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Mainstreaming the Far Right

After years of pundits insisting that Western countries are being swept by a "populist wave" of voters turning against liberal democracy, Poles have just handed their own illiberal, populist ruling party a stunning electoral defeat. It should now be clear that the problem all along has been elites, not "the people."

PRINCETON – If there is one metaphor that has dominated international punditry for the past decade, it is the “populist wave.” Country after country, we are told, is abandoning liberal democracy and embracing authoritarian leaders and parties claiming to speak in the name of the people.

The supposed “drivers” (or what used to be known, more elegantly, as causes) are by now familiar: immigration, globalization, and, in particular, the alleged rise of a “new elite,” or what the British political scientist Matthew Goodwin calls a ruling “luxury belief” class. This culturally distinctive group, according to analysts like Goodwin, has the luxury of being morally righteous in taking policy stances that leave working people to suffer the consequences. Its members exhibit both extremely liberal values and high levels of intolerance for anyone who does not share them – namely, those who are often patronizingly called “ordinary people.”

The supposed populist wave, from this perspective, is a reaction to developments that many citizens find threatening, or at least alienating. According to professors like Goodwin, who is sympathetic to the populist impulse, such a response is generally healthy. And yet, the recent defeat of Poland’s populist, right-wing ruling party shows that the story may be more complicated than pundits have led us to believe. In fact, an important new book by the American political scientist Larry M. Bartels convincingly shows that the whole notion of a populist wave was mistaken to begin with.

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