The rise of right-wing populism

Dina Shehata
Friday 4 May 2018

What are the reasons behind the current rise of right-wing populist movements across the world

Trump, Putin, Modi, Erdogan, Orban, Le Pen, Wilders — these are the names of but a few of the leaders representing the rise of right-wing populist movements across the world today.

Right-wing populist movements share important commonalities including an anti-elite/establishment orientation, nationalism combined with racism and xenophobia, opposition to free trade and globalisation, and an emphasis on reasserting traditional gender and family roles.

In the American context, right-wing populism began with the emergence of the Tea Party Movement within the Republican Party.

This distinguished itself from traditional Republican politics by its appeal to white working-class Americans, its opposition to immigration, free trade and globalisation, and its desire to control women’s bodies and reproductive freedom by banning birth control and abortion.

The Tea Party Movement capitalised on a growing feeling of economic and social exclusion by white Americans, who increasingly fear that their dominant status within American society is being threatened by the rise of women, immigrants and minorities.

It also built on the economic insecurity felt by an important segment of the American working class as a result of free trade and globalisation and the consequent de-industrialisation of the American economy.

The movement built on the angst of American males who feel that the rise of women and racial and LGBT minorities to positions of power is threatening the traditional structure and power hierarchies of American society.

In Europe, right-wing populism has had a stronger nationalist emphasis and has been closely tied to the rise of Islamophobia and the rejection of immigrants, especially from the Muslim world.

It also has a strong anti-EU component. Right-wing populism in Western and Eastern Europe builds on the social and economic grievances of the European working class and attributes these to globalisation, European integration and immigration.

It prescribes reducing the powers of the EU, greater economic protectionism, and restrictions on immigration as a solution to Europe’s problems.

The recent success of the Brexit referendum in the UK has been attributed to the rise of nationalist and anti-EU sentiment in the UK. Similarly, the rise of leaders of right-wing populist movements to power in Poland and Hungary, in addition to the growing shares of the electoral vote won by parties such as the Front National in France and the Alternative for Germany Party in Germany, has also been a measure of the rising strength of these movements across Europe.

Finally, the growing strength and popularity of leaders such Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi represents a growing backlash against globalisation, Westernisation and secularism in the non-Western world.

These leaders adopt a nationalist and xenophobic outlook that seeks to reassert the past glories of their nations in opposition to western hegemony and globalisation. They propose a vision which emphasises nationalism, religion and social conservatism in the face of globalisation, individualisation and social diversification.

In short, the right-wing populist movements across the world represent a yearning to return to an imagined past in which communities were homogenous, families were patriarchal and heterosexual, employment was secure and economies local, and religion and nationalism were unchallenged.

This is an ideal posited in opposition to the complex reality of globalisation and of post-modern and post-industrial societies that encourage the free movement of goods, people and ideas and where traditional conceptions of nation, family, religion are being questioned and redefined.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 and the end of the Cold War the US political scientist Francis Fukayama famously declared the “end of history” and the final triumph of the Western liberal economic model.

However, the recent upsurge in right-wing populist movements and leaders across the world represents a negation of the proposed triumph of the Western model and the rise of an alternative vision for the future characterised by rising nationalism, economic protectionism, and social and political conservatism.

In fact, the rise of right-wing populist movements across the world seems to be validating the vision of fellow US political scientist Samuel Huntington of a post-Cold War future defined primarily by a “clash of civilisations”.

Today we are seeing the emergence of a new multi-polar world order in which each nation and civilisation is reasserting its autonomy vis-à-vis the others, externally through growing nationalism and economic protectionism and internally through growing authoritarianism, social homogenisation and conservatism.

Especially troubling in this new world order is the status of racial and ethnic minorities, who are often perceived as a kind of fifth column to be feared and contained rather than as citizens to be integrated.

The rise of right-wing populism is thus likely to have a negative effect on the progress of democratic governance and individual and minority rights across the world.

As more countries move in a more nationalist, conservative and authoritarian direction, individual and citizenship rights, especially those earned by women and minorities, will likely be eroded in the name of nationalist and religious ideals.

Moreover, more international conflicts are likely to result from the spread of nationalist and xenophobic movements across the globe, with refugees, immigrants and minorities suffering the most.

However, such multi-polarity might also have a limiting effect on the scope of such conflicts, with all-out wars being replaced by proxy wars such as the ones now being fought out in Syria and Yemen.

The writer is a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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