2016 was a year of tectonic change in geopolitics: Brexit, and president Trump, two possibilities that had previously been seen by many as, respectively, unlikely and absurd. Parallel to the unfolding of these events, we saw the rise of a trend that was put under the label of “populist far right”: Wilders in the Netherlands, Le Pen in France, as well as elected figures allegedly turning authoritarian (Hungary’s Orban, Poland’s Kaczyński). Their targets were made clear: immigration (Muslims in particular), “globalism”, multiculturalism, “political correctness”, supranational institutions such as the EU and NATO. They portrayed themselves as brave underdogs fighting back against a biased mainstream media and the ruling elites (“the establishment”), which they deemed incompetent and corrupt.
As they rose from fringe status to political heavyweights, a common explanation was given for their success: rising xenophobia, the scapegoating of minorities for problems such as criminality, unemployment, and terrorism. In Trump’s case, misogyny was also proposed as a factor. And these issues were, indeed, undeniably present.
But one still has to ask: if racism was the deciding factor, how can it be that the same Rust Belt states that were crucial to Trump’s unexpected victory were the same ones that voted for Obama twice? If sexism defeated Hillary, why are the same people that celebrated Trump also cheering for Marine Le Pen? And once one looks closer into these questions, others come to mind: why did Sanders’ supporters back Trump after the former’s defeat in the primaries; why is Le Pen gathering votes in areas that traditionally voted communist; and what is the reason for 25% of Labour’s voters siding with Brexit? To answer these questions, perhaps it would be helpful to turn back the clock three decades.
After the right had succeeded in years of uninterrupted dominance thanks to the towering presence of the likes of Reagan, Thatcher and their unapologetic economic liberalism, the left faced a conundrum: how to break the right’s hold on politics?
The solution they came up with was “the third way”. Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” and Tony Blair’s “New Labour” adopted a strategy that would reverberate throughout Europe. Major left-wing parties began adopting measures hitherto more typical of the right, such as deregulation, and a pro-business mindset that removed obstacles to free trade. Emblematic (but not exclusively so) of this new attitude was Clinton’s signing of NAFTA with Mexico (removing trade tariffs between the two), a welfare reform that emphasized the need for self-reliance, and the repeal of financial regulation such as the Glass-Steagal Act (originally passed after the Great Depression to prevent another crash).
On the other side of the Atlantic, there was Blair’s permission for the Bank of England to set its own interest rates, and an increase on student’s tuition fees. While this might have alienated some voters on the left-of-center, it was by all means a successful campaign strategy. The context of the 90’s made it impervious to any damaging criticism. It was a time of economic stability and growth, and the far left’s appeal to those disenchanted with capitalism no longer seemed threatening in a post-Soviet world.
But then came the 21st century. Tony Blair, together with then Senator Hillary Clinton, supported the US invasion of Iraq, a now unpopular decision whose impact is felt until this very day, in the Middle East and beyond; the right won the elections and greatly expanded neoliberalism’s extent; the 2008 financial crisis broke out, hurting the most vulnerable on a global scale; the nature of globalization’s role in inequality was questioned; and austerity was adopted as a crisis solving mechanism (sometimes by left-wing parties). Regardless of whether austerity was a necessary evil or not, few would deny that its impact on society (the gutting of welfare and the stagnation of wages) generated resentment in those subjected to it.
All of these measures, deregulation, military interventionism, free trade, welfare cuts, globalization, their merits and flaws could be discussed at length. But the point being made is that decades after the left’s attitude towards them shifted, so did the attitude of emerging right-wing figures.
The same far right parties that once embraced fiscal conservatism are the ones that now place themselves in opposition to a neoliberal establishment. Defying his party line, Trump openly embraced protectionism, rejecting the TPP while calling Clinton’s NAFTA “the worst trade deal maybe ever”. The aforementioned Rust Belt voters, who blamed NAFTA for their hardships, were particularly receptive to that last point. Trump renounced America’s neocon foreign policy (blamed for the destabilization of the Middle East), taking a more non-interventionist stance. In Poland, adamantly anti-refugee PiS supported extensive welfare expansion to help the poor. Similarly, Marine Le Pen also made promises on welfare, while opposing the EU’s “absurd politics of ultra-austerity”. She also showed disappointment in Donald Trump’s newfound support for NATO. And UKIP moved to the left on economics, going on to complain about “Labour’s evil bankers” and criticizing private-sector involvement in the National Healthcare System.
Further distancing themselves from traditional conservatism, these populists began courting LGBT voters. Partially by toning down homophobic rhetoric, partially by presenting Muslim immigration as a threat to LGBT people – this strategy had some success.
Finally, beyond policy or ideology, there is one last common theme that must be emphasized: change. The rejection of the stale status quo and the mainstream parties that perpetuated it, did not merely boost the far right but also leftist parties like Syriza and Podemos, and figures like Bernie Sanders or Melénchon. Perhaps the Green Party (whose ex-leader defeated the far right in Austria) can be included here. Italy’s “Five Star Movement” is hard to characterize as either left or right, only its anti-establishment and anti-corruption angles are consistent. Even Macron, one of the few third way-style politicians of late that seems to have triumphed, only did so by creating a brand new party and promising to “clean up politics”.
When asked what her greatest achievement was, Margaret Thatcher replied: “’Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds’.” Maybe, if they wish to regain relevance, it is time for the right’s opponents to change their minds once more.