The Populist Dilemma


The recent upsurge in support for populist conservatives, not only across Europe, but in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and even India has inspired talk of “a nationalist revival” and “the cosmic magnetism” of Donald Trump and Brexit. Here, it is argued, is a movement that finally can take on both the Green-oriented and increasingly authoritarian left.

Yet maybe it’s time for right-wingers to put down the Champagne glasses. Conservative nationalists may have made considerable headway, but in many countries, the geographic, demographic and economic tide continues to pull the other way toward ever more politically correct, climate-obsessed rule from above.

Indeed a strong majority of those elected last month to the European parliament back the European Union and its basic policies on migration, climate and top-down social control. More ominous still, the Green movement, the new standard bearers of the globalist left, has emerged as the biggest winner in many countries, notably Germany.

The geographic challenge

Conservative populism and its core positions — from preservation of national culture to restricting migration and protecting the middle class — thrives mostly outside the urban cores of Europe. It is largely a movement of suburbanites, small-city and rural residents. This has been true for the Brexit movement as well as political uprising throughout Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States.

Sadly, especially in Europe, many smaller cities and rural locations are losing population, particularly among the indigenous residents. Globalist policies, notably tied to climate change, undermine their economic viability, which lies in basic industries such as manufacturing, agriculture and energy and diminishes their ability to hold onto young families.

In Hungary, for example, the overall population continues to drop, down from 10.8 million in 1980 to 9.7 million today, and could fall to 6 million in 50 years.  In contrast, Budapest’s population, like those of other major European capitals, has remained largely stagnant and thus an ever-growing portion of its population. Urban centers tend to be globalist and climate obsessed, and, in some places, notably France and Germany, also home to fast-growing, often alienated migrant populations and their offspring with left-of-center tendencies.

The demographic equation

These demographics represent the biggest threat to the revival of populism. Europe’s low birthrates, and levels of family formation, now emerging as well in the traditionally fecund United States, Canada and Australia, threatens to erode conservative populism’s natural base. Families with children are likely to prefer preserving the distinct cultures and value systems of European countries; as they are replaced by migrants often hostile to these ideas, as well as unattached, single and childless households, the nationalist base naturally shrinks.

Generational changes also are not working to the nationalist advantage. Throughout Europe, the UK, Australia, Canada and the United States, younger urban voters are the primary force behind ever more intrusive, expensive and often ineffective climate politics. The mass indoctrination that now often passes for education is turning young people, at least those who vote, into a kind of Green equivalent of Mao’s Red Guards.

In Europe, weekly strikes from school by climate-obsessed youngsters has been widely embraced by the mainstream media. These activists, like those who recently harassed California Sen. Dianne Feinstein for advocating more reasoned climate policies, may well constitute the future left that may spurns both national culture as well as competitive capitalism.

Needed: A positive nationalism

To succeed against the well-financed and infinitely better-funded progressive globalists, nationally oriented populists need to offer something other than negativity and nostalgia. It is fine to reject the notion, embraced by Democrats like Pete Buttigieg, that “America was never that great,” but quite another to build a positive agenda that builds on national pride.

This requires, among other things,  going beyond the right’s blind allegiance to free market ideology, which fails to recognize the  trends that lead to both increased inequality and weakening moral structure. What is needed is not ideological homilies but realistic alternatives to polices such as the Green New Deal.

A more class-sensitive approach could appeal to those, like the French gilet jaune movement and some trade unions, including here in California. These are not largely “deplorables” but people who do not want their jobs, communities and futures sacrificed at the altar of the great Green religion. This is particularly relevant for growing economies such as Hungary and Poland as well as in the dynamic areas of the United States such as Texas or Australia’s Queensland.

But most of all, populist nationalism must stand for something other than dividing people along religious or even subcontinental Indians on ethnic lines. To be sure, strict control of borders is critical, but this can be done in way without the often cruelly nativist manner of people like Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Trump or Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Rather these political forces should be for integrating disparate groups around the mutual benefits of embracing the resident economic and political structures.

Also critical is acceptance for democratic norms. The democratic but authoritarian policies enacted in Poland and Hungary may not be remotely as oppressive as those of the 20th-century fascists and Communists, but concerted attempt to control media has no place in a well-functioning democracy.

Leaders of parties on the populist right also need to be more careful with whom they ally. The acceptance by mainstream nationalist Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of a coalition with the nationalist pro-Putin Freedom Party, founded by a former SS officers, represents a poor model. Last month a video of a party leader seeking a Russian bribe led to the collapse of the existing conservative government.

Ultimately, to stem the globalist advance, populists, here and abroad, must find ways to win over not only the old and the less well educated, but also the young and new migrants. In the end a successful political movement rests on ideals that inspire people to greater achievement, not greater division.

This piece originally appeared in The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, director of the Chapman Center for Demographics and Policy and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism in Houston, Texas. He is author of eight books and co-editor of the recently released Infinite Suburbia. He also serves as executive director of the widely read website and is a regular contributor to, Real Clear Politics, the Daily Beast, City Journal and Southern California News Group.

Photo: By Michael Vadon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons