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Why Is The Populist Right Winning The 21st Century?

Most of all, we must realize the future does not necessarily belong to the right. But increased popular engagement - not just sharing Facebook posts - is needed: this is an age of political realignment, and one must stand up and be counted.
Jonathan Bachman via Getty Images

The left has, once again, lost a must-win election. The wholly unsurprising victory of Donald Trump and his installation in the White House is a cataclysm decades in the making. Trump himself probably does not have a fixed political ideology, but the populist right vote he represents has proven strong enough to seize power and challenge the social and economic consensus that emerged after the Second World War ended. Much type has been spent describing this resurgence of nationalist vitriol as a sign of how the economic Orthodoxy of our age has failed. Yet this is a battle over identity, culture and values as much as economic systems.

As ever, the right needs an economic crisis, hence Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and others. Globalization has created millions of 'left behind' voters who are disenfranchised from the liberal democracies that represent them. This is why it cannot do to dismiss all those who vote for right-wing parties as crackpots and racists: some undoubtedly fit such a description, but the struggles of many, rooted in reality and experience, do not necessarily lead them to these conclusions. In any event it is not just the extreme right but huge numbers of ordinary fed-up voters looking askance for solutions - one must remember many white people who voted Obama in 2008 and 2012 voted Trump in 2016. The realities of agency work, economic insecurity and lack of in-work benefits has created a global crisis of confidence in the status quo, and any insurgency that threatens it - be it Trump, Brexit or something else - proves attractive.

But, as important as this is, it is not merely a working-class revolt. In fact, the 'working class', never a homogenous group, has had its identity hijacked by forces on the populist right that rely on a cross class appeal. Like Mussolini in the 1920s, the right seeks to break down traditional class ties and replace it with something different. Economic realities are the same for minorities that right-wing groups direct their ire towards: in the US poor Black and Hispanic voters have borne the brunt of relative decline. Poverty alone is an inadequate explanation: many rich people voted Trump - more than voted for Hillary Clinton - and UKIP started out as a protest from disaffected but well-heeled Tory rightists. Large numbers of relatively wealthy people will be voting Le Pen in the next French election, inspired by opposition to globalism and the EU. One must therefore identify migration, the defining political challenge of our age, as a key factor, and in particular the challenges it poses to the construction of national identity. The alien 'other' that threatens the national community has a number of forms: in the UK, it can be anything from refugees fleeing persecution, EU nationals threatening jobs, or ISIS supporters. Le Pen, Geert Wilders and others will be using these issues and more.

Securing the core ethnos explains why railing against the establishment - the constant enemy of the long-suffering people, controlled by shadowy elites - is another key point of reference. But look a little deeper and it is clear that the big state - the enemy of the right in the late twentieth century - would be safeguarded, even enlarged, by the economic projects of the right that emphasize spending on law, order and the military. The Conservative government of Theresa May has also grasped the potential electoral benefits of supporting a state with transformative power.

On the other hand, anti-intellectualism and fear of the elites is constantly expounded, triggering insecurities over the cultural capital that money, wealth and learning brings in an inter-connected world. In certain respects the essential point of tension is not economics but education: there is a stronger correlation between those supporting right-wing movements having no tertiary education than there is between support for them and a low income. Shouting, as they often do, from a position of privilege, it is all too easy to pin left liberals as sneering 'experts' - which, we have been informed, the British people have had enough of.

The changing media climate has given the right a key advantage, whose exponents are often adept at using new technologies. Trump's campaign slogan - 'make America great again' - is suited to the age of sound bite politics, much more than the uninspiring 'stronger together'. Similarly, who would not want to 'take back control'? Personalities also matter - the bumptious Farage is an extremely effective political communicator: his pint-drinking persona has never been entrusted with domestic power but he knows exactly how to get a message across, hence the Brexit vote. Facing insipid and compromised opponents has also helped rightists. The prospect of a Clinton presidency excited few voters - only 17% according to one exit poll - and Trump's election lies more in her unpopularity than his own popularity. One does wonder what would have happened had Trump been up against the fiery and charismatic Bernie Sanders. But he is a different vintage: where are the young visionaries on the left?

Economics, migration and the media have no respect for national boundaries, hence why this is a global phenomenon. Tackling the right is not easy: supporters have legitimate concerns, but correlation is confused with cause and the result is bigotry. There will need to be careful navigation between strong, positive messages - robust opposition to racism and xenophobia - and a genuine desire to listen, argue and persuade. An inclusive left politics is needed, one that does not automatically castigate those who do not agree as the enemy, whilst recognizing that the economic system is not working. But it also needs to be angry, pressing a bold cause, with better leaders, better communicators and a better message. Most of all, we must realize the future does not necessarily belong to the right. But increased popular engagement - not just sharing Facebook posts - is needed: this is an age of political realignment, and one must stand up and be counted.

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