Why are right-wing populists winning everywhere?
It's not just economics. It's not just immigration. Far-right candidates are coming to power amid a mind-boggling array of political, economic, and cultural conditions.
The global march of right-wing populism has claimed yet another country. This time, it's Brazil, where a once obscure former army captain Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency by a decisive margin.
Bolsonaro's candidacy bears obvious similarity to other notable right-wing populist candidates. Brazil has struggled with persistently high crime, and its established parties have been rocked by a wide-ranging corruption scandal that sent its popular former president, Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, to prison; Bolsonaro's central campaign themes were restoring order and ending corruption. The thrice-married Bolsonaro also professed an in-your-face masculinism that should also feel familiar to observers of President Trump and Vladimir Putin and alt-right circles on the internet. And Bolsonaro's campaign took advantage of social media in a way that establishment candidates around the world continue to struggle to replicate.
But while it's easy in retrospect to explain Bolsonaro's extraordinary rise, and to note similarities between him and far-right phenomena around the world, it's also worth pointing out how different political, economic, and cultural conditions have been across the various countries in which right-wing populists have come to power. That very diversity should make us wary of concluding too quickly that we fully understand the political changes that are rocking the globe.
Right-wing populist and nationalist governments are in power in Russia, Turkey, India, Israel, Hungary, Poland, and the United States, and they share power with left-wing populists in Italy. Established right-wing parties in Britain, Canada, and Australia are busily adapting to the populist trend. Japan's Shinzo Abe has taken his conservative Liberal Party in a notably nationalist direction. And with Angela Merkel announcing her intention not to run for re-election, and her party anxiously watching the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany, it's likely her conservative coalition will also begin sounding right-wing populist themes.
What do these countries have in common? Where crime rates are soaring — like in Brazil, where rates of murder in particular have risen in recent years as a consequence of drug-related gang violence — the rise of the far-right is blamed on disorder. But Trump sounded similar themes in his rise to prominence, even though violent crime had only risen modestly off historic lows. In countries that recently experienced a surge of immigration, like Sweden, the rise is blamed on the associated cultural dislocation and an associated rise in crime and welfare dependency. But immigration is not a material issue in Poland or Hungary, and illegal immigration to the United States had actually reached historic lows in the years before Trump's campaign.
In many European countries, like Italy and Greece, the rise of the populist right is blamed on the tyranny of the euro, and the brutal austerity which the ECB demanded in the wake of the financial crisis. But Germany benefited from the ECB's policies, and Britain was never part of the euro. Meanwhile, notwithstanding their economic troubles, some countries with right-wing populist governments, like Israel and India, have been experiencing fairly robust real growth. Finally, while Putin is frequently blamed for the rise of the populist right in Europe and America, it is hard to credit any Russian interest in the fate of Brazil or plausible Russian involvement in the consolidation of power by Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.
The breadth of the trend toward right-wing populism is most dramatically demonstrated when one considers recent political changes in China, which is not even remotely democratic and is subject to few of the forces usually cited as driving right-wing populism: economic stagnation, high crime, mass immigration, loss of sovereignty to transnational institutions, etc. Nonetheless, Xi Jinping rose to power in part on a call to fight corruption and strengthen the hand of the state (consistent themes of right-wing populists), and in office has relentlessly gathered power in his own hands (another feature of right-wing populists), turning the state ideology in a stridently nationalist and even ethno-nationalist direction.
It's enough to make one want to dust off one's Hegel, and explain the rise of the populist right as a kind of inevitable antithesis moving through the Weltgeist, a literal reaction to the post-Cold War thesis of liberal internationalism in foreign policy, progressivism in cultural politics, and globalism in finance. Or, alternatively, to dust off one's Marx and look for common changes in material conditions that might drive people in so many different cultures to an acute anxiety about order — accelerating urbanization, the collapse of village and family hierarchies, a global collapse in the power of labor relative to capital — and an acute distrust of the authorities that claim to maintain it.
Because that is the common thread that runs through all of these diverse cultural and political environments. Anxiety about order traditionally pushes the public to embrace parties of the right, who most credibly promise to restore order, whether we're talking about fighting crime or preserving a familiar culture. And anger at corruption and elite self-dealing quite naturally drive the public to punish established leadership and give newcomers a try, and to seek out newcomers who viscerally share their frustration. What is the commonality in contemporary conditions, around the world, that has made people in so many countries susceptible to both emotional impulses at once, and powered the global rise of the populist right?
That's the question that liberal democrats need to answer before they are completely swept away.