The Rise of Identity Populism Is Making the World More Dangerous
A powerful wave of populism is sweeping the world, enveloping not only places like Latin America, where it has long held sway, but also Europe, North America and parts of Asia. Few experts saw this coming, and no one knows what its ultimate repercussions will be. But if historical patterns hold, this kind of populism, fueled by strident nationalism, may increase the chances of armed conflict both within and between nations. Much is at stake.
Populism is hardly new; it can be traced back as far as ancient Greece and Rome. It is simply a political strategy in which a leader builds a power base on marginalized or disempowered segments of society. To make this work, populist leaders implement policies and reforms that advantage the marginalized at the expense of the elite—or at least the parts of the elite that oppose them. Populism is intentionally disruptive, even revolutionary, as it challenges the status quo and undercuts the existing distribution of power and wealth.
Populism comes in several variants. Economic populism mobilizes the poor or working class against economic elites in pursuit of a more equitable distribution of wealth and concentrates political power in the hands of the populist leader. Its modern incarnation emerged in 19th-century America, and it has ebbed and flowed since then, especially across Latin America, where today economic populism, on top of an increasingly authoritarian government, has embroiled Venezuela in crisis. Another variant of populism is based on inclusivity, seeking to bring politically marginalized groups more into the mainstream, as seen in the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1980s.
The populism growing in Europe and North America today is a different form fueled by strident nationalism that is defined by ethnicity, race and religion. Call it identity populism. It draws its strength, as William Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, “from public opposition to mass immigration, cultural liberalization, and the perceived surrender of national sovereignty” whether to “distant and unresponsive bodies” like the European Union or, in the case of the United States, to the more amorphous threat of globalization and increasing ethnic, racial, religious and ethical diversity.
In an ominous echo of 20th-century fascism and Nazism, identity populism stresses the inherent morality of an ethnically or racially defined non-elite class, claiming it is under attack by an impure and immoral elite seeking to destroy national values through multiculturalism and ethical decay. This idea of an epochal conflict between what the Nazis called the “volk”—the people—and decadent, globalizing elites has re-emerged in the stark ideas of white nationalist movements in the United States, the rebranded National Front in France and the far-right Alternative for Germany. It exists more subtly among the populist-leaning mainstream parties on the political right, although some of them are dabbling more openly in this toxic ideology.
If it continues to extend its political reach, identity populism may increase the chances of armed conflict both between countries and within national borders. There are several reasons why. First, identity populism is based on amplifying the differences between “us” and “them,” stressing ethnic, racial, cultural or religious differences and imbuing them with an ethical dimension—"we” are moral or pure, and “they” are criminal, diseased and simply evil. Phrasing like this, which filled Nazi and fascist rhetoric in the 20th century, is all too common today among populist leaders in Europe. And it slips into the statements of U.S. President Donald Trump and his enablers on Fox News and other right-wing media, especially in their false depictions of diseased and crime-ridden waves of immigrants trying to overrun America’s borders.
While seeing the world as divided in this way does not guarantee conflict, it does increase the chances of violence. It is always easier to use force against an opponent seen as less moral or less human and portrayed as a steadfast enemy of an ethnically or racially defined national culture. Even within nations, such binaries between segments of society deemed “moral” and “immoral” could spark conflict. The odds are that the world will see a new wave of civil wars and separatist movements facilitated, at least to a degree, by identity populism.
Today’s identity populism is an internet-fueled manifestation of malignancies that seemed vanquished in World War II.
A second reason that identity populism increases the chances of armed conflict is its delegitimization of international institutions designed to prevent or limit war between nations, in favor of hypernationalism and a strident sense of sovereignty. One has only to look at Trump’s disdain for the United Nations and the European Union—both organizations explicitly created to lower the chances of interstate conflict. While the United Nations may be a deeply flawed organization, that is no reason to delegitimize international institutions wholesale, given the risks.
The third reason that populism may increase the chances of conflict is that populist leaders often cling ferociously to power, weakening democratic institutions and any limits on their own power. They often create a political system with some trappings of democracy—perhaps rigged elections or a pliant legislature—that is in fact authoritarian. The result is both faux populism and faux democracy. Venezuela, Russia and Turkey are on this path today, and some European nations, like Hungary and Poland, may soon follow. History suggests that authoritarian leaders often distract attention from their failings by demonizing opponents at home and abroad, contending that only they can stave off their nation’s enemies. Again, this does not guarantee that there will be armed violence, but it certainly increases the chances, particularly when a populist leader’s grasp on power weakens.
Of course, not all populism is bad: Inclusive populism has historically led to more just societies from the United States to South Africa. But today’s identity populism is a different beast, an internet-fueled manifestation of malignancies that seemed vanquished in World War II. Day by day, it is making the world a more dangerous place.
Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.