What If the 'Populist Wave' Is Just Political Fragmentation?

An alternative theory of what's shaping Western democracies

Election posters outside the Dutch parliament (Yves Herman / Reuters)

Ever since the United Kingdom’s shocking vote to leave the European Union in 2016, nearly every political contest in the Western world has been characterized as a showdown between the moderate, establishment cosmopolitanism that has dominated Western politics for decades and the far-right populist nationalism that triumphed during the British referendum. Donald Trump’s election in the United States has been declared a victory for populist nationalism, whereas Norbert Hofer’s electoral defeat in Austria and now Geert Wilders’s loss in the Netherlands have been described as rejections of that ideology. The “call of the populists … stopped here in the Netherlands,” one Dutch politician proudly proclaimed after the country’s election this week. Upcoming elections in France and Germany are cited as the next crucial tests.

But what’s striking is how such sweeping conclusions are being drawn from such close votes. Had 80,000 Americans cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton instead of Trump, had a small percentage of Austrian, British, and Dutch voters changed their minds at polling stations, we might be talking today about the far right’s conquest of Austria and the Netherlands, and its retreat from the U.K. and the U.S., rather than the other way around.

The inconclusive results suggest that the most significant trend in Western democracies at the moment might not be the rise and fall of populist nationalism. Instead, it is arguably the disintegration of political parties. The story here is less about which specific type of politician people want to be represented by than about a crisis of democratic representation altogether—less about the empowerment of populists than about the broader diffusion of political power.

As Cas Mudde, a Dutch expert on populism, has noted, the first-place finisher in the Dutch election, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right VVD, and the second-place finisher, Wilders’s far-right PVV, together secured only a third of seats in the country’s parliament, with 11 other parties taking the remainder. The Netherlands’ proportional-representation system has long encouraged an array of parties (micro-parties explicitly cater to immigrants, pensioners, even animal-rights advocates), but what’s new is that the major mainstream parties aren’t so major anymore, and the minor fringe parties are no longer irrelevant.

“In 1986, the top three parties together won 85 percent of the vote,” Mudde points out. “In 2003, it was down to 74 percent. Today it is just around 45 percent.” In the 1980s, three parties—the VVD, the centrist CDA, and the center-left PvdA—consistently gobbled up roughly 80 percent or more of parliamentary seats. This week they collectively won only 40 percent of those seats, with the PvdA picking up a measly nine.

Similar dynamics are evident in the United Kingdom, where the once-dominant Conservative and Labour parties now vie for influence with the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the U.K. Independence Party. As Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has explained, “Parties of the left, which used to be anchored in the working class, in the trade union movement and factories, are now increasingly dominated by public-sector employees and creative industries like the media. Parties of the right, which used to stand for the aspirational classes, are now more elitist and metrosexual. The countryside is disgusted by the metrosexual cosmopolitanism of the conservatives, and the workers are disgusted by the new left.”

In fact, these trends are on display across Western Europe, Mudde writes:

The main center-right and center-left parties are shrinking, smaller parties are growing and unstable coalition politics are becoming the norm. ...

The consequences have been painfully visible across Europe for some time. It took Belgium 541 days to form a government after its 2010 election. Both Greece and Spain were in recent years forced to hold second elections after the first Parliaments failed to form coalitions. In the Netherlands, forming a government is not quite as difficult, but the next one will most likely be a coalition of four to six parties [ranging ideologically from conservative euroskeptics to liberal environmentalists].

In a 2013 paper, Robin Best, a political scientist at Binghamton University, noted that the number of political parties receiving votes in elections had increased since the 1950s in nearly all the 18 Western parliamentary democracies she examined, and that in most cases the number of parties with seats in each country’s legislature had also grown (one exception was France, which has a semi-presidential political system). These trends typically began in the 1970s and 1980s and gained strength in the 1990s and 2000s, accelerated most recently by developments such as economic crises and terrorist attacks.

“Some of this has just been the result of social change,” Best told me. “The nature of work has changed and diminished support for traditional labor parties. The nature of religion has changed. … At the same time you have the rise of new issues [that mainstream parties aren’t seen as addressing]. You have immigration concerns. … You have the European Union. You have environmentalism.”

Major left-wing parties find themselves in a particularly difficult situation because their core working-class constituency “doesn’t exist in the number or the form that it used to,” which has forced them to move to the center on economic policy and embrace identity issues related to multiculturalism. This strategy has allowed these parties to survive, but many are still floundering as they refashion their images.

And in a splintered political system, public disenchantment with traditional parties becomes self-reinforcing: “The more fragmentation occurs, the more difficult it’s going to be [for fragile, unstable coalition governments] to pass any type of coherent policy program. And voters are probably going to end up being even more dissatisfied” and inclined toward protest votes. When mainstream right- and left-wing parties work together in governing coalitions—as they often do in Europe these days—it also reinforces people’s perceptions that the major parties are all part of the same homogenous elite. Viktor Orban, the populist leader of Hungary, has described this predicament as the “diminishing arena of political choice.” Voters concerned about that arena constricting are likely to opt for a radical alternative.

The United States is experiencing many of the same “inputs into the system” that European countries are, according to Best. The country’s two major parties are institutionally weak, and a growing number of Americans are identifying as political independents. American democracy is beset by political polarization and distrust of political institutions. But the U.S. hasn’t witnessed the same level of political fragmentation that European countries have in part because, when it comes to protest movements, the Republican and Democratic parties are “internally fluid” in a way parties across the Atlantic aren’t—they are flexible enough to assimilate Trumpists and Bernie Bros and Tea Partiers. This is in part a reflection of the fact that the United States doesn’t have proportional representation in the way the Netherlands does; the Dutch system makes it easier for smaller parties to get into the legislature without getting absorbed by bigger parties. If the United States had been transported into the Dutch political system, Best said, the result of last year’s U.S. election would likely have mirrored the Dutch result: “the second-largest party [would have been] a radical right-wing populist party.”

The measure of populist nationalist politicians isn’t as simple as whether they’re winning or losing elections and controlling governments, Best told me. It must also take into account whether they’re influencing the political debate. (During the Dutch election campaign, Rutte’s VVD and other right-wing parties co-opted and toned down parts of Wilders’s platform, which centered on opposition to Muslim immigration and Dutch membership in the European Union.) And it must consider whether they’ve become a fixture of politics, in or out of government.

Populist parties have “cemented their foothold in European politics and to a similar degree in American politics,” Best said. “I don’t think they’re going anywhere. I think they’ve established themselves as a relevant alternative to mainstream politics.” But it’s important to keep in mind that they are not the only alternative. And mainstream politicians still very much have a voice. It’s not that the call of the populists was silenced in the Netherlands this week. It’s that in today’s fractured political climate, calls for political change are more numerous and diverse than they have been in decades.