Populism does not live by bread alone


The rise of populism on all continents has, understandably, become one of the main concerns of democrats. However, its opponents are not entirely sure about how to tackle it, probably through inexperience.

Following the defeat of fascism (in short, a brutal form of populism) during the Second World War, the West entered a period of political and social moderation that guaranteed economic reconstruction and the expansion and consolidation of democracy as a system of government.

Across the board, from Germany’s Christian Democrats to the socialists, and even the two main parties in the United States, huge efforts were devoted to building a welfare state within which the quality of life of all citizens would be assured in the present and the future.

Full employment, free and quality education, universal healthcare and social protection became hallmarks of European, Japanese and, in its own way, US identity.

Under these circumstances, the prospect of the reemergence of populism as seen during the interwar period was wiped out along with the eradication of its two main causes: widespread pauperisation across social classes and extreme ideological confrontation.

It contributed, in addition, to the leaders of real socialism abandoning any kind of revolutionary thrust and turning their societies into examples of their own form of moderation, in which there was no space for revolutions of their own or others, beyond the clashes with the West in Third World countries, but never in the First.

Aside from incidents such as May 1968 in France – in which the majority parties on the left acted as part of the state – no crisis in the West had been severe enough to revive the ghost of populism.


Until the crisis of 2008

In 2008, the world – already part of a single mode of production, distribution and consumption as a result of globalisation – experienced a seismic economic shift of inordinate magnitude.

The rise in unemployment and job insecurity, the growth in inequality, the rolling back of the welfare state and the progressive withdrawal of public investment coincided with the exposure of countless political and financial scandals involving the ruling classes in virtually all developed countries.

The feeling and conviction that the crisis had its winners and its losers grew exponentially with the passing of time.

These are the seeds of the populism we are seeing today, but not the only ones. There is also the ideological battle.

For the first time in decades, we have to acknowledge that the old ideas that gave rise to fascism have not magically disappeared or been eradicated. All it took was a crisis of sufficient severity and global geographical reach to reactivate them.

It is often argued that the flaws and inefficiencies of economic globalisation have led to the rise of populism.

It is an undeniably objective foundation, but it is not the only reason.

In countries with high rates of unemployment reminiscent of the Great Depression in the 1920s, such as Spain, for example, there has not been a rise in populism with anti-democratic roots or racist and xenophobic traits.

Meanwhile, other states with a high standard of living have been exposed to this phenomenon: France, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany and the Nordic countries are obvious cases.

Even in the United Kingdom, many of the arguments made for leaving the EU during the campaign for the referendum of 23 June were unacceptable in democratic terms, and led to a string of attacks on citizens from Poland and other EU countries.

Likewise, in the United States, Donald Trump’s campaign guide is based on exaggeration and xenophobia.


The mistake of making a pact with enemy

The followers of far-right populism in all these places are not globalisation’s losers, neither in their totality nor in the main. Rather, they are citizens who fear losing or having to share their “privileges” with others they do not consider to be equal by birth or in terms of class or education, such as immigrants or refugees.

Western democracies must confront the populism of the extreme right - which is a genuine threat to peace and cohesion among citizens – by attacking its economic foundations and responding with conviction to democratic ideology.

Firstly, by implementing policies that create employment, promote development and expand the welfare state at the same time as reducing inequalities. Extreme austerity, considered an end in itself, has, objectively speaking, been exhausted and its perpetuation is high-octane fuel for the populists.

And secondly, by having the guts and determination to recuperate a flawless ethical code, to call a spade a spade and to say it loud and clear: there are types of discourse that are incompatible with the rule of law and that threaten the freedoms of all citizens.

The worst thing democrats could do is to try to tackle the populists with the policy of appeasement that led to the catastrophe of the 1930s. Back then, an attempt was made to placate the enemy, by making concession after concession.

The method of appeasement democrats are using today consists of adopting populist rallying cries, and even turning them into government policy. This, they believe, will stop its growth. But the result is quite the opposite, as the EU is seeing with the refugee crisis.

The West is being called on to wage a democratic ideological battle with extreme right populism. Should it lose, the consequences would be incalculable. It could, moreover, lose by default if the main political families – conservatives and socialists – end up taking on the proposals of those who do not believe in equal rights.

Imagine Trump in the White House and Marine Le Pen in the Elysée Palace. Dreadful. Imagine them or democrats trying to apply some of their policies.


This article has been translated from Spanish.