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Populism, Past and Present

MADRID – It seems that practically no Western democracy nowadays is immune to right-wing populism. While populist rhetoric seems to be reaching fever pitch, with far-reaching consequences – most notably the United Kingdom’s vote to “Brexit” the European Union – the reality is that the strain of nativism that it represents has long bedeviled democratic politics.

Populist movements tend to focus on blame. Father Charles Coughlin, the 1930s-era Roman Catholic priest from Detroit who promoted a fascist agenda for America, consistently sought to root out the culprits for society’s problems. Likewise, today’s right-wing populists have eagerly turned on the “establishment” and the “elites.”

In Europe, this has meant blaming the EU for everything that goes wrong. Addressing the complex roots of current economic and social challenges – the UK and France, for example, suffer substantially from hereditary privilege and frozen class systems – is a lot harder than decrying the EU as a villainous behemoth.

Beyond blame, populist ideology relies heavily on nostalgia. Much of the current upheaval in Europe evokes Edmund Burke’s repudiation in 1790 of the French Revolution as the product of a misguided faith in ideas that defied people’s attachment to history and tradition.