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John Slocum

Populism's transactional fusion

Guest researcher at the CIDOD

How do we explain the resurgence of populism in one country after another? Maybe in terms of common structural conditions or passive diffusion of ideas across contexts? Or does an adequate explanation require us to consider the role of the transnational political entrepreneurs involved in the ideological "import/export business"? Analysts tend more and more to speak of an "international populist". Accepting this idea implies the existence of a transnational network that works, openly or secretly, to actively promote the electoral future of populist parties in more than one country.

Crisis refugiados

Until recently, this would have seemed quite unlikely. The analytical sensitivities were conditioned by the increase and propagation of the "thick" ideologies, which particularly included socialism in its social-democratic and communist variants, whose international diffusion was fostered by active organization and propaganda. Instead, populism has been considered nationalist rather than internationalist, a tactic within a country to mobilize voters against elites on behalf of the people. In fact, right-wing populism has been explicitly anti-internationalist. Not so much left-wing populism, insofar as it is inspired by symbols of socialist inspiration of international united.

Studies on populist "contagion" tend to examine the propensity of populist techniques and messages to spread from one party to another within a given national context. 

Thus, some analysts still dismiss the idea of transnational populist contagion, pointing instead to the weakness, corruption or ideological exhaustion of major traditional political parties as primordial and perhaps sufficient explanations for the rise of populism within a given country. However, in the current Euro-Atlantic context, it seems implausible to assert that the simultaneous eruption of Brexit, Trump, Le Pen and Wilders phenomena is purely coincidental. While the rhetoric of right-wing populism remains anti-internationalist, its tactics include more and more international elements.


Several common structural factors and shared conjunctures help explain the rise of populism in the 21st century. In the field of political economy, decades of a trend towards neoliberal financialization and trade liberalisation have caused real wages to stagnate in much of the developed world. As Diego Muro points out in the introductory Chapter of this volume, the Great Recession marked a key moment in the further politicization of these structural tendencies in the longer term. 

The national public opinion, in favour of making "pay the price" of the crisis to the guilty, was outraged to see that legal sanctions were hardly impose on financial executives. 

For their part, the traditional political parties were more than punished for their corruption, for having favoured the conditions that led to the crisis and for their complicity in protecting the bankers from the serious consequences of that crisis. These resentments have manifested themselves in the appeals and populist movements on both the left and the right. The old party systems that have worked for decades are crumbling. Throughout the European Union, the image of Brussels bureaucrats making legal decisions without being held accountable provides additional targets for populist political resentment.

Recent technological advances have also helped lay the foundation for the emergence and spread of populism. 

Social media allows messages and messengers to bypass the guardians of traditional journalism. Furthermore, they reinforce the establishment of mutually isolated and relatively independent information "bubbles", delimited by widely divergent worldviews and mutual suspicions regarding the veracity of the information circulating in the bubble of their political opponents.

The growing political importance of migrants and refugees has also played a key role. The current era is often characterized by the increase in mass migration, even if the existing statistics present a much more nuanced reality. Immigrants have historically been an easy target as scapegoats for populists, but it has been the flow of refugees from Syria, amid a widespread fear of terrorism, that has situated migration at the top of the political agenda in Europe.

Anti-immigrant messages are the core of almost all populist movements and parties of the contemporary right. 

In its most extreme form, migrants are portrayed as the vanguard of apocalyptic racial, religious and civilization struggles. Although the rest of the political spectrum can reject such opinions, their influence in the debate has pushed other more centrist parties in the direction of anti-immigrant platforms.


It seems quite plausible that populism propagates in part by copying (with political representatives of one country learning from the success of populist appeals in another). Although it also seems increasingly clear that populism is being intentionally exported; or more exactly, that certain agents try to boost the electoral fortune of the populist parties of other countries. An example of this is the international expansion of the Breitbart News Network, the media company of the "right alternative" (alt-right) formerly headed by the current White House advisor, Steve Bannon. At the beginning of 2017, Breitbart has added French and German services to its websites in the United Countries and the United Kingdom. This and other media seem to intend to reap publicity benefits and greater exposure by promoting and expanding their anti-globalist and anti-elite message across borders.

The leaders of the right-wing political parties in Europe have strengthened their ties with each other. 

Members of the European Parliament belonging to far-right parties -such as the National Front (FN) of France, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Freedom Party (PVV) of the Netherlands- have joined together in a new parliamentary group, the "Europe of Nations and Freedom" (ENL), through which the leaders of the different parties have committed themselves to support the electoral efforts of the others (particularly at the ENL conference in January 2017 in Koblenz, Germany).

As for the active propagation of right-wing populism, no phenomenon stands out more clearly than the Russian support for right-wing parties in Europe.

President Putin has increasingly presented Russia as an anti-liberal, anti-globalisation power, as an international defender of conservative social values. Russia has actively supported right-wing populist parties in Europe (including direct financing of the French National Front), and the Russian pro-Putin party Rodina organized a meeting of European right-wing parties in March 2015. Hackers of Russian origin have actively sown "false news" on European media; stories that try to exaggerate the alleged threat of immigrants (to the point of reporting even rapes allegedly committed by refugees, which never took place). These stories, sometimes of quite uncertain origin, are amplified thanks to the efforts of Breitbart and other lesser-known but locally-influential alternative-right media.


Brexit and Donald Trump's election were well received by European populist leaders (in Trump's case, even with euphoria). These 2016 electoral victories gave wings to populist politicians ahead of the 2017 elections. In fact, those signals work both ways. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that the anti-populist reaction plays a role in European politics. 

The Brexit-Trump effect itself can easily be presented either as a warning or as a stimulus to other populist parties. 

In the second round of the Austrian presidential election held in early December 2016, Trump's then-recent victory almost certainly contributed to the defeat of Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer. Similarly, the demonstration effort of the populist victory clearly contributed to the stagnation of support for Gert Wilders in the run-up to the Dutch elections, as well as to the consolidation of anti-Le Pen sentiment around centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron in France.

Just as populism is actively promoted across borders, the coming months and years might be witness to coordinated transnational efforts to push it back -or at least to counter what Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte calls "the kind of wrong populism".

Authorized its publication by CIDOB



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