BRISTOL, England -- In Iowa, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump proved themselves to be real contenders. In New Hampshire, they led the field. But the rise of political outsiders is not just an American phenomenon. It mirrors the growth of populist parties on the old continent: Syriza and Golden Dawn in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Five Star movement in Italy: the list goes on and on.
The differences between these people and movements might seem so big that it can hardly make sense to group them together. But all are rightly seen as manifestations of a rising populism.
This term needs some clarification, since it has historically meant different things in America and elsewhere. This kind of populism sees mainstream politics as, at best, bankrupt and at worst, corrupt. Political power has been seized by vested interests and elites, robbing the ordinary people of their entitlements. Sanders used exactly the same words to claim that both the Iowa and New Hampshire results "sent a very profound message to the political establishment, to the economic establishment and, by the way, to the media establishment." To this diagnosis, populism proposes a cure: a return to power for the people, by individuals or parties that stand for common sense and justice.
Trump and Sanders fit the mold perfectly. They even have their European equivalents. Trump is an American version of an early harbinger of the rising populist tide: Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. Both men are derided by anyone vaguely intellectual as rich buffoons. But this misunderstands their appeal. People like the fact that they are not intellectuals because intellectuals are obfuscators who inhabit an unreal, rarified world. What they see are plain-speaking people who may not be saints, but they get things done and don't bow down before the gods of "political correctness."
Trump is an American version of an early harbinger of the rising populist tide: Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. ... Sanders, meanwhile, is the political twin of Britain's Jeremy Corbyn.
Sanders, meanwhile, is the political twin of Britain's Jeremy Corbyn, both proudly unreconstructed socialists who promise to take on big business and return society's abundant wealth to the many, not the few.
Like all populists, any amateurism is to their advantage as it just goes to show their honesty and lack of spin. Gaffes that hurt other politicians only help populists, since they emphasize how much more human they are than the old guard of apparatchiks. Berlusconi, for instance, repeatedly made "jokes" that made many of his compatriots wince, such as when he claimed to use his "playboy charms" on Finland's female prime minster, or when he called a German member of the European Parliament a "concentration camp guard." It harmed his ratings as little as Trump's string of outrageous pronouncements has harmed his.
The very fact that the serious press and the political establishment are alarmed by the rise of the populists only confirms that they have something to fear. But we do have something to fear. Populism is invariably simplistic, both in its analysis of problems and in its solutions. Trumps plans to build a wall across the Mexican border and kick the so-called Islamic State's ass are dangerously misguided. Sanders's plans are not so reckless, but still, the idea that you can fund huge public spending increases by massively increasing taxes on corporations goes against evidence-based economics, which shows that it is much more difficult to increase the tax yield.
If we are to avoid heading down populist cul-de-sacs, we have to start by recognizing that there are good reasons for its appeal. When Sanders talks of a "corrupt campaign finance system" and a "rigged economy," as he did after both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, he has a point. There is a great deal of truth in the idea that mainstream politics has stopped serving the people across the democratic world.
A balancing act needs to be pulled off, acknowledging what populism identifies correctly as deep problems in our politics while resisting the often conspiratorial details and simplistic, unworkable solutions.
In pursuing the laudable goal of liberalizing trade and opening markets, Western governments have indeed given too much power to large corporations and rich individuals, including a certain Mr. Trump. In seeking the support of swing voters, they have neglected the interests of everyone else, most notably the worst off. In professionalizing their campaigning, they have lost their grassroots connections and authenticity, instead becoming bland brands.
Mainstream parties that offer realistic policies need to respond to the populists, not by stealing their clothes and their policies, but by showing they are not themselves naked. The choice between these two options is being dramatically played out in America right now. On the Republican side, the populist Tea Party movement has effectively shifted the center so that all the leading candidates are in one way or another playing the populist tune.
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are essentially competing with Trump on his terms, not so much challenging his populism as claiming to provide a more realistic version of it. So, for example, in the last ABC televised debate, Ted Cruz adopted populist anti-establishment rhetoric saying, "I will always stand with American people against the bipartisan corruption of Washington." In Europe too, the most disturbing aspect of populism is not so much its share of the vote, but how it is shifting the center ground its way.
Hillary Clinton, however, is trying something quite different, conceding that supporters of Sanders have legitimate grievances but insisting their man doesn't have the answers. After New Hampshire, she acknowledged that "people have every right to be angry" adding an important "but:" "But they're also hungry. They're hungry for solutions," solutions that by implication Sanders doesn't have. She is quietly making the case that grown-up politics isn't as easy as Sanders maintains, but that she too wants many of the same things as her opponent. Hence after the Iowa result, she made a point of claiming "to stand in the long line of American reformers" who believe "that the status quo is not good enough."
This requires making the case that society can only hold together and make progress if it adopts a more moderate, consensual, boring, mainstream kind of politics.
A balancing act needs to be pulled off, acknowledging what populism identifies correctly as deep problems in our politics while resisting the often conspiratorial details and simplistic, unworkable solutions. This requires neither dismissing the populists out of hand nor granting too much to them. Most of all, it requires making the case that society can only hold together and make progress if it adopts a more moderate, consensual, boring, mainstream kind of politics.
The problem in America right now is that the most prominent advocates of this course are so deeply part of the hated establishment that winning trust is almost impossible. The best we can hope for is that the populist surge is held back in 2016 and that by the time of the next presidential election, a new generation of independently minded, sincere mainstream politicians will be able to lead the counter attack.
America is not Europe. Whether this is seen as cause for celebration or lament, it is always a warning against those who would generalize about "the West" based on observation on only one continent. Nonetheless, the political parallels between the U.S. and Europe concerning populism are so striking that we must take seriously the idea that something very important is happening in democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. To respond to it wherever we are, we need to look at what's happening far beyond our own borders.