Populist Movements

The characterization of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as “populist” candidates in the U.S. presidential race mirrors the populist movements that have been growing in Europe since the Great Recession.

Populist movements arise from both the left and the right, sometimes with agreement on specific issues, e.g., government incompetence. Commonalities between European and U.S. populist movements include economic insecurity of the middle class and fear of job loss to immigrants. However, while U.S. workers see themselves as missing out on the benefits of the recovery from the recession, their European counterparts feel that recovery has yet to occur.

The European experience is compounded by the imposition of austerity measures which threaten portions of social safety nets in several countries. European populists on the left and right may oppose various government policies but are not inclined to oppose their social health systems. Quite to the contrary, the U.S. right regards any government healthcare system as socialized medicine, an unwanted government intrusion into personal healthcare relationships.

Christian fundamentalism is a core feature of the U.S. populist right, whereas religion is not prominent in European populist movements. However, opposition to large-scale immigration into Europe goes beyond economic concerns, maintaining that minorities, especially Muslims, threaten traditional European national culture.

Greece has been prominent in international news since the recession as it sought European Union (EU) support for its recovery. Imposition of austerity requirements gave rise to the left-wing political party Syriza. In France the conservative National Front political party presents a populist defense of its sovereignty against the EU and its borders against immigrants. Defense of national sovereignty is also behind the effort in Britain to exit the EU led by the right-wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP). Right-wing populist parties are on the rise in Austria, Hungary, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Bulgaria. The left-wing Podemos party has become the second largest party in Spain in opposition to austerity measures. Italian comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement cites political corruption and opposes austerity measures. And in the U.S. presidential primary races, the supporters of Trump and Sanders believe that “the system is rigged” to deny the middle class opportunities for a better economic future for themselves and their children, while the wealthy and the well-connected are richly rewarded.

The perception that economic and technocratic elites are incompetent or even corrupt was observed as a cause of disquiet in a Martin Wolf column in the February 2, 2016 Financial Times. As a result, those perceived as outside “the establishment” are regarded as champions of the wider public in the U.S. and many European countries. Popular trust in institutions (government, business, media, and non-governmental organizations) is declining, even while trust is increasing among the “elite,” according to an annual survey by Edelman, a global communications marketing firm that interviewed over 33,000 respondents in 28 countries.

The Financial Times article offers suggestions as to how centrist politicians can overcome the divisiveness:

  • Bring order to movement of refugees across international borders
  • Re-evaluate Europe’s austerity-oriented macroeconomic doctrines
  • End the financial sector’s activities that facilitated the immense transfer of wealth
  • Keep capitalism competitive and free from political influence of powerful business interests
  • Make taxation fairer and free of influence of owners of capital in shaping tax laws
  • Shareholder primacy should yield to those more exposed to company risks, such as long-serving employees
  • Contain the role of money in politics

The article urges that the fears of those feeling disrespected and dispossessed no longer be ignored.

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