Shankkar Aiyar News

Brexit, Trump, Europe: Surge of populism and rise of ‘notionalism’

Published: 04th December 2016 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th December 2016 04:36 PM   |  A+A-

They say a week is a long time in politics. Events of this weekend promise validation of that and more. This weekend, Italy will vote “si” or “no” on a referendum to amend the constitution, and Austria votes to elect a new President. The verdicts have the potential of far-reaching consequences for Europe and lessons for the establishment across the world. The surge of populism and the rise of ‘notionalism’ promise to upend many covenants and conventions.

In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is seen trailing in polls on his proposal to shrink the role of the Senate—that would be akin to withering the role of the Rajya Sabha—to hasten legislation. Aggravating his challenge is a gloomy economy and $400 billion of bad loans that threaten to bust banks. The ferocity of frustration is glaring. Renzi came to power in 2014 as the anti-establishment ‘demolition man’. In 2016, he is seen as the establishment. A “no” verdict will open the up the field for populist and radical Five Star Movement led by the colourful Beppe Grillo and the right wing Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini. At stake is Italy’s continuance in the European Union.

Up north on Sunday, Austria goes to polls to elect its next President. Pollsters and bookies believe Austria will elect Europe’s first head of state from the far right. The contest is between Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (sometimes referred to as the new ‘fuhrer’), and Alexander Van der Bellen, an Independent and a critic of Vienna’s immigration and asylum policy. Hofer, known to sport the pre-war nationalist symbol ‘blue cornflower’, has built his base around the polarising ideas of anti-immigration and anti-Islamism. Hofer has also threatened to exit the European Union (EU) if Turkey is allowed in.

From left: Beppe Grillo, Norbert Hofer, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen


The surge of anger is not restricted to Italy and Austria. In the Netherlands, which goes to polls in March, Geert Wilders—a far-right politician and campaigner against multi-culturalism—is seen as the probable winner. His victory could spell the end of the Netherlands’ membership of the EU.

France goes to polls in April/May of 2017. There is Francois Fillon as the presidential candidate of the centre-right who, a la Trump, has promised to put France First. Fillon is backed by the middle-class who see themselves as patriots and are uncomfortable with adoption rights for gay couples. Challenging the establishment is Marine Le Pen of the French National Front, who most famously asserted, “We want to destroy the EU.”  And in Germany a three year old party—the right wing, Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD)—trounced Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats to third place in recent polls.

There is much that binds the challengers and potential winners. Barring Beppe Grillo, the ideological mooring is ‘right’ to ‘far right’, and then there is the troubling question of identity. The potentates have constructed a powerful narrative of ‘us and them’ where ‘us’ is about colour and creed, and ‘them’ is about race and class. The challengers have tapped into the vein of anger and created a capillary force against the elite, the establishment, and tailored their message to demonetise the mainstream media.

The theme song is populism, a response that stems from rage against the political correctness that insulated regimes. There is the economic aspect—the number of wage-earners is shrinking and disruptive technologies are rendering the able jobless. There is also culture, the indefinable “our way of life”, that is seen as being under attack. The acceptance of assimilation and heterogeneous societies is yielding way to the quest for the hegemony of homogeneity.

Populism is propelled by ‘notionalism’—by notions of what constitutes nationalism, notions of liberalism as the root of all evil, notions of political identity, notions of preferential rights and entitlements, notions on global economics, notions of globalism as a win-win proposition, notions simonised to fit the promise of cultural suzerainty.

Seven decades after World War II, the construct of a contract—consensus on a liberal, rules-based international order—is seemingly coming apart. The co-option of policy, regulation and the cornering of wealth by the few at the cost of many, eroded the legitimacy of institutions. Just as prosperity bred complacency, anxiety has united those angry with the circumstance. It is not only Project Europe that is under threat, nor is it only about the downside of globalisation. In focus and on the radar are the very principles that fostered the rise of democracies in the world till 2000.

In their seminal study The Democratic Disconnect, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk argue that there is a rise in populist backlash suggesting a real danger to the very idea of democracy, which they define as the “danger of deconsolidation”. Their study looked at World Values Surveys across two decades from 1995 to 2014, and examined the responses of people across age groups on how essential it was for respondents to live in a democracy. Their findings are remarkable, if not startling.

Foa and Mounk point out that only around a third of the respondents from the younger age group—those born in the 80s—across the US and Britain deem it “essential to live in a democracy”. A similar sentiment, rather lack of allegiance to democracy, is expressed by millennials in the democracies of New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands too.

Arguably the new generation, while benefitting from the dividends of stable democracies, takes the comfort of rights for granted. Indeed, just in the US in the past three decades, the share of citizens who think it would be a “good” or a “very good” thing for the “army to rule” has risen from one in 16 to one in six. The etymology of what is being described as the pathology of fascism is located in the failures of the recent past. It is arguable that the level of frustration and disorder in democracies make the idea of autocracy seductive.

Confronted by changing demography and advancing technology, nations and peoples are faced with an uncertainty that is stark. Institutions of democracy are persistently flailing in the face of challenges. Ergo governments are struggling to preserve their legitimacy.  The very idea of representative democracy is at an intersection. Legitimacy requires solutions, not just notions.

Shankkar Aiyar is the Author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

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