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The rise of Western populism

Within the Western world, populism and nativism are undoubtedly on the rise. In the space of just one month we have witnessed Brexit, the returning of Pauline Hanson to the Australian Senate and, most recently, the confirmation of Donald Trump as the GOP’s presidential nominee. In France, polls suggest that there is a real possibility that Marine Le Pen could be elected president in 2017. This begs the question: why are such seemingly illiberal politicians gaining ground in the heartlands of liberal democracy?

There are several notable areas of commonality shared by modern Western populists. Hanson, Le Pen and Trump all portray Islamic terrorism as an existential threat to the West. Whilst Le Pen has called for France to follow the example of the British in exiting the Schengen Zone due to fears of terrorists infiltrating France, Hanson and Trump have gone even further in calling for a complete ban on Muslim immigration. The three are further united in their advocacy for protectionist policies and distrust of free trade. Hanson has emulated Trump in pledging to withdraw from international agreements perceived to be harmful to domestic industries.

The recent, sustained electoral successes of populist candidates and movements can no longer be dismissed by the establishment as mere anomalies. Instead, their rise must be understood as a being symptomatic of a growing malaise felt by many in the Anglosphere and West. There are many who feel economically and culturally vulnerable as a result of the increasing globalisation of the world. The capability of ISIS to execute and/or inspire a wave of attacks in the West has undoubtedly only exacerbated this sense of anxiety. Closed borders and economic protectionism therefore appear as a source of recourse in an otherwise volatile and unpredictable world.

Whether or not concerns over globalisation, immigration and free trade are well founded is, in some sense, irrelevant. As long as the perception exists that ordinary citizens of the West are under siege from terrorism and globalisation, the momentum of politicians like Trump and Hanson will continue unabated.

This is unfortunate for those who value the foundational principles of liberal democracy. The singling out of Muslims and other minority groups as threats undercuts values such as tolerance, pluralism and freedom of religion—values without which liberal democracy could arguably not exist. The scapegoating of Muslims actually plays into the hands of ISIS, which seek to eliminate the ‘grey zone’ inhabited by moderate Muslims by provoking Western governments into instituting reactionary, prejudiced and divisive policies.

This is not to mention the very real and deleterious effects that such demonisation can have on minority communities and diplomatic ties with other nations. Increasing incidences of racial attacks post-Brexit are indeed a logical implication of a campaign that blamed many of Britain’s economic woes on immigration. The irony is that, if heeded, brash calls to tighten border restrictions for economic and security reasons will endanger future economic prosperity.

Whilst one might not subscribe to populism, insularity and nativism are an understandable knee-jerk reaction to a world many perceive to be increasingly turbulent. This is why it’s imperative that the perceptions which feed populist politics are challenged. Instead of dismissing politicians like Trump and Hanson as unhinged, the political establishment needs to engage with and convince vulnerable constituents of the benefits of globalisation. French minister for the economy, Emmanuel Macron, leads a movement called ‘En Marche’, which aims to do just this by making a concerted effort to convince voters of the benefits of open markets and immigration.

Where people lose out from globalisation and/or changing market trends, programs must be implemented to retrain workers and transition them into new industries. It is no coincidence that a bastion of Trump support is the American ‘Rust Belt,’ in which declining coal mining and manufacturing industries have left the region struggling with unemployment and shrinking populations. Despite the decline of these industries pre-dating the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), many in the region blame free trade for their current predicament. Notwithstanding the veracity of these claims, it's clear that many have been neglected by politicians, which means efforts must be undertaken to reinvigorate damaged communities.

Trump and Le Pen may lose, the UK could end up staying in the Schengen and reintegrating into the European single market, and Pauline Hanson may well be a one-term senator. Yet if measures are not undertaken to re-engage disgruntled voters with both real and imagined grievances, new iterations of populism will continue to resurface.

Henry Storey is completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Politics and International Relations at the University of Melbourne.

Image credit: Byung Chul Kim (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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