The source of national populism

Posted by – October 6, 2010

In most every European country, a national populist party has emerged over the last 15-20 years to capture a meaningful (and fast growing) share of the vote. The standard analysis has been to examine the voting public: how has it and its environment changed to cause it to change its voting behaviour? I propose that the more important change has been in the existing political parties and the mentality of the intelligentsia that determines their policies.

In the twentieth century, politics (in democracies) focused on negotiating around the different interests of different voting blocs. Underlying the negotiation was a wider concept of national interest: different Finnish parties hoped to benefit different groups of Finns, but they all focused ultimately on a Finnish national interest (with the exception of little practical importance of internationalist communists). Politicians were driven by status: they wanted to be the top dog, bringing home the big prizes to their voting bloc and ultimately arising to statesman status. This philosophy is still the norm among the broad public, but academics, political commentators and cultural circles have generally moved to a very different political ethic: one of abstract universalism motivated by personal satisfaction and internal status.

The intelligentsia interacts among itself, and its status points are won not by practical results but by any exercise of ideological power. Admirers of the Soviet Union didn’t lose their credibility by being outrageously wrong – on the contrary, their ongoing defiance of reality has won them a certain sense of nobility. The echo chamber of the European Parliament self-importantly celebrates itself not despite colossal amounts of waste, inefficiency and malicious bureaucracy but because of it – after all, they must be powerful people to pull all that off. Nay, not powerful, but powerfully good. After all, do they not devote much of their energies to fighting global climate change, solving the problems of global poverty and inequality and curing their own societies of parochialism, racism and lack of diversity? If you’re unhappy with the practical results, maybe you should give them more resources and power – or perhaps strive to achieve the ultimate good and become a political activist yourself.

This is, of course, a standard historical cycle: wealthy and dominant cultures, able to do as they please, produce a priest/idealist class which divorces itself from the mundane, earthly concerns of boring normos. This is how the pyramids were built, and also very much the internal story of the Soviet Union. The immediate result in the west has been the aforementioned rise of national populism – people who previously weren’t actively interested in nationalism outside of sports and historical reminisces are now voting for national self-interest, not because they’ve changed but because they used to vote for that no matter which party they chose. Unfortunately for them, the people in charge of these populist parties tend to be cynics, incompetents or both, so there is little promise of achieving their goals.

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