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How Populists Win When They Lose

VIENNA – Today, it appears that every single election in Europe can be reduced to one central question: “Is it a win or a loss for populism?” Until the Netherlands’ election in March, a populist wave – or, as Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party, put it, a “tsunami” – seemed irresistible. Now, however, the wave has suddenly receded: following Emmanuel Macron’s big wins in France’s presidential and legislative elections, we are supposedly living in a “post-populist moment.”

Unfortunately, this view of populism’s rise and fall merits the label often attached to populism itself: simplistic. The notion of an unstoppable wave took for granted that both the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in the United States were triumphs for populism, rather than for establishment conservatives.

To be sure, both Farage and Trump are populists, but not because they criticize elites. After all, vigilance toward elites can in fact be a sign of democratic engagement. What distinguishes populists is their claim that they alone represent the “real people” or “the silent majority.” For populists, an election is never just about opposing policy views; it is about the personal corruption, immorality, and fundamental illegitimacy of all other contenders for power.

Less obvious, but more pernicious, is the insinuation that citizens who do not share the populist’s conception of “the people,” and hence do not support the populist politically, are less than legitimate members of the polity. Think of Farage claiming that Brexit was a “victory for real people.” The 48% who voted to remain in the European Union, he implied, might not be part of the “real” British people at all.

Or think of Trump announcing at a campaign rally last year: “The only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.” In other words, the populist decides who the real people are, and whoever refuses to be unified on the populist’s terms is excluded – even if they happen to have a British or a US passport.

Populism is thus a form of anti-pluralism. To say that “the people” are rising up against “the establishment” is not a neutral description of political developments; it’s actually populist language. It accepts the populists’ claim that they authentically represent “the people.”

In fact, figures like Farage or the Dutch far-right populist Geert Wilders come nowhere close to attracting even a majority of the electorate. When politicians and journalists lazily concede that populists articulate people’s “real concerns,” they are betraying a deep misunderstanding of how democratic representation actually works.

Democratic representation is not the mechanical reproduction of objectively given interests and identities. Interests and identities are dynamically formed as politicians make offers of representation and citizens respond. Trump, for example, undoubtedly succeeded in persuading some Americans to see themselves as part of something like a white identity movement. But that identity – and the way its adherents frame their interests – could change again.

The image of an irresistible populist “wave” was always misleading. Farage did not bring about Brexit all by himself. He needed the help of established Conservatives such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (both now serve in Prime Minister Theresa May’s post-election cabinet). Likewise Trump was not elected as the candidate of a grassroots protest movement of the white working class; he represented a very established party and received the blessing of Republican heavyweights such as Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich.

In fact, if anything, Trump’s election was a confirmation of how partisan US politics has become: 90% of self-identified Republicans voted for Trump; they clearly could not fathom voting for a Democrat, even if many Republicans in surveys registered deep doubts about the party’s nominee. To this day, no right-wing populist has come to power in Western Europe or North America without the collaboration of established conservative elites.

The idea that the Dutch and the French elections heralded the arrival of a “post-populist moment” fails to appreciate the distinction between populism as a claim to a moral monopoly on representation and the policies – think of restrictions on immigration – typically promoted by populists as part of their exclusionary identity politics. For example, Wilders, who really is a populist, did less well than expected in March. But his main competitor, center-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte, adopted Wilders-like rhetoric – telling immigrants that they should leave the country if they do not want to behave “normally.”

Rutte has not become a populist – he does not claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the authentic Dutch people. But political culture is shifting to the right, without any kind of proper democratic authorization by citizens. Populists may be winning, even though they are nominally losing, as conservatives simply copy their ideas.

This dynamic was evident in the UK’s recent election as well. May, who called the snap election when the Conservatives had a 20-point lead in opinion polls, bet that she could destroy Farage’s UKIP by imitating it. She succeeded in that goal, but alienated many citizens with her Trump-like rhetoric calling for Britons to unify behind her “strong and stable” government – or else.

As Harvard University’s Daniel Ziblatt has pointed out, the consolidation of democracies in Europe has depended crucially on the behavior of conservative elites. During the interwar period, when conservatives opted to collaborate with authoritarian and fascist parties, democracy died as a result. After World War II, they chose to stick to the rules of the democratic game, even if core conservative interests were not faring well.

Our own era is not remotely comparable to the interwar period, and today’s populists are not fascists. But the lesson still holds: the choices made by established elites, as much as the challenges posed by insurgent outsiders, determine the fate of democracy. Those who collaborate with populists – or copy their ideas – must be held accountable.