Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 6 July 2019

Understanding why right-wing populism succeeds

I have just been rereading “Populism and the People” by Jan-Werner Müller in the London Review of Books (May 2019). It is the most concise and I think perceptive account of the most worrying political development of our time: the rise of the right wing populist. This is Trump and Farage, but also Orbán in Hungary, Erdoğan in Turkey, Kaczyński in Poland,  Modi in India and Bolsonaro in Brazil. What they have in common is a
“populist art of governance ... based on nationalism (often with racist overtones), on hijacking the state for the ends of partisan loyalists and, less obviously, on weaponising the economy to secure political power: a combination of culture war, patronage and mass clientelism.”

But there is one standout paragraph for me, and so I will reproduce it in full.
“But have so many people really been converted to the views of the far right? Contrary to the domino theory propounded by pundits, and by the populists themselves – first Brexit, then Trump, then Le Pen etc – the fact remains that no right-wing populist has yet come to power anywhere in Western Europe or North America without the collaboration of established conservative elites. Farage did not bring Brexit about by himself; he needed Michael Gove, Boris Johnson et al to assure voters that it was a jolly good idea. Trump wasn’t elected as the leader of a spontaneous grassroots movement of – as the cliché has it – angry white working-class males; he was the candidate of the ultimate party of the establishment and needed the support of Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich – all of whom vouched for him. What happened on 8 November 2016 can in one sense be explained in the most banal terms. Citizens who identify with the Republican Party came out and did what voters do on election day: they cast a ballot for their party. What took place was utterly normal, except that the candidate himself wasn’t quite so normal.”

This process can seem perfectly normal if you take it for granted that the right has to sell out to the far right if it is to survive, and the right has no other choice. But it is not inevitable that the Conservative party sat back and allowed its ranks to be swelled by ex-UKIP members, who promptly started trying to deselect candidates who spoke out against No Deal. It was not inevitable that Cameron pledged to have a referendum on EU membership where he allowed the Leave side not to specify what kind of Brexit they were proposing. And in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Tory opposition and their backers in the right wing press did not have to start using immigration is a political weapon. It was not inevitable that Osborne chose austerity, which helped create the conditions for Brexit.

As ever, this is about going for short term gains that have the risk of far greater longer term costs. No doubt someone at Conservative party HQ thought that increasing membership had its advantages. The Conservative focus on immigration lead to the rise in UKIP, and in 2010 setting up immigration targets that were never going to be hit strengthened UKIP even further. It was that strength that led Cameron to make his ill-fated pledge. Osborne’s austerity might have embarrassed Labour and shrunk the state but it intensified anti-immigration attitudes.

But I think, in the UK at least, there is something more, and that is the normalisation of the far right by the BBC, coupled with a demonisation of the left by the centre more widely. That the BBC has been pressured by the government and its press into adopting a more favourable stance towards the Conservatives than Labour is well known and beyond dispute, except of course at the BBC. But I think that has also led to the normalisation of the far right, which is equally dangerous. It is made up of a lot of little things: unchallenged coverage of the Brexit party launch, not bothering to highlight links between Bannon and Johnson (here is ITV’s coverage), inviting a far right representative on Newsnight straight after the Christchurch terrorist attack, and so on. It is worse at the BBC, but other broadcasters are not totally innocent. The Brexit party is not a party but an organisation where no one can challenge the leader, a leader who is well versed in 1930s fascist imagery.

Coupled with the centre’s normalisation of the far right is a demonisation of the main opposition to the Conservative party. To quote Gary Young:
“Throughout this time media elites, drawn from the same class as their financial and political counterparts, have mostly been obsessed by the crisis in leadership in an ostensibly “unelectable” Labour party, which has had the same leader for four years – and gained seats and vote share in the last general election. Those media elites have called pretty much every major political event, from Brexit to the last two elections, incorrectly.”

When the democratically elected leader of a party of half a million is considered beyond the pale, you get an environment that inevitably enables the rightward drift of the other main party. Every news organisation worth its salt should be hounding Johnson about his failure to rule out proroguing parliament as a direct attack on democracy. Just as it makes no sense to balance truth with lies, it makes no sense to tolerate attacks on our democracy. Without that kind of defence from our media and politicians, it becomes an easy slide to the populism that Jan-Werner Müller talks so incisively about.


  1. How much was the date of the EU referendum calculated to help the Brexit cause, by suppressing the youth vote (due to Glastonbury and/or students just back from their term-time digs and registered to vote at the wrong address), and perhaps also the Muslim vote (23 June 2016 = 17 Ramadan 1437)

  2. Paul Krugman tweeted about this article. Pretty sure because what is happening in England and Europe applies to what is happening here.

  3. Conservative plutocrats and nativists have a political alliance. Conservatives until recent have been the controlling faction giving dogwhistles to the nativists but not really delivering.
    Now nativists have control and the conservatives follow along to win their plutocratic agenda

  4. For once I can agree with most of what is said in this article, even backed up with factual evidence. What is missing though is that the right have laid down plans to regain economic wealth and power since before the last war. When Keynes ideas became established and proved to work, this gave a greater share in the democratic process to those that had not seen anything like it before, which meant that power shifted away from the few and into the hands of the many.

    Ever since, these right wing organisations created the institutions and lobbyists that would use all their wealth and influence to bring pressure to bear which has transformed societies into believing that government was agency that did not work for them but in part impoverished them, turning the reality on its head - bribery and corruption also played a great part in this.

    Once these organisations had broken the institutions that supported people and resisted free trade free market theology, they could then sustain their hold on people by the old tactic of divide and rule. Using crises created by them they succeeded in blaming the Labour Party for the world wide financial crash which was of course caused by deregulation of the banking and financial system and not government spending.

    As we know from the 20s and 30s when we create poverty conditions the establishment blame everyone else for the crisis and dangerously employ the tactics of blaming minorities, which led to the rise of fascism, as we see in Europe today. It is clearly not rocket science that when people are told by the establishment that there is no alternative and they imagine from the propaganda they receive in the mass media that immigrants are taking up valuable resources - that are shrinking away due to government cuts, then its obvious that will inflame resentment and also excuse uncivil behaviour.

    Neo-Classical, Neo-Liberalism is the cause of everything that is going wrong in the world we live in, it has mostly to do with American Hegemony and its interests as we see by the coups they are trying to involve all of us in. Poverty and wars are a direct Neo-Liberal philosophy for the few maintaining power and wealth, and until people realise that there is a fundamental alternative which is a completely new way of life, meaning government serves the interests of people, instead of relying on corporations who's sole self serving position works against the common interest.

    In short; a sustainable economy is where governments spend into the economy before waiting for the private sector to act. The private sector is not the generator of the economy or wealth creator, they extract the wealth not produce it.

    We need to turn that philosophy on its head, government already issues the currency and can spend directly into the economy where and when it's needed, economics is not a science and those that wish to usurp people, pretend it is.

  5. Doesn't Corbyn qualify as a populist? What is 'For the many not the few' if not mass clientelism? How is Corbyn treated as 'beyond the pale'? He gets plenty of air time, just as Farage gets plenty of hostile coverage. Face the fact that as the Leader of the Labour Party it's his job to deal with the media - something that Blair did brilliantly in his time - and that he just isn't up to it.

  6. The point of all this demonisation of Labour is to deter voters from looking at its policies. From those working class people I know, including those who support Brexit, they would support most Labour party policies. However, most hold also hold to an overall narrative that it is incompetent at running the economy and will decimate the country's military. At the actual individual policy level they would almost always support Labour's over those of Farage or the Conservative party. To much immigration, they blame for queues at the GP's, lack of decent employment, housing and being treated as second class citizens. For most, they are not racist in the sense of other races being inferior or in some ways culturally different. It's about there using scarce resources, austerity has a large part to play in this. Much would fade away if the economy was performing as should be. I don't agree with these sentiments, and they know I don't, but much confirmatory bias under-rights their views. The massive cuts to the nation's military seems to have been able to pass them bye. I point out that the navy has to borrow officers from the American Coast guard and use French submarines to sweep British coastal waters for Russian submarines, but they reply if that was so it would be in the papers or the telly. what's to be done?!
    Quite how Boris, Farage and Rees-Mogg can be seen as men of the people, is an act of supreme propaganda. The greatest cultural/social weakness of the Right is that these populists believe in their people pulling together; not, individuals acting to enrich themselves - in this respect they are instinctive socialists. In part they get this from their history (namely, WWII) and football terraces; where, not sticking together can be distinctly unhealthy.
    The pragmatism of the populist right over philosophical rigour and other aspects covered by Jan-Werner Müller I had missed and are of great value.

    Though, I would add in England it's not that difficult for the populist right to say one thing and actually do the near opposite. What worries me a lot is how far can the populous be led to believe the consequences of right-wing policies are not happening, or due to unforeseen circumstances, etc. I loose sleep over that one most of all.

  7. There's nothing wrong with having a far-right talking head on after Christchurch since this is topical. Haven't you noticed they have interviewed Islamic fundamentalists? And here in Northern Ireland, the BBC (and UTV) interviews republicans and loyalists all the time: it's newsworthy!

  8. In the U.S.The populist right also aligns with the evangelicals.

  9. "I got nothing.." - Boris Johnson Truly sad to see Britannia self-destructing. "There are 2 kinds of nations - small nations, and nations not yet aware that they are small". Even the entire E.U. is less half the size of China. Better not Brexit, Britannia !

  10. "Farage did not bring Brexit about by himself; he needed Michael Gove, Boris Johnson et al to assure voters that it was a jolly good idea."

    This is a load of Tosh. Cameron set the rules such that Farage's organisation was sidelined in the campaign. This was because, rightly, he saw Farage as the main threat; so Cameron rigged the rules to ensure that Farage was not able to lead the Leave campaign.


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.