Brexit, Trump, Europe: What Happened to Populism?

By Andreas Sampson Geroski

It was very easy to dub 2016 as the year of populism after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Their respective supporters shared a host of characteristics, from education levels and attitudes on immigration to mistrust of elites, experts, and the political system. A common narrative emerged about a class of mainly white, poorly educated voters in post-industrialised areas protesting against being economically and culturally “left behind.” With one of the instigators of Brexit, Nigel Farage, speaking at a Trump rally, and Trump tweeting his support for Brexit, it seemed like the two events were inextricable.

Many of the underlying cultural and economic trends associated with Trump and Brexit were also apparent in mainland Europe. Populism is hard to define and each political party and figurehead is nuanced and different; but the respective French, German, and Dutch elections in 2017 each contained parties that represented a wave of populism centered on nationalist, anti-immigration policies that rejected current political parties and progressive cultural trends. This commonality led many to hypothesise that the rest of Europe would be next to see populist parties make electoral breakthroughs; particularly in the light of recent terrorist attacks on the continent and the ongoing refugee crisis.

Except it didn’t happen that way.

Although the PVVV, the party of Geert Wilders – the populist figurehead in the Netherlands – received the second largest percent of the vote in March of 2017, this was still only 13%, down from the 2010 elections when the PVVV won 15% of the national vote.

In Germany’s elections in September of 2017, the populist party AfD entered the Bundestag – the first for a far-right party in 50 years – with 12.6% of the vote. With 94 seats in a 709-seat chamber, the AfD now has a bigger platform from which to publicise its anti-migration platform. However, this influence is already being mitigated by Germany’s other parties who have publicly declared that they will ensure the AfD will not be a part of the governing coalition nor form the main party of opposition.

In France’s two-leg Presidential election in May 2017, the National Front, led by Marine Le-Pen, got enough votes to reach the second stage before losing out to Emmanuel Macron and his newly formed En Marche party. This wasn’t in itself ground-breaking. In 2002, Jean Marie Le-Pen (Marine’s father) led them to the Presidential runoff as well, even if the party then won only half of the 36% vote share achieved recently by the younger Le-Pen. In subsequent parliamentary elections in June of 2017 the National Front held their vote steady at 13%, similar to their 2012 performance.

The fact that no far-right party ended up with the largest share of the vote should not undermine the significance of the results and how far-right parties in Europe have transformed the political debate in their respective countries. But the fact remains that only the AfD actually made a new electoral breakthrough.

This reality is partly due to the Proportional Representation electoral systems used in these countries; while it means that fringe parties are more likely to be represented in the countries’ parliaments, they are also effectively shut out of governance.

Given the populist electoral breakthrough did not happen quite as expected in Europe, it is fair to evaluate whether Brexit really was a result of the wave of populism that it was originally portrayed as. In 1973, the U.K. joined the then European Common Market (ECC) — a precursor of the E.U. — and in a referendum in 1975 voted 69% – 31% to continue its membership. 40 years later the U.K. voted to leave by 52% – 48%, with a comparable voting turnout. That’s a 20% swing over 40 years, with many factors that could explain parts of that swing. The most widely read media outlets in Britain supported membership in 1975, compared to the virulent campaign led by the most widely read newspapers to leave the E.U. in 2016. In the 1970s, the U.K. was known as the ‘sick man of Europe,’ whereas in 2016 the U.K. was experiencing moderate economic growth, while the E.U. was still feeling the effects of the Euro crisis. In the original referendum both main parties supported membership to the ECC, whereas in 2016 both parties were split by the referendum, with many prominent members of the ruling Conservative party acting as figureheads for the “Leave” campaign.

But there are also deeper cultural reasons behind Brexit. For example, British people are unlikely to refer to themselves as European, particularly among those over age 65. Europe is often the butt of jokes in popular British culture, perhaps best epitomised by the Fawlty Towers ‘don’t mention the war sketch’ (no prizes for guessing who was the butt of that joke). For many years British politicians have found it convenient to blame E.U. regulations on policy problems, making the organization an unloved scapegoat.

In the U.S., Trump’s election victory can also be explained by factors beyond populism; from biases in the electoral college system to weak candidates in the Republican Primary and Presidential race, as well as the James Comey letter a week before the election.

While it is undeniable that there has been an increase in populism in Western democracies since the financial crisis of 2007, just how big is that effect? Was it actually the key factor in Brexit and Trump? Is it the case that it’s not just the electoral systems that kept populist parties at bay in continental Europe? In short, are Brexit and Trump anomalies that owe as much to other events as they do populism?

If we circle back to Emmanuel Macron, France elected a man who is a social and economic liberal, and a clear metropolitan elite — the living antithesis of traditional populism. Despite being a minister in the deeply unpopular Hollande administration, he went on to set up a political party from scratch and win the Presidential election 16 months later. In many ways Macron’s success was the most surprising electoral result out of all of those discussed in this article — and he achieve it running on values that directly opposed the populist party.

Even with so many people in Western democracies feeling economically and culturally left behind, it is not the case that electoral breakthroughs by populist parties are inevitable. While economic and cultural factors are a necessary condition of the the electoral breakthroughs made by populist parties, it is clear they are not sufficient on their own. To really understand the Brexit and Trump votes we need to analyse the specific quirks of the British and American political systems and the cultural norms and attitudes of the electorates.

Andreas Sampson Geroski is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.