How To Beat The Populists

Businessman Standing on Steps Outside Talking Through a Megaphone, Large Group of Business People Listening and Applauding
Businessman Standing on Steps Outside Talking Through a Megaphone, Large Group of Business People Listening and Applauding

Co-authored by Stanley B. Greenberg

Last week's Brexit victory provided new evidence of the power of the populist wave that is sweeping the world. Those who are worried about the nationalist, tribalist, intolerant tone behind the Brexit campaign and the growing ranks of populist leaders around the world should be asking: is there a way to stop this wave?

We think there is, but only if responsible, progressive leaders and parties start governing and campaigning in smarter ways.

Right now, most media attention understandably goes to the often-colorful populist leaders and movements that are beating electoral expectations, upending traditional political parties, and capitalizing on national frustrations: in addition to the Brexit campaign, Donald Trump in the US; National Front leader Marine Le Pen in France; right-winger Norbert Hofer, who came within 35,000 votes of winning Austria's presidency last month; or Rodrigo Duterte, the inflammatory former mayor who just won the Philippines' presidential race.

Unfortunately less attention goes to the leaders who are managing to beat these kinds of popu-lists. They are worth focusing on, since their successful strategies may hold the vaccine liberal democracy needs to protect its own health. A few stand out.

First, although Hofer received most of the coverage in the Austrian presidential race, it's worth keeping in mind that he lost the election, and it's interesting to focus on why Alexander Van der Bellen, formerly of the Green Party but running a centrist campaign, was able to beat him.

A second case is Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, who last month became the first Fine Gael PM to win re-election (albeit now atop a minority government). Despite having adopted tough austerity measures after the 2010 economic collapse, he withstood a strong populist challenge from the left, especially by Sinn Fein. (Full disclosure: we worked on Fine Gael's campaign.)

A third populism-beater is Canada's new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. To be sure, Trudeau's opponent last November, the Conservative incumbent, Stephen Harper, was no Trump - more of a conventional pol who overstayed his welcome. But Harper did try to rally populist, anti-Muslim sentiment late in the game by crusading to restrict Muslim women from wearing a niqab.

So how have such leaders beat back the populist wave? Their paths have all been different, but their successes share five common characteristics.

First, to differing degrees, all three, along with many other politicians who have warded off ex-tremist challenges, have shown respect for the frustration and sense of loss that currently pulls many voters toward populist voices. For example, it does not work to call voters "racist" for wor-rying about immigration. A Brexit post-election poll our firm conducted shows that nearly half of all UK voters were put off on voting for "Remain" because they felt that side was dismissive of concerns about immigration. Anti-populists must show they are willing to control national borders and give citizens more rights than non-citizens, as part of a compassionate balance.

Second, anti-populist leaders tend to succeed when they show they stand for something - that they have a driving purpose and political project. Van der Bellen stressed his support for the EU, which is popular among the young urban Austrians who gave him his slim margin. Trudeau fo-cused on economic stimulus and redistributive policies that offered change on the issues populist voters care most about - jobs and incomes. Kenny stressed a program to keep Ireland's recovery going, which counterbalanced populist charges about the unfairness of past tax increases and service cuts. Laundry lists of policy ideas lack the singularity required to push back on populists. At a time of legitimate frustration with continuing income stagnation, growing inequality, and crony capitalism, anti-populists need to make clear what the dominant challenge is, and who are the main villains blocking change.

Third, as they govern and campaign, successful anti-populists have touted the tolerant, multi-cultural values that tend to define young, urban voters - the core of anti-populism in most coun-tries. Just months before his re-election, Kenny helped lead Ireland to become the first country to adopt a national marriage equality referendum. Van der Bellen, despite his age (72), appealed to young voters with a message of inclusion. Trudeau, in his early 40s, more naturally appealed to the young, and like Van der Bellen affirmatively argued for welcoming migrants.

Fourth, successful anti-populists have tended to embrace voters' outrage about corruption and the impact of big money in politics. The Panama Papers have helped catalyze global anger among average citizens that they are being ripped off by powerful elites who manipulate public policy to amass fortunes, evade taxation, and then use their wealth to buy political protection for their interests. As Bernie Sanders has shown in the US, anti-corruption and campaign finance reform are powerful issues for countering the grievances wielded by populists like Trump.

Finally, many of the successful anti-populists have prevailed in part by mobilizing "fear of the politics of fear." Van der Bellen warned Austrian voters they would "run the risk of not recognizing Austria if Norbert Hofer becomes president." Trudeau countered Harper's anti-niqab effort directly and forcefully, arguing that, "the same rhetoric that led to a 'none is too many' immigration policy toward Jews in the 30s and 40s is being used to raise fears against Muslims today."

The experience of every generation proves that tolerant democracy must be willing to defend itself in order to endure. Today, responsible, progressive leaders and parties are only likely to preserve tolerant democracy and retain the public's support if they offer stronger narratives, which respond to the intense frustrations average voters feel worldwide. As we worry about the Trumps of the world, it is also worth watching and emulating the Anti-Trumps.

Greenberg and Rosner are Chairman and Executive Vice President, respectively, of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a global polling and campaign management consultancy