Populism's Success, in Plain English

What links the U.S. and U.K. is more than a common tongue. They're both open societies that have rejected elites.

Populist and “alt-right” causes have lately seen some setbacks, including the centrist electoral results in the Netherlands, the victory of Emmanuel Macron and his party in France, the poor showing of the Five Star Movement in local Italian elections, and the split of the True Finns party in Finland. Yet the U.S. election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit remain, at least so far, and so a new question arises: Are these political movements primarily an Anglo-American phenomenon, and if so why?

Financial Times columnist Edward Luce recently suggested a number of explanations for the English-language success of populism, including that the U.S. and U.K. were the nations that most embarrassed themselves during the Iraq War. We are also nations with high income inequality, and were hit relatively hard by the financial crisis, compared with much of Western Europe. I would add another factor, namely that the U.S. and U.K. are especially open societies where the norm of deferring to elites is relatively weak.

New ideas often take their earliest and strongest roots in the most intellectually open environments. It is no surprise, for instance, that populist and alt-right ideas have had such a strong and early presence on the internet. There are simply not the same media gatekeepers to hold those ideas at a distance.

In this context, the traditional European portrait of the U.S. as the country with no real aristocracy has some truth to it. When Trump’s candidacy appeared, many American elites objected, including those in the Republican Party, but Trump won by taking his case directly to the voters. He used elite opposition as a major marketing point.

More generally, the U.S. is an environment where new products -- and here I mean of the non-political sort -- get started relatively easily. People are willing to take more chances with their consumption, and so this is a fertile environment for startups, which then spread to the broader world.

As for Britain, the traditional aristocracy is remarkably weakened, voting along class lines has disappeared and, most observers agree, if it were really up to the House of Lords, Brexit wouldn’t be happening.

On top of these factors is English, by far the world’s leading language for scientific and philosophic and political discourse, for blogs, for Twitter, and for many other kinds of dialogue. We shouldn’t be surprised if new ideas are more likely to surface and take hold in the English-speaking world.

It’s interesting to consider Australia, a nation with a relatively well-functioning welfare state that has not had a recession for 25 years. Australian politics is nonetheless becoming progressively weirder, and there is an active populist and alt-right-related element in its discourse. If Canada has proved immune to such trends, one reason may be that the country sometimes defines itself in opposition to the U.S.’s apparently cruder propensities.

This English-language explanation for the differential spread of populism is not reassuring, in part because it implies the holdouts may not remain holdouts forever. We might hope that the Western European continent can keep its populist movements bottled up, and eventually they will go away before achieving too much power. But another scenario is that the pressures simply are being postponed, and that the current wave of alt-right setbacks on the continent is temporary.

To be sure, some evidence suggests the influence of President Trump is actually causing Western Europe to become more liberal. But don’t confuse style and substance. Another five to 10 years of deindustrialization, terrorist attacks and migrant crises might lead to a “home brew” version of Trumpian ideas in continental Europe, albeit cloaked in a more intellectual and more aristocratic garb. There is a running joke going around along the lines of “If fascist ideas come to [Country X], they will come in the form of anti-fascism.” Once the properly European version of the product comes to the fore, it might do very well indeed.

Japan is an example of a nation that has taken on “alt-right” ideas on nationalism in a significant way, and has long had them on immigration. The country is not an international pariah, in part because the Japanese style of governance remains sufficiently high status and serious. And compared with many other countries in Asia, Japan remains remarkably liberal in many ways. So a European version of populism might more closely resemble Prime Minister Shinzo Abe than President Trump.

The world may be sneering at America for some good reasons, but perhaps this is a product line that is just getting started and just hasn’t yet found the right international marketing division.