inflation – are rewarded with an electoral success, the principle of accountability seems to be partially undermined.
In addition, identity politics is increasingly overlapping and penetrating economic policy issues. Themes such as the green transformation of the economy, wind turbines, solar farms and road traffic are charged with identity politics. It is then no longer argued about the matter, but about values and lifestyles – both populists and progressives take part in this. Democratic negotiation on these issues, finding compromises, is made more difficult.
Nonetheless, mainstream politicians still see an economic policy for the lower middle class as a recipe for countering populism. Can the anger and hurt pride be tempered and political consolidation brought about? Can economic recovery push back identity politics?
There is actually some hope that the development is reversible. In Great Britain, for example, the mood has recently changed; she has become more pragmatic again. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has agreed a Northern Ireland deal with the EU that would see London give up a bit of sovereignty rather than risk a trade war with the Europeans. It cannot be ruled out that there will be another renaissance of identity politics on the right wing of the Conservatives, with national-populist polemics against too much immigration and a left-leaning education system. But there is nothing to suggest that British voters today still find an American-style permanent culture war attractive. However, this required a near-collapse of the British economy under the economic adventurer Liz Truss.
In some countries ruled by populists, it can also be observed that populist parties do not rely solely on culture-war messages. In Poland, the PiS is trying to stir up anti-German sentiment during the election campaign. But because the high inflation of 16 percent could scare voters more than German superiority, PiS boss Jarosław Kaczyński promised help. Child benefit is set to rise from the equivalent of 100 to 177 euros next year.
French populist Marine Le Pen is also currently talking more about justice than about migration. In addition to the war in Ukraine, the focus of the last presidential election campaign in France was also concerns about inflation and the loss of purchasing power – classic economic and socio-political issues.
So if even populists think they have to compete with the socio-political and economic policy offers of the center – does that perhaps also mean that their voters are not satisfied with the pleasant anger, the confirmation of their values and attitudes in the long run?
Social measures and Keynesian economic policies alone are not enough to stop authoritarian populism. Mainstream politicians need to combine measures like raising the minimum wage or targeting companies in economically weak regions with an embracing rhetoric: more credit for the hard-working lower middle class – and a few jabs at those who think they are better off.
The next few months will show whether that is enough. Elections will take place in autumn 2024 in the USA, as well as in three eastern German states where the AfD is strong, and in Poland this year. In these countries, Christian Democrats, Liberals, Greens, Social Democrats are up against populists. It’s a battle for priorities. How important is it for a good life, identity?
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