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Illiberal, Nativist Populism: Is Economic Insecurity the Cause?

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Presentation to the International Studies Association Annual Meeting
San Francisco, April 7, 2018

 By Larry Diamond

I have two purposes in this paper. The first is conceptual. Nationalist and xenophobic sentiments—different versions of “America first” and “build a wall”— seem to be sweeping through the advanced industrial democracies. How should we define and think about these various political movements? I argue that they are best understood as expressions of nativist, illiberal populism, rather than nationalism per se, since they are often quite friendly to external actors, like Russia and China, who pose grave threats to the real national interest. Second, what is driving growing support for illiberal nativist parties and movements? My answer here will be somewhat speculative, but I do not believe the evidence supports a strictly economic interpretation of the causes. My argument is that these movements are best seen as opportunistic, demagogic efforts to exploit status and identity insecurities as well as a classic sociological cleavage between urban cosmopolitans and rural traditionalists. These anxieties often interact with economic insecurity, but economic insecurity alone is not sufficient to induce support for nativist populism. This requires an identity grievance that renders people ripe for the politics of nativist resentment.

The Global Context of Deepening Democratic Recession

Before we address the nature and causes of the illiberal populist wave, it is important to understand the larger context of global democratic recession. I believe this recession began around 2006-2007, when roughly a quarter century of steady expansion in electoral democracy, liberal democracy, and political rights and civil liberties drew to a halt. For most of the last dozen years, his political recession has been a mild (and even debatable) phenomenon, most evident in the cessation of democratic expansion. In addition, average levels of freedom in the world (as measured by Freedom House) have been declining, with the number of countries declining in freedom outstripping the number gaining in every one of the last eleven years (pretty much reversing the pattern of the first fifteen years after the Cold War). Less noticed has been the rising rate of democratic failure: About one in six democracies failed in the first decade of the Third Wave (1975-84); then the failure rate declined to a little less than ten percent in the subsequent two decades; and now in the past decade or so it is again approaching the rate (above 15 percent) of those early years of the Third Wave.

Three inter-related trends have recently persuaded a growing number of observers and analysts that the global conditions for freedom and democracy are clearly trending downward. First are the growing signs of a democratic distemper or recession that is spreading to the core liberal democracies in Europe and the United States. For a number of years now, scholarship has focused on the growing dysfunction and polarization of American democracy, and the long-term secular declines in confidence in government to do the right thing (which has fallen in half from the Reagan years, to about one in five Americans) and trust in political institutions (with now less than ten percent of Americans expressing confidence in the Congress). But until 2016, virtually no one anticipated that an illiberal populist demagogue could—and indeed would—get elected to the presidency. More generally, nativist and illiberal populisms are gaining electoral ground across many advanced liberal democracies, and we now have an instance democratic failure in a EU nation—Hungary—at the hands of a nativist, illiberal populist party and leader (Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party). The ruling illiberal populist Law and Justice Party is eroding democracy in Poland as well, and there are reasons to be concerned about other post-communist EU democracies, along with the growth in support for various kinds of populist and illiberal parties and movements even in Western Europe. Since the dawn of democracy’s Third Wave, this is the first time that serious doubts have arisen about the future of democracy in the advanced liberal democracies.

Second, the erosion or malfunctioning of democracy in liberal democracy’s core is part of a broader downward shift in the entire spectrum of regimes. Some liberal democracies are showing increasing signs of illiberalism, de- institutionalization, and, Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk even provocatively suggest, “de-consolidation.” But in recent years we have also seen declines in the quality or stability of democracy in less well entrenched liberal democracies (e.g., South Africa, Botswana, Mongolia, and Brazil); the breakdown of prominent (illiberal) electoral democracies—such as Thailand, Turkey, and Bangladesh; decay or growing vulnerability in other electoral democracies (the Philippines, Indonesia, perhaps Mexico); the quashing of pluralism and competitiveness in “competitive authoritarian” regimes, from Venezuela to Uganda and Cambodia; the failure of all the Arab Spring political uprisings save for Tunisia; the stalling of the transition in Burma into an increasingly illiberal and military-dominated competitive authoritarian regime; and the intensification of authoritarianism in already very authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China, Egypt, and Iran.

This leads to the third recent trend: The relative rising power of Russia and especially China, and the growing tendency of autocrats worldwide to identify with these powerful autocracies and cite them as models. Even if publics in these other countries remain skeptical or even resentful of Chinese neo-imperialism, China and Russia—through their increasingly resourceful and multidimensional projection of sharp power—and authoritarian ruling elites in various African, Asian, and post- communist countries are constantly propagating the message that democracy is passé, that it leads to chaos and stagnation, and that concentrated power is the path to progress. This ideological counter-narrative is giving birth to a new authoritarian global zeitgeist.

The reasons for the ebbing of global democratic progress have been several.

• Nothing expands forever, and it was virtually inevitable that after freedom and democracy had spread to unprecedented lengths around the world, it would recede in some of the countries and regions with the weakest structural and historical conditions for sustaining it (low-income countries, deeply ethnically divided countries, countries with no prior experience of democracy, and countries living in bad neighborhoods, like the periphery of Russia).
• During the Third Wave of democratization, the commitment of powerful Western democracies, particularly the United States, to promoting democracy and supporting democratic parties and civil society actors played a vitally important role in encouraging democratic change and discouraging rollbacks of democratic progress. The debacle of American intervention in Iraq gave democracy promotion a bad name and eroded domestic American commitment to it, leading the liberal democracies (and most consequentially, the United States) to downgrade democracy promotion in foreign policy and foreign aid.
• The financial crisis of 2008 had longer-lingering effects in some countries than we perhaps realized at the time, and the downward pressure on real incomes of the working and middle classes interacted with longer-term  trends of economic stagnation and insecurity to make significant segments of the electorate in the U.S. and many European countries more susceptible to the appeals of nativist, populist, and illiberal alternatives to the established political parties.
• Increasing globalization—movements across border of capital, goods, services, but most of all people—added to the anxiety of many voters who felt that the sovereignty and integrity of their nation was under assault, thus driving a nativist and illiberal backlash against immigration, trade, and the EU. I expand on this point in particular later in the paper.
• Income inequality within advanced industrial nations has been steadily getting worse, as a result of globalization, technological change, and the lack of accountability and regulation of the financial sector. In the United States, since 1979, the income gains of the top one percent of households have dwarfed those of lower and middle-income earners (as a result of which, their share of total U.S. household income has more than doubled, from ten percent to over twenty percent).
• Finally, social media have proved a fertile milieu and set of tools for polarizing (wittingly and unwittingly) democratic publics, sowing doubts about democracy and mobilizing disaffected citizens into new, populist, anti- establishment movements and appeals.

The result of all of this is that we have now entered a new era of much broader and more palpable erosion of freedom and democracy. There is even a gathering sense among observers that liberal democracy may be facing its most

serious challenge since the radical upheavals of the mid-1970s. This is all by way of setting the historical context for the period we are in.

Illiberal Nativist Populism

The essence of populism is that it is:

1. Anti-elitist, condemning the corrupt dominance of established elites whose interests do not align with the majority of the people.
2. Anti-institutionalist, arguing that at least some established institutions (including potentially the party system) are perpetuating the unfairness that is being inflicted on the people, and must be abandoned or reformed.
3. Plebiscitary, favoring mass mobilization of the popular majority, and a direct relationship between the populist leader or movement and the people, rather than the indirect filters of public opinion through representative democracy that the American constitutional founders favored as a check on the potential for “tyranny of the majority.”
4. Therefore, majoritarian, in its desire to empower strong, energetic elected government that can overcome the establishment bias to perpetuate the status quo.

Three additional elements of populism, which are now rife in the current era, make it especially dangerous to democracy. The new forms of populism are most frequently:

5. Anti-pluralist (hegemonic): Rejecting democratic pluralism and treating its leader and party s the only true, legitimate expression of the popular will.
6. Illiberal: Seeking to restrict the rights of political, racial, ethnic and other minorities, or simply seeking in general to erode freedom of thought, information, and expression, or the ability of people in society and the media to criticize the elected populist leader.
7. Nativist: Mobilizing ethnocentric images of threat and visceral prejudice against immigrants and citizens of different racial, religious, and cultural backgrounds from the dominant national majority. If one studies the rhetoric of European nativist parties, it is not difficult to discern a broader narrative that at least borders on racism.

In an important effort to distinguish among the “challengers to liberal democracy,” Takis Pappas argues that the merely nativist parties, such as the FN (as it has been “restyled” under Marine Le Pen), the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), are neither populist nor illiberal because they are not “against political liberalism for the natives,” they are not unwilling to join in coalition governments, and they are “fully committed to parliamentary democracy and constitutional legality.” This is a line of argument that, at a minimum, has not been fully tested (and hopefully never will be), but even now it must be acknowledged that some of these parties have deeply illiberal origins and harbor at least some much more blatantly extremist (illiberal) elements, including a wing of the now booming Alternative for Germany with neo-Nazi sympathies. The real distinction that must be made is between parties that take a reasoned stand in favor of stricter rules for immigration (which can be entirely liberal and democratic) and parties that in practice, if not as a matter of party policy, mix up opposition to liberal immigration policies with illiberal, nativist demonizing of Muslims, Africans, and other racial and religious minorities. The history of nativist parties and movements in the United States certainly inspires no grounds for confidence in their commitment to liberal values. All cultural exclusionary political projects tend to slide down the slippery slope of anti-pluralist illiberalism.

The Rise of Illiberal Nativist Populism

Populist parties and politicians espousing rightwing, illiberal, nativist platforms have been gaining throughout Europe, and in the person of Donald Trump, have captured the White House and transformed one of the two dominant political parties in the United States. Beyond the stunning electoral victories of Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland, other such parties have taken at least partial control of government in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and have made impressive electoral strides, short of winning outright power, in a number of other European countries.

By 2017, populist parties had won power in seven Central and East European countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Serbia); they had joined as junior coalition partners in two more; and they constituted the primary opposition in another three. Between 2000 and 2017, the average populist vote share in the region more than tripled, to 32 percent, and the number of populist parties doubled (to 28). These were not always rightwing; some center-left parties were also willing to exploit nativist fears. “Hoping to deprive other nationalists of political oxygen,” and bleeding support from a series of corruption scandals, Slovakia’s Social Democratic Prime Minister, Robert Fico, campaigned for reelection in 2016 by trying to harness anti-immigration and anti- Muslim sentiment (with such vows as “I will never allow a single Muslim immigrant under a quota system”). Although he returned as prime minister, it was only at the helm of a fragmented coalition, as his party lost 40 percent of its seats. But with the rising xenophobic mood, a neo-Nazi party entered Slovakia’s parliament for the first time, winning nearly 10 percent of the seats, and the total vote share of right and left populist parties swelled to a majority.

Immigration and National Identity in Central and Eastern Europe

Driving the illiberal slide in Europe beginning in 2015 (when the PiS came to power in Poland) was an intense reaction, especially within Central and Eastern Europe, to Europe’s refugee crisis, the EU’s common asylum policies, and its “compulsory quotas to redistribute refugees among EU member states.” In angrily rejecting this shared humanitarian burden, the Visegrád countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) “re-opened an East-West divide within the EU over the definition of national and European identity.” As a result of “the mass murders and forced expulsions perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin,” these four countries had been rendered ethnically homogeneous, giving them none of the social diversity that Western Europe, “with its postcolonial legacies and economic migrations” across the Mediterranean, had experienced in recent decades. Thus, even though these countries hosted some of the lowest proportions of foreign-born (near zero in Poland, under five percent in Slovakia and Hungary, and seven percent in the Czech Republic, compared to roughly 13 percent in Germany and the UK), they were the most vulnerable to demagogic fear mongering. Railing against a “Muslim invasion,” Orbán engineered a surge in his declining popularity while Kaczyński’s PiS became the first Polish party after communism to win an outright majority of seats in parliament (albeit with only 38 percent of the vote). The two leaders solidified the new East-West divide in a December 2015 meeting, where they jointly committed to the twin goals of “illiberal democracy”: popular sovereignty over the rule of law, and national sovereignty over EU dictates. Now, power was not to be restrained by any independent check—courts, auditors, media, or European rules

The migration crisis was alarming to many CEE societies that had little direct exposure to Islam or racial diversity. But it was hardly the only driver of political change. Neither was economic recession always a trigger. Polish voters had their share of grievances over “job insecurity, a poor small-business climate, and unsatisfactory public services.” Yet Poland’s economy increased by two- thirds between 2000 and 2014 and was  growing respectably (at  3.5  percent) in the year of the PiS electoral landslide (2015). In democracies, one can never dismiss the cyclical readiness for political change—after eight years of rule by a smart and liberal yet slightly boring and detached ruling coalition. In 2015, PiS had the fresher message, the snappier command of social media, and the more generous social welfare promises.

However, the surge of illiberal populism took root in a deeper economic and sociological divide separating urban, younger, better-educated and more mobile cosmopolitans from rural, small-town, older, and less-educated adherents to national, religious, and cultural tradition. In Central and Eastern Europe, these were easily seen, respectively, as the “winners” and “losers” of the postcommunist era’s market reforms and European integration (indeed, “globalization”).
Culturally and geographically, the fissures could be traced back to the late eighteenth century, and in any case the same type of social divide between winners and losers from globalization was starting to fuel a populist wave in the West as well (see below). Historically, fear of collapsing economic security and social status has always provided fodder for extremist movements. In his classic mid-century work, Political Man, Seymour Martin Lipset identified declining middle class groups as a crucial base of support for right-wing extremist movements, in reaction—even revenge—against sweeping social and economic changes, big, impersonal corporations and institutions, and urban, intellectual elites. In  addition, authoritarian appeals have always tended to find greater resonance among people in more rural and isolated areas, less exposed to a diversity of people and views—farmers, miners, and small-town laborers and small business owners.

A related cultural factor was also at work. In  much  of  postcommunist  Europe, liberal values never became deeply entrenched the  way  they  did  in  Western Europe, and civil society was generally weaker and less political. This rendered “Eastern European societies … more vulnerable to attacks on abstract liberal institutions such as freedom of speech and judicial independence,” and on postmodern liberal values like secularism, feminism, and LGBT rights. Even  a portion of Poland’s prospering middle class rallied behind a  cultural  backlash against those “perceived as inferior, from refugees to depraved elites to cliquish judges.”

Wrestling with the stresses and shocks of social and economic change, de- industrialization, foreign investment, and now the surge of refugee migration, politicians of different ideological stripes discovered the electoral virtues of nativist populism. Left and Right began to blur, as cultural and economic nationalism merged. Opportunists on the left embraced the new xenophobic mood, and, with Orbán paving the way, opportunists on the right discarded market principles in favor of social welfare and suspicion of foreigners. Supplanting the old ideological divide between pro-market right and pro-welfare left was a new one pitting illiberal nationalists against pro-European liberals.

The Nativist Populist Backlash in Western Europe

Throughout Western Europe as well, more and more people have come to “associate migration with the rising risk of terror attacks, with the Islamization of their societies, and with the overburdening of the welfare state.” The result has been growing anxiety and fear—“fear that foreigners are taking over their countries and endangering their way of life.” Internal migration within the EU only exacerbated the anxiety, helping to deliver a shocking British vote for Brexit on June 23, 2016. That vote came after a decade of surging migration from Central and Eastern Europe, nearly half of the total net migration to Britain of over a quarter million annually in the years before the Brexit vote. By 2016, Britain hosted some three and a half million migrants from other EU countries, two thirds of them holding jobs. The proportion of voters naming immigration as one of Britain’s most important issues soared from 3 percent in 1997 to 40 percent in 2007, after which the issue routinely ranked as one of the top two, “even in the depths of the financial crisis and the recession.”

Surging immigration in Britain fed “growing value divides over national identity, diversity and multiculturalism.” These, once again, pitted socially conservative, less educated, working-class white voters who felt “left behind” by social and economic change against highly educated, cosmopolitan young urbanites, who, whatever their race or ethnicity, saw “national identity as a matter of civic attachment, not ethnic ancestry.” As older, white, and working-class voters outside the big cities grew alienated from the Labor Party and felt ignored by the Conservatives, too, they drifted out of politics, or to the far-right British National Party, and eventually to the anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). By 2015, the latter had become Britain’s third largest party, winning one of every eight votes. A year later, the “left behind” constituencies—with high concentrations of pensioners, white working class, and shuttered factories—combined with the prosperous but less racially diverse Conservative suburbs to produce huge votes for Brexit, giving the referendum its narrow (52 percent) majority.

Brexit was a turn away from integration, not from liberal democracy. But its support base was strikingly similar to that gathering behind anti-immigrant populist parties across Europe—and behind Donald Trump in the United States. In parliamentary elections, populist parties fared distinctly less well in Western Europe than they did in the East, but their average vote share there crept up to 13 percent by 2017. With that very percentage, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AFD)—which contains a substantial far-right faction that “shades over into ethnic and even racist nationalism”—entered parliament for the first time in 2017 as Germany’s third largest party. With the late rise of the charismatic centrist, Emmanuel Macron, from outside the established party system, the anti-immigrant National Front (FN) suffered a decisive defeat in the 2017 presidential election. But in winning a third of the vote, FN leader Marine Le Pen doubled the party’s best previous showing and positioned it as a possible future alternative if Macron fails as president. While the right-wing populist Freedom Party failed in its 2017 electoral bid to lead government in Austria (as it had narrowly failed the previous year to win the ceremonial presidency), it won more than a quarter of the vote and became an influential coalition partner.

Even in Europe’s historically most liberal democracies, nativist populist parties have been gaining as the proportion of immigrants has risen to 17 percent in Sweden, 12 to 14 percent in the Netherlands and Norway, and nine percent in Denmark. The populist anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats won 13 percent of the vote in 2014, nearly doubling their seats in parliament. A similar formation, the Danish Peoples Party, nearly doubled its vote share in 2015 (to 21 percent), becoming Denmark’s second largest party.  In the Netherlands, the far-right  Freedom Party also won 13 percent of the vote (though less than many had feared) after promising “to reverse the ‘Islamization’ of the Netherlands by … closing mosques and Islamic schools, securing borders, banning the Koran, … banning Muslim migrants and forbidding women from wearing headscarves.”

In Western as in Eastern Europe, rightwing populist parties mobilize fear that immigration will erase cultural heritage and national identity. Thus, these parties favor strict limits on immigration and requirements for cultural assimilation. Some, like the Sweden Democrats and Alternative for Germany, have at least some roots in previous fascist, Nazi, and white supremacist movements. Some, like the French FN and the Austrian Freedom Party, have officially shed their earlier histories of neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic sympathies, evolving toward a more mainstream mélange of nativism, anti-immigration, libertarianism, anti- globalization, and social welfare programs for the indigenous population. Many have factions that are more extreme than the official face of the party. With some ambiguous exceptions (e.g., Hungary’s Jobbik) European populist parties are not overtly anti-democratic. But in their demagogic appeals to the “true” people and their hostility to pluralism, minority rights, foreign influences, and the deliberative elements of representative democracy, they embody the spirit of illiberal, nativist— and potentially authoritarian—populism.

The history of nativist parties and movements in the United States certainly inspires no grounds for confidence in nativist parties’ commitment to liberal values. All cultural exclusionary political projects tend to slide down the slippery slope of anti-pluralist illiberalism. And it is no coincidence that right-wing social conservatives have repeatedly evinced an affinity for authoritarianism. Indeed, they flocked to just such a candidate in the United States in 2016: Donald Trump.

The Rise of Authoritarian Populism in the U.S.

When Donald Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016—the 27th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—Europe’s authoritarian populists celebrated. “Orban was euphoric. ‘I feel liberated’, he said, from the constraints of the European Union and political correctness.”

Long before the Brexit vote, Donald Trump identified the voter base for a populist assault on the liberal institutions and values of American democracy. The American Orbán targeted the same constituencies that have powered nativist  populist gains across Europe: older white working and middle class voters, outside the major urban centers, who feel threatened by de-industrialization, immigration, globalization, drugs, the erosion of traditional values, and the rapid influx of new cultural norms associated with multiculturalism, gay rights, feminism and  everything “politically correct.” As adroitly as Orbán and Kaczyński at their most demagogic moments, the former reality TV star painted a stark portrait of the threat from Mexican and Muslim immigration.

The unifying thread of Trump’s campaign was manipulation of grievances and threats: of immigrants, terrorism, Muslims, minorities, gangs, violence, and crime, especially by immigrants; of a hostile world cheating us in trade, stealing our jobs, and attacking our people and interests; of lies and betrayal and weakness by the country’s political establishment. No significant presidential candidate since George Wallace in 1968 had played so blatantly to racial prejudice and fear, to anxieties about crime, social change, and foreign influence.

Underlying partisan realignment have been deeper geographic shifts in economic activity and social values and identity. As Jonathan Rodden explains in a forthcoming book, manufacturing moved from the dense northeastern cities to more sparsely populated exurban and rural areas with cheap land and labor. These rural areas (not just in the south) shifted heavily Republican, and religious and social conservatives flocked to the Republican Party. Democrats became more exclusively a party of the post-industrial, socially liberal cities, with their much greater ethnic diversity, their high rates of public sector unionization, and their immersion in globalization, immigration, innovation, and the knowledge economy. Thus, political polarization in the United States (and other advanced democracies) now falls heavily along the urban-rural divide.

The culturally conservative heartland dwellers view the urban knowledge elite—“people who work in academia, the professions, the entertainment industry, the media, and the higher levels of government”—as arrogant and condescending. They feel they are losing ground economically, but even more so symbolically, that the cultural elite is biased toward every identity group but the white working class. Now, rural and exurban whites have themselves become an identity group, seeking to recover a lost sense of recognition and respect. The quest for dignity has been driving a broad “politics of resentment,” which has sent polarizing figures like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker to governor’s mansions and fueled the political rise of the Tea Party and then Donald Trump. Trump instinctively grasped how to exploit this cultural grievance, winning over 70 percent of the vote among whites with no college education. And he won 80 percent of America’s 3,000 counties (most of them thinly populated), while Hillary Clinton won 88 of the 100 largest counties.


I intend for this paper to provoke analytic debate, not to settle it. Clearly, a large portion of the electoral constituency for nativist populism in Europe and the United States can be found among voters who feel economically insecure as a result of de-industrialization, globalization, the decline of trade unions, rising income inequality, and growing concentration and lack of accountability of financial power. These forces no doubt incline such voters toward populist and anti-establishment parties and appeals. But they do not explain why it is specifically nativist, xenophobic parties and politicians who successfully mobilize their feelings of anxiety and resentment. To understand the recent success of nativist populism, we must closely examine rising feelings of cultural identity and insecurity in the wake of rapid social changes. Among these powerful forces of social change is increased and in many European countries historically high levels of immigration. But this is interacting with other trends that are shifting social status and economic power and opportunity ever more decisively to the cities and the knowledge elite. Collectively, these changes are driving important social constituencies—especially more rural, white, religious, and traditional voters—to feel culturally threatened and resentful, and to be primed for the appeals of illiberal, nativist populism. As traditional left parties are discovering across Europe, appeals to economic interest alone will not induce these constituencies to spurn the siren song of nativist populism. Progressives—and all responsible political forces that believe in the value of cultural pluralism—will need to craft a broader agenda and message that speaks to deeper anxieties.