Is populism dangerous

When is populism dangerous?

Historically, populism has come in many forms. For example, he has enabled disadvantaged groups in South America to have a better life. Today's populism is directed against international agreements such as the climate treaty, human rights and disarmament. It prevents the reform of the European Union and cooperation on problems that can only be solved together (climate, security, migration). The AfD demands the abolition of the euro and the fight against the crisis by the European Central Bank, Italy violates deficit limits, Eastern European countries rely on coal and do not implement climate treaties.

Three populist groups are running for the European elections in May: Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) with the five-star movement from Italy and the AfD from Germany, Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENL), with representatives of the parties from Le Pen and Salvini, and European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) with the Polish PiS and the Sweden Democrats. If the three populist groups work together and have a say in some governments, they can decisively influence the appointment of the EU Commission after the elections.

Before the election, populists are hiding their secret agenda, be it Marine Le Pen or the Sweden Democrats. They "only" rely on unrealistic reforms with the intention of demanding the exit of their country if these demands are not met precisely. Addressing the goal of leaving one's own country is avoided, as surveys in every country show a majority in favor of further EU membership.

Difference to a popular political presentation

The recent wave of populism has three patterns that distinguish it from the rhetoric of "popular" politicians. The first is the deliberate polarization of society through a homogeneous "people" on the one hand and a corrupt foreign-controlled "elite" on the other. The second is a negatively distorted representation of reality: it is simply wrong that income, jobs and quality of life are worse today than in the "glorious" past. The third pattern is the call for re-nationalization of politics, even if more and more problems require joint solutions and the variety of goods resulting from trade increases welfare and purchasing power, especially of the underprivileged classes. Inflation, which used to be in the double digits, is below three percent.

Four driving forces and one turbo

First of all, populism is nourished by economic problems: these include unemployment, inequality, low income growth or, for example, the emigration of young people from the Eastern European member states. This often takes place in regions that were dominated by traditional industry.

Second, globalization and technological change create fear and uncertainty. These are accompanied by fears of relegation and loss of status; earlier qualifications become less attractive.

The third "cultural" cause are liberal values ​​such as gender equality, protection of minorities and openness to new forms of coexistence. Not all people can get used to the dominance of these values; Populists are becoming the mouthpiece of the previously silent resistance.

Ultimately, policy failure and poor advice from the economy are a cause. Globalization and European integration are an advantage for the majority. However, both also prevent traditional instruments of economic policy, such as subsidies and preferential treatment for national providers. New economic policy instruments would have to enable the losers to switch to the winning side, for example in more pleasant, self-determined activities. If economic and educational policy fails, people lose confidence in politics.

The effect of all of these causes is compounded by the fear of migration. This is the turbo that makes creeping, underestimated problems the central issue in the elections.

Who Votes Populists? How do they cement their power?

Low-income groups and the middle class with an apprenticeship or high school diploma are increasingly voting for populist parties; also older people, men and people in rural areas. As income rises, approval for populist promises falls. This corresponds to the modernization theory: the wealthier people are, the more they tend towards democracy and openness.

In industrial areas, the proportion of votes for populists is higher. The increase in alternative but poorly paid jobs (or part-time work) does not help because it increases the fear of decline or requires tedious and time-consuming commuting. However, the populist voter share is lower in regions where there are more migrants, and it decreases for people who know migrants personally. The fear of migration is a turbo, even if there is no regional immigration (as in Hungary) or the personal experience with migration is positive. The decisive factor for how high the electoral successes of populists are is whether the mainstream parties are trusted to solve problems.

Populism is dangerous if its formulas for closing borders and terminating international treaties not only do not solve the economic problems, but rather aggravate them. If this becomes visible, populist governments intensify internal polarization and blame an external enemy for the failures. Then they try to change the democratic rules of the game, eliminate the independence of the courts and "occupy" the media. European rules of the game are ignored, illiberal democracies with autocratic features emerge, such as in Hungary.

Developing a counter-strategy exceeds the aim of this article. Here it can only be emphasized that a "populism light" - that is, the same politics, just a little less inhuman - is not a solution. A counter-strategy must replace the pessimistic distortion of reality with an analysis of strengths and weaknesses. The ability to turn change into an advantage must be strengthened through education and tax policies. Migration must be directed towards areas with labor shortages, its extent limited by investments in the countries of origin. A vision where every country and Europe sees its comparative advantages is necessary. Politicians must cooperate more closely with non-governmental organizations and use social media more proactively to publicly disseminate factual facts. (Karl Aiginger, 9.4.2019)

Karl Aiginger is honorary professor at the Department of Economics at WU and founder of the "lateral thinker platform". His research is devoted to European economic policy and industrial economics.

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