The evidence of continued populist strength is even stronger elsewhere in Europe. Two right-wing Italian populist parties, the anti-immigrant Lega and the socially conservative Brothers of Italy, combine for 41 percent of the vote in recent polling averages. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s once-dominant party, Forward Italy, has shrunk to a mere 7 percent. In Italy, the center-right is almost exclusively populist.
Meanwhile, in Finland, the populist Finns Party is tied in polls with the country’s ruling Social Democrats at 21 percent. In Spain, the hyper-nationalist Vox has skyrocketed from less than a quarter of a percent of the vote in 2016 to 18 percent in the latest polling average. Belgium’s anti-immigrant Flemish Interest party, which supports Flemish independence, leads the polls in that country, and anti-immigrant, nationalist parties fare well in polls in Sweden, Portugal and Austria. Whether they are rising or merely holding steady in support, right-leaning populists are not going away.
Their concerns influence public policies even in countries where mainstream parties dominate. Austria’s ruling Austrian People’s Party was well behind in the polls in the run-up to 2017’s parliamentary elections. It ditched its old leader and appointed 30-year-old Sebastian Kurz, who had gained fame for his anti-immigrant proclamations, as its new leader. Almost overnight the party took the lead, cannibalizing votes that had previously been going to the sternly populist Freedom Party. Kurz and his party won that election and another in 2019 and today sit comfortably atop the polls.
Denmark’s Social Democrats pulled the same trick in 2019, backing the populist Danish People’s Party’s immigration policies in a bid to regain working-class support. It worked, with the populists dropping from 21 percent in 2015 to a mere 9 percent in 2019. They have continued their populist immigration policies in power, recently proposing to limit the share of “non-Western” immigrants in a neighborhood to 30 percent, a policy UnHerd’s Peter Franklin calls “inverted Apartheid.”
Britain’s Boris Johnson is the best-known mainstream practitioner of populist politics. His staunch support of Brexit and firm immigration controls allowed him to win a “stonking” majority in the United Kingdom’s 2019 election. Like Trump, he gained massive numbers of votes in formerly safe Labour Party working-class seats that English pundits had labeled the “Red Wall” (in Britain, the Labour Party is red, while Conservatives are blue). The Conservatives, who have traditionally pulled from the upper class, now draw their support from English and Welsh working-class voters, an inversion of the curve that typified British politics for more than a century.
These findings are all evidence of the enduring appeal of populist values in a large segment of the population almost everywhere. Native-born voters without a college degree or similar qualifications want nationalist policies that restrict migration and ensure that economic growth is shared across groups and regions. Socially conservative and religious voters worry that their values, once dominant everywhere in the West, will be preserved in some fashion before liberalism sweeps them away. These demographics are not a majority in any significant country, but they are persistent and large enough that they cannot be easily brushed aside.
These truths provide lessons for America’s two main parties. For Republicans, it means that any successful majority party has to incorporate these themes, much as Kurz’s and Johnson’s parties have. For Democrats, it means that they can preserve their majority only if they give these views enough heed that they aren’t perceived as out-of-touch elitists. They don’t have to go as far as Denmark’s Social Democratic prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, but backing loose immigration enforcement policies that create a crisis on the southern border is definitely a losing proposition.
We still live in a populist era despite the pandemic. Politicians who recognize that and adapt will survive and thrive. Those who don’t won’t.