Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Why are the UK and US more vulnerable to right wing populism?

Cartoon by @ThomasHTaylor

A week or so ago, anticipating Macron’s victory and following defeats of the far right in Holland and Austria, I asked on twitter why the US and UK seem to be more susceptible to right wing populism than elsewhere. It is a question that requires much more than a post to answer, but I thought the replies to my question were interesting.

Quite rightly, a large number of people questioned the premise. We have populist far right leaders in parts of Eastern Europe, for example. Maybe timing is also important, with the US and UK acting as warnings to other countries.

Nor should differences be exaggerated. Macron is quite unique in his achievements, and a runoff between Le Pen and the conventional right or left might have been closer. Trump lost the popular vote, and the Brexit vote was very close. What exactly is populism anyway: as someone said to me recently, elites use the label populist much as populists use the label elites.

On the other hand, one of the features of the Macron campaign is that he championed all the things that Brexit and Trump led us to believe were now politically unpopular and therefore to some extent compromised, especially globalisation and the EU. A number of people suggested specific features of European economies that might have cushioned the impact of globalisation more effectively: a stronger welfare state, for example, or stronger union power. One way of describing this is to say that neoliberalism has been less successful in Western Europe. Real wage growth has been poor in the UK and US, which may have a wider impact in electoral terms than higher unemployment in Europe.

Another set of suggested explanations focused on the rise of the very rich in the US and UK. Those who had recently achieved much higher incomes and wealth would be naturally keen to keep it, and would therefore do what they could to ensure democracy allowed them to keep (or increase) it. The obvious way to do this is through the media, although recent attempts at voter persuasion discovered by Carole Cadwalladr suggest it is not the only way. The UK press is perceived to be the most biased to the right among this sample of European countries apart from Finland. The US has talk radio and Fox news. These may persuade the non-partisan media to give undue coverage to far right individuals, which then increases their support. To the extent that the very rich are able to influence elections, we get what could be described as a managed democracy.

That in turn may be related to a remark by Matthew Yglesias: “You see in Trump vs Le Pen once again that authoritarian nationalist movements only win with the support of the establishment right.” (The centre-right candidate in the French elections, Fillon, recommended his supporters vote for Macron.) Brexit was enabled by a Conservative leader offering a referendum, and more importantly Brexit was encouraged by his party attempting to shift the blame for austerity on to immigrants. Trump has been embraced by the Republican party. This narrative fits with this past post of mine.

It seems to me that these various explanations are quite compatible with each other. Where what we might call neoliberal policies had been strong - weak unions, declining welfare state, stagnant wages - these policies created a very large group in society that were looking for someone to blame. In a managed economy that allowed the parties of the right either to use nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric to deflect blame from themselves, or for the far right to capture those parties. As that rhetoric also hit out at globalisation it potentially was a direct threat to global business interests, but those interests could either do nothing about this or felt they could manage that threat.

One final set of answers to my original question focused on history. Europe still has enough memory of living under authoritarian nationalist governments to want to avoid going down that route again. (Macron’s vote was highest amongst the 70+ age group.) The UK and US do not have that experience, and perhaps nostalgia for empire (or WWII) in the case of the UK or watching an empire decline in the case of the US created unique tensions.

While these are dark times to be living through (and I suspect many others besides myself certainly think they are), for anyone interested in political economy they are also fascinating times.   


  1. I was expecting to see something about the bizarre parliamentary tradition that the Speaker of the House stands unopposed by the major parties, effectively denying his constituents the ability to participate in democracy; but then I realised I misread the title of the blog as "Mainly Bercow" ...

  2. France, Austria and Holland all nearly had full blown racists running them.

    UKIP (as it was under Farage at least) is nothing like Front National. FN is more akin to the BNP who get nowhere in the UK. In fact now that UKIP have swung further right, their support has vanished.

    1. "France, Austria and Holland all nearly had full blown racists running them."

      You clearly aren't talking as someone familiar with the electoral systems of these countries, but Macron won the French elections with more than a 30% margin, the Austrian elections were quite close but the elections were for a ceremonial head of state and Wilders never had any chance in getting a parliamentary majority in the Netherlands, nor could he even get into a coalition because he could never find enough coalition partners.

      Also, it's "the Netherlands", not "Holland". You can only call the country "Holland" in specific contexts.

    2. No need to get prissy about using 'Holland' to refer to the country rather than the region within it.
      The Dutch do it quite a lot. If you find one getting uppity about it, he is probably being an arse.

    3. Sorry for the rather late reply. I must be an arse then. I am Dutch, and I never refer to my country as Holland and I always correct people when they called it Holland. It's the Netherlands!

      IF we call the country Holland, it's because we get tired of explaining what the difference is. There's no point in correcting if people don't care anyway.

    4. I guess I am an arse then. I am Dutch and will never refer to my country as Holland. It's the Netherlands!

      IF Dutch people refer to their country as Holland, it is simply because they are getting tired of correcting people and explaining what the difference is...What's the point if people don't want to listen or care

  3. In the UK the answer is obvious.

    The main social democratic party has been captured by the Bennite left, destroying its credibility.

    Many of those who should have known better stood by and let this happen without raising a word of warning. Some even tried to "make it work", even though they must in their hearts have known the true agenda of Corbyn, McDonnell, Milne, Lansmann and Fisher.

  4. Except some on the center left disagree with the argument that rightwing populism is a result of economic policies.

  5. I've asked this question before on this blog.
    "Why is it that that the electorates of [say] Scandinavia are relatively hostile to the views of their right-wing newspapers? Presumably these countries have the equivalent of, say, News Corporation tabloids, and yet they cannot persuade enough Scandinavian people to accept inequality and unfair voting systems in the same way that the people of English-speaking [Murdoch-reading] countries do."
    And this raises another question. Do the people, say, of Scandinavia have the same misperceptions about their countries that the British do about the UK?
    IPSOS MORI'S poll "Perceptions are not reality" (July 2013) gives ten examples of the British public's misperceptions:
    (a) they think that the proportion of immigrants in the population is over double what it actually is
    (b) they think that benefit fraud is 34 times higher that the official estimate
    (c) they think there are five times as many Muslims in the country than there actually are

    You get the picture. A lot people in Britain believe "facts" which will push them to the Right. But do the people of the countries of western Europe have similar misperceptions?

  6. It wasn't in the UK that Marine Le Pen got 34% of the vote.

  7. It will be interesting to see which individuals and groups fund the Tories this election compared to those of 2010 and 2015.

    European neoliberals and conservatives could do the UK a big political favour by crunching the UK's neoliberal conservatives in the upcoming EU negotiations.

    As I said in 2016 on this blog, this for the press is power with responsibility; they own Brexit to a degree I have never seen the written media commit to a single policy.

  8. To Yglesias's point, I would add that in a first-past-the-post system, producing in turn a two-party system, the stakes are much higher when a ginger group manages to steer the direction of any single party.

    Under proportional representation, a single party practically never receives an overall majority on its own, and in many multiparty systems, obtaining even 25% of seats is considered a landslide victory. For this reason, having one establishment party in one's grip is not nearly enough when multiple ones are required to form a majority government.

    Also, speaking as a Finn (and a sometime contributor to the Finnish press), note that the Finnish press is not perceived as particularly right-wing on crime or immigration. I'm not particularly enamoured of the Finnish tabloids, but compared to the British ones, on these issues they are a veritable festival of cool-headedness and responsibility. In other words, there is a disconnect between right-wing economic policy and social authoritarianism that is simply unimaginable in post-Thatcherite Britain.

  9. Not sure that I would agree with Macron being anything but an Oligarch enabler, has he not promised to cut the French budget by billions , remove hundreds of thousands of state employees and even the old Tory chestnut of deregulating the buses to compete with the TGV and SNCF (honest cannot stop laughing at that one).
    Still not sure how ms Le Pen is right wing most of her policies about globalization and France first and getting out of the EU seem pretty leftist to me.
    The tragedy of all this both in the US, UK and France is how difficult it is to get real information , free from politicians biased spin. My favorite US site is and your good self for the UK. However when even the Labour party seems incapable of using much of the excellent ammunition available to counter the Tory MSM I 'm get weary of it all. I have also found E. Michael Jones on YouTube who offers historical info not on capital and Labour but Usury and Labour it's a unique take on it all.

  10. I expect it's a lot to do with having two party political systems. The right wing populists can capture the main right* wing party, and people will vote for it. Whereas, in France, for example, even though the crazy right wing party can get to the final two, it's still thought of as a fringe party.

    I think another (possibly related) thing is that the ridiculous identity politics side of the left is a bit more prominent in the UK and the US, and more probe for a back lash against it.

    (*Not so much left wing populists, probably because media's a bit biased, right wing voters are a bit stupider, left wing voters are a bit younger so lesslikely to vote).

  11. White nationalism is a far, far more accurate term than "right-wing populism". This movement is about a toxic combination of racism and xenophobia at its core.

    I don't know about the UK, but certainly the history of slavery in the US is a huge part of the reason why Trump won. For one, the 3/5ths compromise is the reason why we elect presidents by electoral vote rather than popular vote. And the most significant deciding factor in people voting for Trump in the US was racial antagonism.

  12. UK and USA have less redistribution, therefore their poor get fucked harder by neoliberalism, thus they're more motivated to turn toward anti state populist rhetoric.

    Their education systems also fail at teaching critical thinking to the poor, so they can get suckered easier by empty pseudopopulist-cryptokleptocrat promises.

  13. I'm going to sound like a conspiracy theorist here Simon, but I would argue that one of the reasons for the popularity of Trump/Farge style of populist politics is that the powers behind them, a significant segment the super rich globalised right, have been working on making this happen for a long time.

    If you look at the detail of events in US politics for example, the Koch brothers - who have invested heavily in creating "Think Tanks" (now openly called "false front organisations" in the USA) built on the lines of Lawson's "Global Warming Policy Foundation" - actively providing distorted, misdirected and discredited "science for a media largely owned by members of the same elite. The Kochs were also the principal funders of the Tea Party. It's now fairly clear this was a facade established for one thing only and that was to drag the GOP agenda further rightwards. A statement that can equally be applied to UKIP.

    Their political objectives are characterised by strong support for fossil energy, social darwinism, a desire to strip government of all interventionist roles (Trump's treatment of the EPA is this particular dream coming true) and an almost obsessive hatred of everything seen as "socialist". I've seen various reports of figures in the States describing Europe as "too Socialist", by that they mean public health care, transport and so on. It's too "socialist" and coincidently, offers fat investment opportunities in a world that has a surplus of capital.

    Thatcher set up Liam Fox's Atlantic Bridge to create direct ties between this extreme, anti-state, political clique and up and coming right wing British politicians. It's no coincidence that the main Tory supporters of Brexit all have strong ties with the US and Atlantic Bridge. I'd even argue, in the absence of any rational economic or political reasons for Brexit, that it's main aim is to destabilise European social democratic values.

    It's also true that "Trump populism" isn't just a feature of the US/UK axis - Australia and Canada have recently had their own versions in power. Like climate change denial - in the developed west, it's a very anglophone phenomena.

    Wasn't the dangers of extreme wealth assuming so much power it became unstoppable one of Thomas Piketty's central political concerns in "Capitalism in the 21st Century"? I feel it's plausible to say that in events like Brexit and the rise of the new Right we are witnessing an powerful attempt to make that happen.

    Impossible to sound anything like a conspiracy theorist on a blog thread - but perhaps you understand where I'm coming from!

  14. Thank you for this. I think it summarises every possible factor but one. To what extent does the shared language between England and America create a greater cross-pollination of political ideas? And can one therefore include Australia in that picture, particularly with its strict immigration laws that are celebrated by the UK right?

    The question is important, because some sections of the right argue that there is indeed a shared "anglo" culture across these nations. Defining the impact of the shared english langauge is needed to delimit such an argument. Although this argument may have a grain of truth within it, it does not provide anything like a sufficient explanation for the contemporary rise of the right in the UK and USA.

    Andrew Murray, portsmouth, Uk.

  15. Thank you, great piece. We can see another distinction between the UK and US on the one hand and Europe on the other in the respective philosophical preferences (if I can put it like that). The predominance of analytical philosophy in the US and UK, focused on logic, atomic thinking (ie. thinking about separate and isolable units), and not much else is in stark contrast to the project of continental philosophy, which - in its various guises - gives consideration to history, culture, contingency, human experience, context and complexity*. How that plays out across the social field I can't say, but I've a hunch there's an important difference in how people understand themselves, other people and the world around us, which may in turn affect susceptibility to right-wing populism (agreed, populism's a tricky term).

    Another possible factor is Thomas Hobbes' toxic vision of human beings as “by nature, self-interested, self-preserving creatures with strong aggressive tendencies". That's a fairly dark depiction of humankind that still seems to get played out in the right-wing press in Britain today (interestingly, the Scottish Enlightenment was much more optimistic - rather than the free-market fanatic he's usually described as, Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments is a warm and compassionate approach to living alongside one another - not dog it dog at all. There's something about the English...). I got side-tracked. We get Hobbes' dystopian view of people (which perhaps leaves us susceptible to right-wing populism); I imagine Hobbes's vision was transmitted to early WASP America but wasn't significant on the continent. Which begs a question: if a part of our self-identity is constructed from elements of Hobbes's misanthropy, what informs the self-identity of our brothers and sisters on the continent? A serious question, because I don't know, but I wonder if there are more 'joyful' visions across the channel...

    I also wonder if they take epistemology more seriously on the continent as well, giving more thought to ideas of truth and knowledge, but I've probably said enough already.

    * I'm aware there are far more nuances and convergences between the two schools than I've let on. But, I'm also reminded of CP Snow's essay 'The Two Cultures' (1959), that highlighted some very deep divisions between 'us' and 'them'.

  16. I'd also be inclined to blame the non-proportionality of the UK and US electoral systems. Not just because of the outcomes that produces - clearly this doesn't apply to the Brexit referendum result - but also in terms of the manipulative politics that results when raw voter numbers are not decisive.

  17. This may interest you at the LRB blog, Netanyahu and the Media by
    Yonatan Mendel, 10 May 2017.

  18. Bill Mitchell answers your question below Simon.

    The way forward for progressives

  19. Another explanation is institutional resilience. Macron's "unique" achievement owes much to the design of the Fifth Republic, specifically the two-round voting that creates an automatic centripetal bloc (a design originally aimed at marginalising the Poujadist right as much as the PCF). If we think of Brexit and Trump as of an ilk, then a notable characteristic of this "illiberal tide" is that it has succeeded first in states with the longest established liberal political systems.

    Despite facing greater economic pain and social disruption in the wake of 2008, countries with relatively recent experience of Fascism and conservative authoritarianism, such as Spain and Greece, have not succumbed. This probably has less to do with folk memories and more to do with modern political systems designed to resist just such a tide (as an aside, the right in Eastern Europe is a revival of a nationalist tradition from the early 20th century and is more conservative than populist).

    The success of the Anglophone systems was based not only on their adaptability over the 19th and 20th century but on their buttressing by new civic institutions, such as trade unions and local government, the adoption of claims to institutional roles by private enterprises like newspapers (the "fourth estate"), and the subsequent expansion of the welfare state. The problem arose when neoliberalism insisted that these auxiliary institutions, like the state itself, should respect only one value: the wisdom of the market.

    As the varied institutions of civil society were eviscerated or colonised by the market after 1980, more and more social demands were consequently directed towards the political institutions of the state. This was problematic both because of the neoliberal state's retreat from hitherto key areas of public life, such as responsibility for full employment and market regulation, and because the remaining antique forms were increasingly incapable of satisfying those demands.

    Those political institutions have increasingly revelled in their own powerlessness and used it to excuse inaction, e.g. the gridlock in Congress and MPs' insistence that Brussels was making all the laws. What the cack-handed management of the EU referendum proved (ironically) was that parliamentary sovereignty was a dead letter. What Trump proved was that the Republican Party was simply an organised scam.

    A key enabler of this has been the growing power of autonomously partisan media since the 1980s. The media have always been partisan, but this meant supporting a particular party or faction and taking an ideological lead from politicians. Since the 80s, and the growing profusion of media driven by privatisation and technology, partisanship has become a commodity in its own right. This has encouraged media owners to become ideological sponsors (e.g. Brexit), or even active players (e.g. Berlusconi), and has made them more promiscuous in their factional support (consider the flip from Johnson to May).

    It is no coincidence that France lacks a press equivalent to the British tabloids (note the bland coverage of the 11th hour leak of the Macron campaign emails). The problem is that Macron's policies are likely to reinforce the same neoliberal tendencies that will eventually degrade French media to the same level as the UK and US, and thereafter degrade its political institutons to the point where a Le Pen might finally come to power.

  20. It was the British elitist's that still think "UK" exceptionalism should not be beholden to the dollar. Basically you have 4 different factions. Half of the commodity money loving conservatives, the other half of the "fiat" loving dollar conservatives, "centre-left" who basically side with the latter conservatives on money and the real left which I would include Nazis in that group.

    Brexit was very much a elitist move. It was powered by the Rothschild and their lackey Rupert Murdoch. Nobody has suffered worse than when the house of Rothschild crashed in 1929 and the Socialists tried to make a power play in the aftermath. The end result was the death of the gold backed pound and commodity money that the Rothschild used to run the financial world since the late 1600's.

    Breaking the dollars control is a wet dream of many people in the world. IMO, the UK fell for it despite knowing the "populist/nationalist" SNP would love for any reason to dissolve the UK. The UK should have only left the EU with a united "empire" and they did not. Now liquidation of the UK is very possible. The fact so many Tories are buying property on the mainland is pretty damning. I bet Muslims street gangs control "Little England" before to long while all the white people flee to the mainland. Maybe that was the EU's plan all along. Use Little England as a dumping ground for Muslims similar to how the US used New York as a prison for criminals in Carpenter's "Escape from New York" poetry.

  21. I'm pretty sure I'm being naive here but I have to ask.

    Are there any top Tories who've said to their colleagues: "Aren't you being dishonest blaming immigration for faltering wages and public services, when it's really our fault?"

    I mean, do committees of senior Tories sit around and think up ways of deceiving the public? "Will they fall for this explanation of low wages, Lynton?"
    "Well Mrs May, the focus groups tell us that they will."

  22. The one thing missing from this analysis is the role of electoral systems. First-past-the-post is a one shot winner-takes-all system which encourages (a) gaming of the voting system and (b) shuts minority view out of the formal political system. There's lots of evidence of voter suppression in the US, and some in the UK; the US political system is formally funded by corporate money, the UK informally so; the reason that there are no charges so far on electoral overspending in marginal constituencies in the UK is not because it didn't happen but because the law is poorly drafted.
    On point (b), in some kind of proportional electoral system, the voices that expressed themselves in the Brexit referendum (and were all but shut out of Parliament) would have had representation already in the political system, and would be part of the compromise and coalition building that goes on in such systems.

  23. the e u has had its own experiment going for the last two decades [ or more ] .
    so yes , less focus on neo liberalism , and modern sociology .

    i like the term managed democracy .
    talk radio and fox news provide diversity in the us .
    to offfset the much derided msm .
    the u k of course doesnt do this .
    does diversity mean democracy is managed by the rich in the u s ?
    while in the u k it is managed by the scrupluously neutral bbc .
    ho ho .

    brexit was complicated .
    a vote against the e u , london centric left wing politics .
    and mass migration .
    funny how left wing echo chamber blogs are just focusing on the last these days .

    yes, brexit is a threat to global business interests .
    as in theory trump might be .

    but trump didnt drain the swamp .
    an investment banker is now in charge of france .
    and another in charge of the boe .

    bernie sanders was defeated .
    and corbyn might be gone soon .

    so after a respectable time out of government , the clinton / new labour , public / private partnership might be back .

    a return to left wing authoritarian populism , ie the imposition of political correcctness .
    while the economics will take the form of allowing investment bankers to run the show .

    yes , again , a good choice of words .
    the dark times could soon shortly return .

    its not clear to some , they have yet to go away .

  24. Simon, you need to be careful with empirical reality and causation. To wit: Russians lived a long time under an authoritarian system, in more recent memory--yet have returned to it, with much social support.

  25. For me political ignorance ranks high on the list those that support right wing Neo-Liberals.

    I remember back in the early 1970s that Milton Friedman was given unprecedented coverage by the BBC on his political theories, which was ably challenged by the then young John Eatwell, now baron Eatwell. I note today that the BBC has not presented any alternative views to the madness that Friedman and Hayek have propagated throughout the world. Eatwell absolutely destroyed Milton Friedman explaining that wherever his madness was explored those countries economies collapsed. The evidence was also there for all to see and his answer back was, that those countries of course did not cut deep enough or fast enough and so failed.

    I personally believed at that time, that no-one or country would be stupid enough to adopt this maniacs ideas, what we did not know then but of course do now is the Neo-Liberalism spreads it's tentacles in every aspect of the political landscape and that it had long term objectives that permeated our education system, government, and outside institutions that were just establishing themselves. George Monboit's Dark Money article in the Guardian delves into how this sinister system has evolved.

    Corruption has been a major influence on events throughout the period where Neo-Liberalism has taken hold, most glaringly here in Britain was the MPs allowances scandal, certain politicians were treated with a slap on the wrist for very large sums of money, i.e. David Laws: He held the office of Chief Secretary to the Treasury for 17 days before resigning due to the disclosure of his Parliamentary expenses claims, described by the Parliamentary Standards and Privileges Committee as "a series of serious breaches of the rules, over a considerable period of time" albeit unintended – the Commissioner found "no evidence that [he] made his claims with the intention of benefiting himself or his partner in conscious breach of the rules."[1] His was among the six cabinet resignations during the expenses scandal and he was suspended from Parliament for seven days by vote of the House of Commons, just a mere £100,000 and at the other end of the scale a left wing MP Elliot Morley was imprisoned for £32,000 along with two others.

    The remarks made in David Laws defence resonate perfectly with the CPS's over the Tory MPs Fraud case. Need we say more?

    Our whole democratic system has been hijacked by a few powerful and ruthless people that have institutionalised the premise that government doesn't serve people, and in the process made sure that is the case.

    That is why this election is so crucial and why the stakes are so high.

    It is incumbent that all decent people everywhere do everything in their power to thwart this objective, because to sit back and do nothing will render us all into serving the interests of the few.

  26. Right wing populism?!? Tony Benn should be rolling in his grave by now. Brexit has a right wing and a left wing narrative. You should ask yourself why is the UK so immune to far right ideas. France, Holland, Austria, Hungary, Poland have all had very successful fascist parties in recent elections. The more you continue to think of Brexit as right wing the more time you loose without an effort to understand the Brexit revolution. Quoting again the excellent "Road to somewhere", it was the success of the two liberalisms (social and economic) that left the somehweres behind. Read again Teresa May's speech in September. She got it before anybody....

  27. In our limited democracy these are things that we don’t have much of :

    1. fixed-term parliaments
    2. proportional representation
    3. high turn-outs
    4. compulsory voting (or at least, say, massive press and TV campaigns urging people to register to vote).

    It all seems to have served the Conservatives well.

    Let’s make the safe assumption that they will win the general election and serve for another five years until 2022, when it will be 77 years from 1945. This was the year in which the UK elected its first-ever majority Labour government.

    Over those 77 years we will have had 19 months of Conservative government for every 12 months of Labour.

  28. I'm surprised you don't mention that they are the countries with the largest and most persistent trade deficits and deindustrialization over the last thirty years.

    France and Italy have had high unemployment and stagnation, but not large trade deficits. Greece, Spain and Portugal's trade deficits were temporary affairs due to the swings in eurozone capital flows, now being rebalanced via internal devaluation.

    In contrast, the UK and USA's trade deficits are structural and long-term.

  29. Trump has not been 'embraced' by the Republican Party. In fact, the party has done almost everything possible in an attempt to under-mine or hijack his policies. There are a number of similar assumptions in this work that should be reexamined. w/o a strict epistemology, you'll never get to the bottom of populism, let alone understand why your policies keep failing, in spite of your models and algorithms. A few clues may be found here:


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.