The populist explosion: How the great recession transformed American and European politics

By Damien Dean

A specter is haunting not only Europe but the entire world –the specter of populism, unsettling ordinary citizens and driving them to seek unconventional candidates for their political gain. From France, to the Netherlands, from Spain to the United States, the globe is witnessing a new wave of political movement, hitherto little known to the conventional politics. This recent development in day-to-day politics is surreptitiously was expected as the growing discontent with the establishment has found a voice through demands framed by populism.

One of the people who picked up on this political turmoil is John B. Judis, an erudite journalist and editor, who wrote a very compelling account of why and how populist parties and candidates both in Europe and the United States have gripped political power tight. Published in 2016 by Columbia Global Reports, Judis’s book The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics consists of eight succinct yet profound chapters, each of which is devoted to the analysis of the past and present condition of populist movements as well as their raison d’etre in today’s political life.

For Judis, there is no single definition of populism as political parties with plethora of different agendas can well skid into populist category. Using a Wittgensteinian methodology, Judis writes “different peoples and parties are called ‘populist’ enjoy family resemblances of one to the other, but not a set of traits can be found exclusively in all of them.” Indeed, Iglesias’s Podemos in Spain and Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands share little when it comes to solve problems the current political establishments in these countries unable to resolve. Neither do people, be they blue-collars, students, shop-keepers, or rural people, who support such parties have similar socio-economic backgrounds. Therefore, the elites against which the ire is directed also vary greatly. In different contexts and circumstances the elites are sometimes “industrialists”, sometimes “pointy-headed intellectuals, and sometimes “politicians.”

While the concept itself and its components are not defined by a certain set of features, Judis authoritatively claims that all populist movements serve an essential role of being gadfly of the establishment, which “signals the prevailing political ideology isn’t working and needs repair, and the standard worldview is breaking down.” Therefore, their gadfly role can be seen as the least common denominator of such movements.

After the Golden Age of capitalism came to a disastrous end in the 1970s with the oil crisis, which caused decades long recession in national economies, heralding the demise of welfare state, and a spike in unemployment, right-wing popular parties in Europe started to take the stage in political life. Statistics provided in the book demonstrate this fact rather very vividly. Pulling out a very wide range of data on immigration and economic performances of national economies, the book makes a strong case for the rise of populism in Europe and the United States.

Adding to all these economic troubles, Judis also blames the structural problems of the European Union. For Judis, the growing dissatisfaction with the stifling bureaucracy of the EU, which has reduced maneuverability of national economies with the single currency policy and increased the democratic deficit, was another important factor for the populist waves to become ever stronger in Europe.

Even though the problems are global, its effects are local. That is why populism manifests itself in different shapes, sizes, and discourses in different countries. Surprisingly enough, countries in Europe hit less by the economic crisis of 2008 saw a right-wing populist parties’ ascendance while those had to endure Troika’s stringent austerity measures have witnessed revival of left-wing parties. Judis explains this oddity with the following words: “much of this [oddity] has to do with the rise of immigration,” adding, “in 2014, there were 280,000 migrants to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa; in 2015, the number grew over a million.”

Judis believes that left-wing populist parties lose their edge over time, becoming a centrist-left party—as Syriza did in Greece—while right-wing populists are more resistive in this sense. Different perseverance levels of rightwing and leftwing populist parties, he argues, have very much to do with their inherent structures. Leftwing populism functions in a dyadic opposition of “the people against an elite or establishment” whereas rightwing populism usually in a triadic structure that “champion[s] the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” Therefore, as long as the third groups that rightwing parties can exploit for their cause are around and abound, rightwing populism seems to be staying with us a little bit longer.

Homi Baba, a prominent scholar of post-colonial studies, once famously claimed in his book The Location of Culture that the state of emergency is also always the state of emergence. And populism has emerged at a time in which conventional political parties have remained impotent in solving problems during the political and economic emergency. This is what makes Judis a pessimist about the future of the European Union, who claims populist movement may reach to a point which will lead the Union to a total disintegration. However, he is less so about the effects of populism in the States as the United States seems less vulnerable to the mass unauthorized immigration. The fact that populist party’s willingness to operate in democratic context without bringing revolutionary changes to the economic system makes Judis to conclude that “what is happening is an erosion rather than disintegration of the neo-liberal agenda.”

In a world where one of the great powers is ruled by a populist like Donald Trump, the book is a timely one. The Populist Explosion offers a thorough story why and how populism haunts the world at this particular time of history, and reflects a panoramic view of the malaise of neo-liberalism. For anyone interested in populist movements, the book is a must-read and detailed survey of populism with vast qualitative as well as quantitative data enriched by Judis’s stimulating discussions as well as his articulate writing style.

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Damien Dean

Damien Dean is a political analyst and expert in international relations. He holds an MA degree in International Relations from Tsinghua University, Beijing.

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