Populism is the rage. It’s on the cover of Foreign Affairs, the topic of politicians, columnists and faculty, and the apparent political trend resulting in Brexit, the Donald Trump victory, and numerous political movements and elections in Europe the last few years.
The word’s origin is mostly generic and can apply to a host of political movements, some right, some left, some benign and some ominous, but in today’s context the main features are anti-elitism and desire for a strong leader to ensure significant change. In Europe, it tends to be anti-EU, anti-immigrant and pro-Russia.
European political conversation has been dominated by talk of the sweep of populism from Poland and Hungary to Great Britain and Italy and most of the nations in between.
The year starts with the global conference in Davos where capitalists, globalists and free traders will try to account for the hostile environment. Chinese President Xi will be the ranking world leader, positioning himself and China as protectors of globalism. Conference session focuses on the dangers of anti-globalism and trade protectionism – elements in the current version of populism. Capitalism is on the defensive from the right and the left.
Italy’s pro-EU party of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum in early December to reform the sclerotic Italian government. He resigned (Obama’s last state dinner was held for him) and the populist Five Star Movement is maneuvering to win an election likely to be called this year.
Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to begin its Brexit negotiations in March. There appears little consensus on how the process will work or the objective. But the anti-immigrant, nationalist fervor that led to the Brexit vote looms as a threat to the British establishment. She appears committed to a “hard” as opposed to a “soft” exit.
France faces an election in May that will likely bring a conservative to power, with the populist Marine Le Pen leading the largest anti-immigrant, anti-EU party in close pursuit of the center-right frontrunner, François Fillon. Both candidates take a friendly position toward Russia.
The German anti-immigrant right is still too weak to derail Chancellor Angela Merkel in the September German federal elections, but they have forced Merkel to move to the right on immigration. She is now the only voice of authority for European unity and continued sanctions on Russia.