Why the Right-wing Populist Upsurge?

Against the Current, No. 205, March/April 2020

Val Moghadam

FOR AT LEAST a decade scholars, pundits and activists have observed and commented on the upsurge in electoral victories by right-wing populist movements and political parties (which I’ll call here RWP).

Initially, much of the commentary pertained to European countries including France, Italy, Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands and Sweden, with studies identifying common grievances and demands — immigration, welfare cuts, the refugee crisis of 2015 — but also differences in approaches to women, the family, and sexuality.(1)

Some of the right-wing populist parties were formed in the 1990s but most came to win elections in the new century: Australia’s One Nation, Austria’s Freedom Party, the Danish People’s Party, the Finns Party (previously called the True Finns), France’s Rassemblement National (formerly Front National), Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), Italy’s League (formerly Northern League) in coalition with the hard-to-define Five Star party, the Party for Freedom of the Netherlands, and the Swedish Democrats.

RWP now has become a global phenomenon, encompassing movements, parties, and governments in the global South as well as in the global North. Countries with RWP governments include not just Poland and Hungary in Europe but also Turkey, Israel, India, the Philippines, Brazil, and the peculiar case of Trump’s USA.

In Britain, the RWP message of two anti-European Union (EU) parties — the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Brexit Party — was appropriated by the Conservative Party under a faction led by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg. After the parliamentary election of December 12, 2019, Johnson’s British version of Trump’s “America First” mantra is being implemented.

Populism of various progressive as well as reactionary strains is hardly a new political phenomenon; it has appeared in the United States, Russia, and Latin America at different times and in different forms since the 19th century. Contemporary RWP, too, is varied.

In Poland and Hungary, RWP appeals to voters fed up with the neoliberal economic policies of past governments. Hungary’s Victor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party, and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party have increased social spending.

In contrast, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro wants neoliberal economic reforms after the regulations and social spending of his predecessors from the Workers’ Party, Ignacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Roussef. France’s Marine Le Pen rails against “savage globalization,” but Israel’s Netanyahu and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have no quarrel with neoliberal capitalist globalization.(2)

Right-wing populist movements are gendered, in that their leaders and founders are mostly men and their discourses and tactics often evince a problematical form of hypermasculinity. Typically, their notions of femininity and of women and the family are traditional and would strike feminists as dangerous, but such notions do resonate with a certain section of the female population.

Conservative and right-wing parties and movements have not been devoid of women supporters. Indeed, some RWP parties in Europe (notably France) are led by women; those and other RWP parties promote women’s rights and gay rights against what are seen and portrayed as intolerant attitudes and practices of immigrant (particularly Muslim) communities.

Populist Grievances

Populism is not an ideology in itself but rather a discursive style and political strategy, usually appearing during periods of political polarization, leading to an “us versus them” approach to grievances and mobilizations. Populist leaders appeal to “the people,” “the real people,” “the silent majority” and similar terms for a political base.

Across many Western countries, galvanizing issues are economic deprivation, immigration, refugees, integration, law and order, terrorism and the perceived loss of culture.

With the share of foreign-born residents now ranging from 11%-17% in Germany, France, Sweden and the Netherlands, there is pressure on welfare spending, and the 2015 migration crisis added to anxieties.

As such, the populist appeal may reflect the popular will for a more participatory democracy when capitalist globalization and neoliberal states have enabled gross income inequalities, periodic financial crises, wars, unemployment, precarious forms of employment, and welfare cuts.

Exploring Trump’s appeal in 2016, sociologist Arlie Hochschild writes of American voters who feel dispossessed and are angry about how mainstream politicians have ignored them or ridiculed their culture and religiosity. Many also see their economic woes and the end of the “American dream” tied to free trade agreements, immigration, and security concerns.(3)

Who votes for populist parties and leaders? A study of who voted for Brexit in 2016 showed how Britain was divided along economic, educational and social lines.

The poorest households, with incomes of less than £20,000 per year, were much more likely than the wealthiest households to support leaving the European Union, as were the unemployed, people in low-skilled and manual occupations, people who felt that their financial situation had worsened, and those with no qualifications.

Groups vulnerable to poverty were more likely to support Brexit.(4) The strongest driver was educational inequality: “Groups in Britain who have been ‘left behind’ by rapid economic change and feel cut adrift from the mainstream consensus were the most likely to support Brexit.”(5)

In the United States, Britain and elsewhere, material and cultural interests alike have galvanized such voters. In turn, voters resonate with the RWP parties and leaders calling for a welfare state for their “own people” first.

Populist leaders exploit capitalist contradictions and societal frustrations to attain or remain in power. They may deploy “the people vs. the elites” rhetoric, but in many cases such rhetoric and accompanying political moves reflect intra-elite competition and contention rather than an alternative democratic agenda that genuinely benefits the people.

In general, the rise and spread of right-wing populism expresses political, economic and cultural grievances, anxieties and demands, which right-wing leaders can exploit to gain political power. In this way, they echo Marx’s brilliant analysis of the rise of a reactionary demagogue in the wake of failed revolutionary hopes, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

Populism’s Dark Side

Populism’s darker version expresses hostility and antagonism toward “others,” usually minorities or foreigners or “alien ideologies.”

Across countries experiencing RWP, antagonism is directed toward Muslims who cannot or will not assimilate or are blamed for terrorism (Europe); toward Palestinians and their continued demands for statehood and Arab-Israelis who demand equality (Israel); toward Mexicans and Central Americans who migrate or seek refuge in large numbers (USA); toward the European Union for its intrusive regulations (Brexiteers in the UK); toward Kurds and their continued demands for equality or autonomy (Turkey).

Both milder and more extreme versions of RWP hostility are also found within Islamist parties and movements, whereby “the Muslim people,” “Islamic values,” or “the land(s) of Islam” are to be protected (either peacefully or militantly) against Western, Christian, Jewish or secular influences. In India, RWP extremism entails the defense and promotion of “Hindutva” against Muslims and Islam.

When populist protests have erupted across the globe, in some cases it is difficult to distinguish right-wing and left-wing inclinations. The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests in France exemplify this.

They were triggered by French president Emmanuel Macron’s introduction of a fuel tax, something generally approved on the left and by environmentalists. Yet the underlying grievances pertained to the president’s unilateral decision-making, growing income inequality in France, and changes to France’s longstanding and very generous social contract.(6) Similar grievances are observed in other countries where protests have erupted: Chile, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq.

Whither Left-wing Populism?

In many accounts, RWP has grown among those who have felt left behind by the mainstream parties that have adopted neoliberalism and disregarded the economic difficulties or cultural concerns of many ordinary citizens. Across the RWP landscape, however, there are national or even local specificities that need to be considered when explaining the upsurge.

In the UK for example, the Labour Party’s loss of many seats in its heartland to the Conservatives was not the result of Labour’s neglect of its traditional working-class base but rather the leadership’s very difficult political position, given that the party’s membership was roughly split on whether to remain or to leave the EU.

The ambiguity on Brexit cost the party and its left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn numerous parliamentary seats and the party’s potential to offer a socialist alternative to the status quo. (Corbyn was himself the target of a vicious smear campaign since his election as party leader in 2015, and spurious charges of anti-Semitism dogged the Labour party, both of which likely played a role in the party’s defeat in the December 2019 general election.)

Yet the picture is not completely rosy for the victorious Conservative Brexiteers, who will have to contend with a revived nationalism — of the left-wing variety — in Scotland, where the pro-EU Scottish National Party (SNP) won overwhelmingly and its leadership plans to hold another referendum on independence.

As early as 2014, Alasdair Rankin, SNP Councillor for Edinburgh, wrote in The Economist magazine of “alienation after more than 35 years of neoliberal economic policy and directives from London.”(7)

A likely constitutional crisis also is impending with respect to Northern Ireland, where the nationalist Sinn Fein is popular and the many voters who prefer to remain in the EU look to a possible unification with the Republic of Ireland.

Left-wing populism, therefore, can be the alternative to the right, and it sometimes takes a nationalist complexion even as it demonstrates a preference for inclusion in a broader community and a robust capacity for internationalism.

In Argentina, the left-wing populism of Nestor Kirchner emerged from the wreckage of the 1998-2002 financial crisis and depression. This was accompanied by a wave of left-wing political parties being voted into one Latin American country after another, in what was called “the pink tide.”

Left-wing parties or movements that emerged from the 2008 financial crisis and ensuring Great Recession include Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza, and in Italy the contradictory Five Star movement.

Podemos, which did quite well in the 2016 general election, has called for nationalizing industries, hiking business taxes, raising the minimum wage, imposing a maximum salary, limiting the working week to 35 hours, reducing the retirement age to 60, and a referendum on leaving NATO.

In the United States, the Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign gained momentum in 2016, and if nominated he could very well have won the presidential election.

Thus far, left-wing populism has not fared well. The Latin American pink tide has receded. Syriza as a ruling party encountered a punishing debt repayment regime from Berlin, Paris, and Brussels, leading to internal rifts and loss of power in the July 2019 general election. In November 2019, Spain’s Podemos joined a coalition government with the Socialist Party, but the far-right Vox party became the third leading party, while the Catalan independence crisis remains unresolved.

Britain’s Labour Party (as noted) lost numerous seats in the December 2019 general election. And in the United States, Donald Trump’s “America First” populist rhetoric continues to appeal to his base — even as he reneges on his 2016 campaign promises to end U.S. involvement in Middle East conflicts and to allocate resources toward jobs for Americans in infrastructural projects.

What Is to be Done?

Left and right populists alike are suspicious of traditional institutions, on the grounds that they have been either corrupted by elites or left behind by business elites and technological change.

This suggests not only that neoliberal globalization has produced a critical mass of disaffected voters and politicians but that liberal democracy itself is in crisis, unwilling or unable to tackle the policies that have given rise to the problems and the backlash.

There is no shortage of left-wing alternative programs, parties, and movements. What is lacking is a coordinated, concerted effort to unite leftists, socialists and progressives around a common platform and agenda.

For some pundits, today’s right-wing populism has echoes of the 1930s (the crimes of fascism and the tragedy of the runup to World War II). Personally, I do not see analogous historic conditions.

There does not exist a large socialist/communist movement and working-class base that the bourgeoisie would find threatening in any way. Capitalism, unfortunately, remains in a secure position, despite all the movements and uprisings of the past decade. The challengers to U.S. hegemony, notably China, are themselves capitalist states.

Thus, in the same way that Marx analyzed the 18th Brumaire, 1851 coup of Louis Bonaparte, there is something farcical about many of the leaders of RWP parties and governments. If history is our guide, these parties and governments may serve only to reinforce the capitalist world order, as is the case with Trump, Johnson and other RWP leaders.

Seeking an alternative, in July 2019, DiEm25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025), the pan-European movement formed by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, forged an alliance with Britain’s Labour Party to seek changes to EU policies, and DiEM25 planned further alliances through a new initiative called the Progressive International.

Potential allies could be the Green parties in the EU, many of which — from the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium — won additional seats in the European Parliament after the May 2019 elections.

Some Green parties have expanded their platform beyond environmental issues. In the Netherlands, tax avoidance by multinational corporations is a signature issue. In the United States the Green Party opposes militarism and war.

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attack the rich and privileged in a way that used to be taboo in mainstream U.S. politics. A 2018 article in The Economist magazine, citing Gallup polls, reported that some 51% of Americans aged 18-29 had a positive view of socialism. In the 2016 primaries more youth voted for Bernie Sanders than for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined.

Almost a third of French voters under 24 in the 2017 presidential election voted for the left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon.(8) And we have seen the rise of youth-led climate justice movements, including Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion.

But trade unions need to be revived and to take a stronger role in helping to build a progressive coalition. Indeed, working with progressive political parties, unions could play an important recruitment and bridging role by organizing workers and providing political education to their members (including those who have veered to RWP) while also challenging the overweening power of capital to set the terms of the labor-capital relationship.

In the absence of “the party” of the past, we need an International that would reflect the democratic spirit of the World Social Forum as well as the strategic vision and mission of the socialist movement’s revolutionary internationalism, with a job-creating green social-welfare model that also recognizes the right of people to health and leisure.

An alternative to the rise and spread of RWP would require coalition building within and across countries, as well as a common platform that would be attuned to national specificities. Such a coalition and agenda arguably could attract citizens previously drawn to Right populists. We need the optimism and the will to move in that direction.


  1. See Susi Meret and Birte Siim, “Gender, Populism and Politics of Belonging.” In B. Siim and Monika Mokre (eds.). Negotiation Gender and Diversity in an Emergent European Public Sphere (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013); Susi Meret, Birte Siim and E. Pingeaud, “Men’s Parties with Women Leaders. A Comparative Study of the Rightwing Populist Leaders Pia Kjærsgaard, Siv Jensen and Marine Le Pen,” in G. Campani and G. Lazarides (eds.), Understanding the Populist Shift (London: Routledge, 2016).
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  2. I discuss these developments in more detail in my forthcoming book, Globalization and Social Movements: The Populist Challenge and Democratic Alternatives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).
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  3. Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American right (New York: The New Press, 2016). See also William A Galston, William A, “The 2016 US Election: The Populist Moment,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 28, no. 2 (2017): 21-33.
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  4. The study by Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath is available at https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/brexit-vote-explained-poverty-low-skills-and-lack-opportunities. See also Paul Lewis, Seán Clarke and Caelainn Barr discuss a study by The Guardian (UK) on how populist parties have managed to reduce poverty and income inequality, at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/07/revealed-populist-leaders-linked-to-reduced-inequality.
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  5. Goodwin and Health, ibid.
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  6. For details, see Jeremy Harding, Jeremy, “Among the Gilets Jaunes.” London Review of Books (21 March 2019): 3-11.
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  7. Letter to the Editor, The Economist, Aug. 2nd, 2014: 12.
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  8. The Economist, “Millennial Socialism,” Feb. 16, 2018: 9.
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March-April 2020, ATC 205

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