OXFORD – Democratic governments in the West are increasingly losing their bearings. From the shift toward illiberalism in Poland and Hungary to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States’ presidential election, a particularly lethal strain of populism is infecting societies – and it is spreading.
The appeal of populism is straightforward. Faced with stagnant wages and a declining quality of life, people feel frustrated – all the more so when their leaders keep telling them that things are getting better. Then the populist appears and promises to shake things up, to defend the interests of the “people” (though really only some of them), and offers something arguably more attractive than feasible solutions: scapegoats.
At the top of the list of scapegoats are the “elites” – established political parties and corporate leaders. Rather than protecting the “people” from economic pressure and insecurity, this group, the populist declares, thrives on the people’s pain. By advancing globalization – by forcing ever-more openness down the people’s throat – they have accumulated massive wealth, which they then protect through tax avoidance, offshoring, and other schemes.
But it is not just the elites who are blamed. Yes, they have betrayed the people. But one way they do so is by foisting upon the people equal rights and opportunities for minorities, immigrants, and foreigners, who “steal” jobs, threaten national security, and undermine traditional ways of life.