LONDON – Until a few weeks ago expert analysts and columnists were explaining that Europe had escaped the populist “infection.” Marine Le Pen had been defeated in France, Chancellor Angela Merkel would get safely re-elected in Germany and Europe could go forward to more integration on the lines proposed by the ever-ambitious Jean-Claude Junker, the European commission president, despite the United Kingdom going its separate way.
But that was yesterday. Today the scene looks quite different. In Germany there has been a dramatic rise in populist feeling reflected in the success of the Alternative for Germany party. This has many elements, some of them extreme right wing and distasteful, some of them plain anti-immigration, but all basically reflecting a new demand for the crowd and the minorities to have their voice in a world where they feel too much is dictated to them from the top.
But that is only part of the story. Now we have ugly scenes in Catalonia as the vast majority presses for secession from Spain — an unwise alternative but certainly reflecting deep felt anger against the over-dominating center.
Meanwhile, populist and separatist feelings across Europe have been given new impetus in areas such as Flanders, Bavaria, Silesia, Transylvania, Corsica, the Tyrol and of course still in Scotland. In the Balkans, where fragmenting national and identity rivalries led to hideous bloodshed two decade ago, they continue to smoulder on. Most of these may be historic sentiments but they have undoubtedly been given new life in the digital age.
The hope that populism has been put back in its box was always an illusion. Technology has done something which traditional politicians and political analysts find it very hard to absorb — namely it has empowered the crowd as never before.
That is not to say that it has empowered the masses in the old bogus socialist sense, allowing dictators to “interpret” the will of the people and the proletariat as they wished and to their own personal aggrandizement. The old so-called democratic socialist nations of Eastern Europe and the absurdly misnamed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are examples of that kind of empowerment, which, of course, is no empowerment at all.
No, we are confronted with an entirely different phenomenon and one which the political establishments have been very slow to recognize. The underlying forces are stronger than ever in pushing a new kind of populism which endows every individual and every network participant, at the terminal end of three and a half billion connections, with unprecedented knowledge power, opinion power and organizational power.
This is the new situation that has baffled Merkel in Germany and seriously reduced her authority and power and will do so further. It explains how British Prime Minister Theresa May got things so terribly wrong in the recent general election, as her advisers failed to understand the determination of millions of young people, using their mobiles and the iPads, to express their own views. Everywhere it intensifies feelings of local identity, which then rapidly become inflamed into antagonism against “them” meaning the establishment, the elite, the center — those above.
Does this mean we are moving into an age of anarchy? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that those who provide the framework in which debate and democracy take place must adopt new methods and mindsets to retain authority and give the kind of leadership and reassurance that people want.
The demand now is not for more laws and regulations, let alone patronizing lectures or party lines from a government that claims to know better. It often doesn’t. Instead the hunger is for more wisdom about the way a hyper-complex world works and the right mixture of a government guidance, support and sensitivity to local feelings.
This is not just a Western phenomenon. Some of it may be evident in Japan’s upcoming election. Even party-dominated and centralist China is not unaffected by this trend. In preparations for the 19th Party Congress there was much talk of “molding together” the private sector and the state in a new transnationalist China, free of the old ideologies.
No government, no administration, no political party can afford to neglect these new forces to which the digital age has given birth. The power is now in the network and the network is driven by the billions of individuals who connect into it every day, every hour, every minute.
As the old center falls apart, new legitimacy and consent for new kinds of central authority has to be generated. One headline requirement for this is going to be new methods for sharing at all levels not just wealth but the benefits of new growth, at present going only to those who have savings and wealth already, while those on average wages languish. That kind of capitalism will no longer suffice.
But there may now be an even bigger challenge for governments. The old state monopolies may have been curbed, but the new global communications monopolies of the age have taken center stage. The dominant names are familiar — Google, Amazon, Facebook, Instagram and a host of others. Governments and governed must get on the same side in seeing that while they provide benefits they do not coerce or restrict people into unwelcome patterns of life and behavior, or promote darker forces of destruction, as they have clearly done in the chaotic Middle East
Populism of one kind or another is here to stay. The politicians cannot avoid it or wish it away. It will always come back. And to keep their countries and societies together, as well as to stay in power, they will have both to adjust their methods radically and make new alliances with the people at all levels.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.