Across those same countries, some opposition parties resist the prevailing ideology. They are often sovereignist parties, although the term is vague enough to include the radical left as well as the far right. Sovereignist movements are frequently labelled “populist”. Populism has a specific meaning that differs whether used in political sciences or within the context of electoral sociology.
Put simply, from a political science perspective, populism embraces the overall political claims left out by the ruling parties. In terms of electoral sociology, populism stands for working class questioning of the leadership’s traditional values and governance techniques. Currently, the ruling classes refer to the term “populism” in a derogatory way, referring to the criticism of the internationalist-liberal model, while also showing class disregard.
Populism: the outcome of broken promises
There is no true debate between ruling and opposition parties. Government parties wave the threat of populism as a way to discredit the opposition, to sweep popular protests away and to make any political alternative sound malevolent, unreasonable and extremist. Thus, they evade the substantive debate on the model of society that citizens aspire to.
In reality, populist parties represent everything ruling parties have abandoned. The populist left embodies traditional socialism aiming at protecting working classes in particular. Hence, it strongly opposed the mainstream social-liberalist model that accepts wage deflation in favour of competitiveness in a globalised economy. As for the populist right, it represents an assimilative social model, as opposed to the multiculturalism of the traditional right. However, when it comes to the right, European political diversity generates differing criticism from populist parties. Thus, as the French populist right criticises the right-wing government for giving up economic patriotism and protectionist thinking, the British populist right criticises the obsolescence of classic liberalism, in favour of extreme European regulation.
The leftist paradox
The social-democratic European left has neglected its working-class electorate, as it no longer supports the openness of globalisation. The electoral base of the French Socialist Party is mostly comprised of pensioners and civil servants. After losing its working-class electorate, the party had to redirect its “political offer” to meet the expectations of both the urban petty bourgeoisie and the immigrants. Thus the party fostered emancipation movements (such as feminism) and the extension of LGBT rights. Likewise, its openness towards the electorate of immigrant background expresses itself through pro-Islam positions and asserted multiculturalism. However, Islam, as all major religions, adopts a patriarchal social model. Hence, the more Islam flourishes, the more it is expressed in the public sphere and strengthens criticism against the libertarian policies emerging from LGBT and feminist movements.
The left wing also has its own paradox: it attempts to revive the proletarian mythology when the working-class has already turned to the Front National (French far right party). The radical left also considers immigration a good asset for France. Global competition ruined the French industry, while urban gentrification drove the working-class out of the big cities, thus making social housing the only option available to them. Workers also moved out of the big cities, as they no longer wanted to cohabit with immigrant populations; considerably disrupting traditional demographics and political geography. The radical leftist leaders are stuck with empty rhetoric, as they are well aware of this phenomenon, yet they cannot abandon their xenophile tendencies.
The right-wing paradox
The traditional bourgeois or traditional working-class voter (both suburban or rural) are opposed to immigration and any form of multicultural expression.
However, they are poles apart in terms of their economic circumstances. The wealthy classes benefit from globalisation and open borders. Economic liberalisation broadens their potential and establishes their domination over the weakest. It is the exact opposite for popular classes: liberalisation and globalisation equal unfair competition and job instability.
This is even reflected in the geographic breakdown of the electorate: the upper class in dynamic cities and suited to global competition, and the working-class in declining economic areas, far from wealth creation and low annual incomes.
The upper class and the wealthy retirees want more Europe while popular classes are no longer in favour of European integration and even show the will to come back on the fundamental principles of the EU.
Hence, the question both traditional right wing and sovereignist parties face is how to rally two separate electorates on immigration-related topics, when those two electorate points of view fundamentally diverge, both on broad policy orientations and institutional guidelines for their country?
When communication replaces politics
Political synthesis is the miracle tool to overcome those difficulties.
It enables dramatically opposed political streams to cohabit while under a single leader, within the same political family. Political communication then replaces political action.
Political action consists in saying what one intends to do and then do what they say they would, whereas political communication involves adopting a temporary stance defined by the immediate political context in order to rally a specific electorate. Therefore, a political synthesis equals making contradictory and empty promises to various electorates with opposing interests.
In the current European context, political synthesis seems easier for the left wing. The electorate that supports feminist movements and/or LGBT emancipation tend to be in favour of a multicultural model of society. Thus, it agrees that an asserted Islam is key to the identity of Muslim citizens. Yet, the expansion of a particular Islam (Salafism) generates communitarian withdrawal and produces acts of intolerance. Many left-wing leaders turn a blind eye to this situation and even tolerate the intolerance, as long as it comes from voters. The left wing waits for the right wing to tackle these highly sensitive topics and create controversy. This is a tried and tested approach and enables the left wing to rally its electorate by utilising the need to combat Islamophobia as well as a rightist turn in voters’ minds.
In France, the call to defend and reaffirm republican values has become a key component of left-wing rhetoric. Although the Republican project is aimed at gathering individuals from various backgrounds and cultures within a national community, its current stance tends to enthuse communitarian idiosyncrasies.
It seems harder for right wing parties to achieve political synthesis. We can argue that they did under president Sarkozy in 2007, but they can no longer achieve it now, due to an overall rising hostility towards Europe. How to ensure cohabitation with the urban right wing on the one hand, always prone to further European integration and increased free movement of workers and goods, while on the other hand promising protection and social justice to the right wing of more suburban and rural populations, demanding the return of state intervention in economy and the re-establishment of national borders?
Globalisation disrupted national political spheres by splitting both left and right wing electorates. This occurred across most countries, including the USA. Though the left-right divide is now marginal, it still remains a point of reference for the type of world in which we want to live. Each party has to overcome the paradoxes that globalisation created and rally diverse parts of its electorate through political synthesis. Should a new pan Western-European political geography emerge, with a purely urban versus rural ideology, we might see the generation of a new type of political entity that does away with the two-party system, centre-right/leftist coalition and the single alternative.
Politics, a generational matter
As a factor of political and institutional conservatism in Western countries, demographics constitute an additional bond between states.
Western states experience demographic decline and an ageing of their population. While other continents enjoy strong demographic growth. This leaves western countries feeling diminished while migration fuels the instinctive fear of seeing one’s country, culture and identity disappear.
Rightist movements, both traditional and populist, take those issues into consideration specifically their populist parties such as the Popular Party in Belgium, UKIP in the UK and the Swedish Democrats in Sweden. Because they break such a taboo and rekindle the debate on peaceful coexistence among civilisations, they are often considered far-right movements. However, coexistence issues are not only specific to European Christian and Caucasian countries. A 2011 Ipsos survey reveals that this phenomenon actually affects all continents. This phenomenon is inherent to the human being, hence its universality.
Western declining demographics have a perverse effect on the turnover of political and institutional classes. Ruling parties inherently represent dominant classes. Hence, as they aim at holding on to power, they are inevitably conservative. Prevailing parties are widely supported by populations that sociologically have every reason to protect their assets.
In Europe, this population is mostly made up of baby boomers that have now reached a certain social status and only aim at maintaining it. Moreover, pensioners, even living on a modest income, rather favour status quo than change. To some extent, such behaviour can be explained by inflation – often linked to political uncertainty – which impacts more dramatically retired populations who, as a result, value political stability.
The later generations consider the baby boomer legacy to be mostly the memory of a golden age (1945-1975), one that sharply contrasts with the economic crisis that came afterwards and seems to continue. A catastrophic environmental legacy and a huge national debt are the negative outcomes of this era, and these impact today’s generations. Furthermore, resentment grows due to the low labour supply in the job market still ruled by a generation that used to experience full employment in its youth. The French political class perfectly epitomises this egotism. Although bitterness is justified, there is not any generational confrontation, as baby boomers are the parents or grandparents of present day youths.
Everyone knows that the elderly vote while youth rather favours absenteeism. There is a growing indignation against ruling classes in the West. Populist parties are moving forward. Change seems close at hand and more perceptible, however, it cannot yet be achieved, as conservative forces remain stronger yet silent.
Until the West resolves its demographic issues, it seems destined to go deeper into a severe economic slump and existential crisis, with no hope of a shift towards a stronger political power, taking position against the purely economic interests that seem to guide today’s policies. The Western paradox consists in observing its own decline, yet deems all solutions as harmful. This is a generational issue.