Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s new book, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy styles itself as a ‘primer’ on what the authors label ‘national populism’. It is already causing a great deal of controversy and stimulating debate. Is the term ‘national populism’, which has not been widely used in academia to date, problematic? Is the argument that we should listen to, and even adapt mainstream politics to, the concerns of this political agenda correct? Is all this not simply a sanitised form of racism? Undoubtedly, this topic is timely and prescient, especially when one thinks about the rise and ongoing popularity of Donald Trump, a figure discussed in the book at length. Yet when looking at a party like UKIP, which grew dramatically but then quickly sank, projections of untrammelled success for national populist parties can also feel at times exaggerated. Are parties such as Alternative for Germany (AfD) and The League (La Lega in Italy), alongside leaders such as Trump, Farage, Wilders and various Le Pens, really the future for mainstream western politics?
Stimulating debate seems to be a prime concern of the authors, who are keen to alert their readers to what is identified as a fundamental shift, one that demands new responses. While fascism is now dead, and older far right parties were only ever really marginal, the authors posit that a successful new trend of national populism is taking a variety of forms in differing countries. It also represents a serious threat to the liberal values that developed over the course of the twentieth century, rooted in a longer-term development of Western political culture. National populism is not like Nazism, nor is it particularly racist, Eatwell and Goodwin stress. This implies that efforts to dismiss its agenda using such labels are neither valid nor effective. Rather, national populism taps into the legitimate anxieties of a wide sector of the electorate, who have genuine concerns that need to be addressed. As such, the recent successes by national populists have been a long time coming, are not going away any time soon. There is much to agree with here, but also some problems.
Eatwell and Goodwin both have a strong track record of writing significant books that capture a topic. Eatwell’s Fascism: A History remains a classic general survey of the phenomenon. It argued fascism succeeded in the interwar years as it offered nationalists a positive vision of an alternate Europe, neither capitalist nor communist. There are echoes of this argument in this book too; national populists are praised for their ability to connect with an electorate because they also offer a positive vision of an alternative, not simply a protest against something. Goodwin has likewise written a number of books on the rise of the BNP, the growth of UKIP and also the Brexit vote, establishing himself as a high-profile commentator and leading academic in this area.
For Eatwell and Goodwin, the roots of the growth of national populism are found in what they identify as the four ‘Ds’. The first is ‘Distrust’. Many citizens of modern liberal democracies now look to the political elites in mainstream parties and fail to see people they identify with, or trust. Instead, these distrustful voters now look to outsiders, who express a similar cynicism with the political mainstream and offer a radical alternative. National populist politicians do not necessarily have to be the ‘same’ as such distrustful voters, so Trump can flout his wealth and not be viewed as out of touch by many national populist supporters.
Related to this is a second ‘D’; ‘Dealignment’. Voters are losing their traditional loyalties to established parties and, like good consumers, are happy experimenting with new political forms. As established parties seem less appealing, there is a new space for upstart parties of all varieties to capitalise. The moderate left has been the most notable loser in this process, they note. One issue here that could have been explored further though is how the breakdown of the traditional centre-left has led to an opening up of this new political space for the once-fringe right.
Their third ‘D’ is ‘Deprivation’. While many national populist supporters are not facing immediate economic collapse, they do share a perception of relative deprivation; that is, that the economy does not work in their interests. National populist policies offer alternate economic arguments that counter the mainstream consensus – from greater protectionism, to lower taxes, to Brexit. Yet paradoxically, national populist supporters sometimes seem willing to accept an economic ‘hit’ in favour of national or cultural identity policies, as evidenced by those Brexit voters who see leaving the EU as more important than economics.
Their final ‘D’ is ‘Destruction’. This refers to a sense that national identity, and often an ethnic group, is under threat from demographic change; an issue often raised around immigration and even terrorism. The alleged ‘threat’ of migration to the national community can be construed to be as powerfully as actual major demographic shifts, as with central and eastern European cases where migrant numbers are low, but the rhetoric is still potent.
It is on this theme of ‘Destruction’ that, as a reviewer, I found the book awkward. Eatwell and Goodwin are keen to highlight that national populism is not fascism, and so its politicians are not racist in the way, say, Nazism was focused on a systematic racial worldview. This is true. However, to argue that Trump et al. are not as racist in their discourse as, say, Hitler and other unabashed fascists, seems imply for the authors that they are not really racist at all. Fascists were racist but national populists are not. Here are Eatwell and Goodwin discussing Trump and racism:
while we agree that Trump advocates discriminatory immigration policies and is deeply xenophobic, as evidenced in a host of provocative statements about Mexican “rapists”, Muslim “terrorists” and “shithole” countries, he does not fit the systematically racist mould […]
Perhaps not, but surely Trump is unsystematically racist, and this is important to emphasise. They add that, while a minority of national populist voters are racist, the majority are offended and angered by the accusation. Again, this is probably true: who likes to be called a racist? But this alone does not mean such people are free of racially prejudiced views. Moreover, there are issues of structural racism in society that national populists clearly seek to entrench rather than overturn.
The book clearly demonstrates that many national populist voters are deeply concerned by what Eatwell and Goodwin label ‘hyper ethnic change’ – itself a curiously hyperbolic coinage. If such voters are concerned about increasing ethnic diversity, then there must be a prejudicial quality to negative views towards others of a different skin colour. Is this not a form of racism? To be clear, to highlight this incongruity is not to argue that these views among voters should be just dismissed as racist either, especially as Eatwell and Goodwin show just how many hold such thoughts and that they relate to other issues that are not to do with race.
The problem of failing to critically assess issues of race in this politics runs through the book, including the ways the authors select evidence for their claims. In a volume full of convincing data, there are some notable gaps. In the chapter on ‘Destruction’, there is a section titled ‘Are National Populist Voters Racist?’. They answer, predominantly, ‘no’. Tellingly, the discussion here explores data on those voters to whom the movement appeals in order to answer the question, yet chooses not to include analysis of the views and opinions of those communities national populists see as a threat. What do these sectors of various national societies have to say about discriminatory language within the parties identified by Eatwell and Goodwin as national populist? It would be useful to know. Indeed, there is almost nothing in the book that addresses in any detail what the communities often attacked by this type of politics make of such divisive agendas – above all Muslims and BAME communities in Europe and North America. Surely, if we want to understand whether national populism is ‘racist’ or not, we need to assess these views too?
Instead, the book argues that the term ‘racism’ is too easily bandied about in a ‘clunky’ way these days – especially by a radical left engaged in forms of identity politics. Highlighting issues of racism in these parties is merely playing the ‘race card’ to shut down debate. Yet as a reader who does not consider himself radical left (if anything the pejorative ‘centrist dad’ probably best describes my politics) this seems like a straw man position to justify dismissing the need to understand more nuanced racial prejudice. It is not just the far left who are concerned about structural racism within such parties, and I would have expected more sophistication from a book written by leading academics in the field. (As a historian, while reading the book I also found myself reading the Royal Historical Society’s excellent new report on racial bias in the History profession, and I strongly suggest the book’s authors also do so. This may help them consider more fully their own privileged positions when engaging with their subject matter.)
This lack of critical awareness on how minorities experience national populist agendas hampers what is otherwise often a clear, well-grounded introduction to the field. In many other ways, this is a very good ‘primer’. The book proceeds in a readable and engaging manner, and it has a strong, primarily statistical, evidence base. Importantly, the authors also draw on the work of Margret Canovan to help explain the failure of recent liberal democracies. In recent times politicians have focused on what Canovan described as the ‘technocratic’ elements of politics, but have yet have failed to offer a powerful ‘redemptive’ narrative. The question it raises for the coming years is: can other forms of ‘redemptive’ politics develop as true competitors to national populist agendas, in particular in ways that can reinforce rather than undermine liberal values?
Dr Paul Jackson is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Senior Lecturer in History at University of Northampton. His profile can be found here.
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