27 November 2020

A Biden presidency has little prospect of calming the nationalist wave

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In a recent burst of liberal hubris, the Washington Post argued that Joe Biden’s presidency would “bolster liberal, internationalist forces across the Atlantic” and cause the decline of the Europe’s nationalists.

But it won’t. The populist parties grew strongly before Donald Trump came to power (when it was generally agreed that Hilary Clinton would win the presidency) and will not decline – if they do – because European leaders happen to get on with Joe Biden.

These parties are still, in most countries where they operate, relatively strong. The right-populist coalition in Italy polls considerably better than the centre-left government; Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National more or less stays equal with Emmanuel Macron’s Republique En Marche!; the Swedish Democrats and the Spanish Vox remain pretty much where they were – with 15-25% of the vote. Only in Germany has the far right Alternative für Deutschland,  weakened by internal splits, dropped two or three points, as the CDU/CSU governing coalition has risen (though the AfD is still the largest opposition party in the Bundestag). The UK, as usual, has no far-right party of any importance.

In the US, the Biden victory – welcome, since it ends a presidency whose occupant’s behaviour and rhetoric disgraced his office – was nevertheless not a massive defeat of Trumpism: Trump increased his vote, and that vote is likely to remain attached to his themes, or even to him.

What’s in a name?

One thing this issue throws up is: what to call these movements?

Not, in the main, ‘far-right’, which can also mean fascist, and thus doesn’t describe parties which have taken to rooting out anti-Semites and other overt racists from their ranks, and which don’t – unlike Ireland’s Sinn Fein – have or never have had a link with a paramilitary terrorist organisation. ‘Populist’ is  stretched to cover Hungary’s Fidesz, whose leader and Prime Minister Viktor Orban promotes an ‘illiberal democracy’; Poland’s Peace and Justice governing party, whose strongest ideology is conservative Catholicism; the French Rasemblement National which defends women, gays and Jews from ‘a phalocratic, homophobic and anti-semitic Islam’; Italian Lega, which has a policy of a federalism which would take power away from a centre seen as corrupt.

Because Donald Trump’s election and Brexit came so close together, in 2016, both are routinely described as “populist”: reasonable for Trump, but misplaced for a British referendum vote which demanded to be ruled by the national parliament and whose Conservative governments turned out to be run from the centre or, in Boris Johnson’s case, from the left. Even ‘nationalism’ is inadequate – for all major parties and governments  laud their nation (and the European federalist Macron more than most). Still, it’s probably the closest one-word designation: all of these parties are strongly hostile to mass immigration, especially of Muslims.

Aggressive nationalism tend to rise when immigration does, and fears of loss of  livelihood and neighbourhood again sharpen. At a still deeper level, the ‘Four Ds’ which the political scientists Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin identify (in their National Populism: the Revolt against Liberal Democracy, 2018) –   distrust of liberal elites, feared destruction of the nation, continuing deprivation as jobs disappear through technology and globalisation and de-alignment from political parties which once provided a political and cultural home – will probably operate ever more strongly in a difficult environment once the pandemic ends.

In an exchange with Eatwell for this piece, he said that the harsher conditions post-Covid would mean that “attention will turn again to the failures of mainstream elites and of aspects of the democratic system (notably its lack of responsiveness to the concerns of ‘ordinary’ people).  On Biden, Eatwell said that “he seems to be forming a core leadership which in many ways resembles Obama’s and which will be seen by Trump supporters as a continuation of the swamp. There seems little evidence that he will seriously face old centre-left issues about equality as the Democrats have become too steeped in politically correct identity issues.”

The causes of rightist populism will not be solved quickly, by Biden or any other figure. Only large-scale, long-lasting action – on poverty, wars and corruption in developing countries, on global warming and on increasing confrontation as both China and Russia seek greater power – can address these present ills: one reason why a cut in development aid in the UK is so ill-advised. The world’s leaders, especially of the major states, must somehow find the will and wisdom to collaborate on facing these existential issues, perhaps through more reflection that a lack of solutions threatens them and their states as much as any others – a case of neglect sinking all boats.

These vast challenges, much more than European ‘nationalism’, must at some point soon become the basic stuff of politics, both national and international, if we are to avoid likely catastrophes, mainly for the parts of the world already prone to the catastrophic. But avoiding catastrophes through democratic politics is hard. The shift from national concerns and present patterns of consumption is seen, if pursued vigorously or indeed any more than very gradually, as electoral death. The creation and prolonged militancy of the French gilets jaunes, furious at a rise in diesel prices decreed by a Parisian liberal elite administration, forced a climb down by Macron – a warning to all his governing colleagues.

The structure of democratic politics no longer allows these global menaces to be accepted as legitimate by very large sections of a democratic citizenry. Especially in the United States, where personal freedom is elevated to an absolute when seen to be under any sort of threat, the necessary complexities of the global dangers and the action essential to lessen them are increasingly rejected.

Only a devolution of political power and with it responsibility to communities and associations, to citizens with no official or electoral status, can begin to have the intricacies of contemporary and future existence on this globe grasped, and tough action given assent. Political rhetoric, informative and alarming websites and broadcasts, so-far isolated storms here and floods there will not serve – until the local and community and workplace structures of debate and decision are created. Otherwise the knowledgeable liberals (and conservatives) remain elite: the majority prone to ‘populism’.

Joe Biden, proud of his humble roots and plain common sense,  could help in providing a route into that. It will be a long, hard slog for  a man nearing 80, but some success in this could make his a landmark presidency. 

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.