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Previously in Politics & Prose:

Reform Politics! (Then What?) (February 16, 2000)
Does John McCain have an agenda beyond reforming the political process? What, Jack Beatty asks, would a McCain Administration do?

The Electorate Bobby Built (January 26, 2000)
A new biography paints Robert F. Kennedy as a Machiavellian monster. How then, Christopher Caldwell asks, did he get to be a liberal icon?

Sidewalk Economics (January 26, 2000)
Mitchell Duneier's Sidewalk, a new study of street vendors on Manhattan's Sixth Avenue, turns assumptions about race, class, and social values upside down. Charles Davis reviews.

McCain and the "Bloody Chasm" (December 30, 1999)
Christopher Caldwell explains why the liberal press loves John McCain.

A New Deal for the New Economy (December 8, 1999)
Is this the best economy in years? It depends on whom you ask, Jack Beatty argues, and where in the world they live.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

The Populists' Progress

Right-wing populist parties are cropping up all over Europe. Is America next?

by Christopher Caldwell

February 24, 2000

In late January the entry of Jörg Haider's Freedom Party into Austria's government, albeit with only 27 percent of the vote, led fourteen other European Union countries to sever official diplomatic contacts with Austria. Haider's enemies say he's a xenophobe with Nazi sympathies; his friends say his real offense was to expose the corruption of his country's two largest parties -- the center-left Socialist Party and the center-right People's Party -- both of which have worked hand-in-glove to divvy up state spoils. What's more, he took on the establishment elites who run the European Union. One can argue about whether those same elites were exercising due vigilance against Haider, or foolishly mistaking a populist party for a fascist one, or even crassly protecting their own political interest. But clearly Austria was singled out as a problem country.

It shouldn't be. Although Austrians were willing Nazi accomplices in World War II -- and none were more willing than Haider's own parents -- the Austrian Freedom Party is part of a larger pattern of far-right populism that is gathering strength across Europe. Italy, Belgium, and France all have "right-populist" parties that have won upwards of 15 percent of the vote. The Democratic Center Union, Switzerland's equivalent of the Haider party, became that country's largest parliamentary bloc last fall. Denmark's People's Party, which is now at 18 percent in the polls, has altered the country's politics so profoundly that its ruling Socialists recently strengthened what was already the most draconian immigration-and-asylum law in the West. It will find imitators. Tony Blair's Labour Party has proposed requiring Third World vacationers to post a kind of bail, to be forfeited if they don't exit the country on schedule.

Some of the new-right parties and movements show the worst signs of both fascism and populism: anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and a paranoid critique of financial institutions. But some of them don't. What links these parties' voters far more than intolerance is a conviction that their traditional party systems are corrupt and offer the electorate no real choice.

Whether we call this "neo-fascism" or "right populism," shouldn't we ourselves be worried by it? The United States, after all, has high immigration, widening class differences, and two parties that are united, some say, by nothing so much as their tendency to put the wishes of lobbyists over the wishes of voters. Our voter turnout is the lowest in the developed world. So why won't we see an American version of the Haider phenomenon this November?

First, elite-bashing is the sine qua non of populism, and America's elites are widely dispersed and hard to identify. France's ruling class is based in Paris, Austria's in Vienna. Ours is spread all over the country. What's more, our cultural elites distrust our business elites and our business elites rage against our government elites. Nor does any party have a monopoly on elites. Democrats who would tar Republicans with the "fat cat" brush will still have to explain why thirteen of the seventeen richest congressional districts went for Clinton in 1996.

John McCain's proposed campaign-finance reforms, for instance, are progressive, rather than populist. McCain wants to clean up campaign finance, not purge the country's ruling classes. He understands that such a purge is impossible. McCain could upset a coterie of fat-cat lobbyists, but that will still leave a lot of other elites untouched. That's not how European populist parties, with their allegations of thoroughgoing systemic rottenness, do business.

A second reason we can breathe a bit easier about populism is that the primary system tends to thwart it (even as it promotes partisan extremism of other sorts). A populist insurgent in the Republican or Democratic Party who claims the party system poorly represents American voters is constrained by that very system into competing for only half of them. That's why an American version of the recent populism could come to power only through a third party. But from where would a third party arise?

Since at least the election of Ronald Reagan, it has made sense to split American politics into two issue clusters -- social and economic. That gives a clear picture of where American voters stand:

moralist libertarian
E C O N O M I C free-marketRepublicans?

The two groups that feel poorly represented in our democracy are the moralist regulators and the libertarian free-marketers. What made Ronald Reagan the last landslide-winning President is that he brought them both back in. But no one has succeeded in doing so since.

These two blocs, although diametrically opposed in their politics, have, since 1992, found a provisional home in Ross Perot's Reform Party. The recent resignation of Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura from the party and Donald Trump's announcement that he would not seek its presidential nomination indicate that the libertarians are massively outgunned by the moralist regulators. Henceforth, the Reform Party will be explicitly the vehicle of the latter, or at least of their two representatives: Perot and Pat Buchanan. They now unquestionably represent the largest bloc of voters who feel shut out of the system. It is they who are America's potential carriers of populism.

And that's the third reason populism won't triumph here. We've already had our outburst of it. In 1992, Buchanan took 37 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary, while Perot won almost 20 percent nationwide with an incompetent campaign. Today, Perot and Buchanan are both scraping along in the low single digits. Something happened in the intervening eight years that defused American populism at the very point it was exploding elsewhere in the world. What exactly?

The Georgetown University historian of populism Michael Kazin suggests an unusual answer: the Republican "revolution" of 1994. Although it ultimately proved to be no revolution at all, Newt Gingrich's firebrand oratory, and Bill Clinton's combative reaction to it, left Americans feeling once again that there were differences worth voting for.

Kazin's explanation is plausible. Populism thrives on unresponsive government and trivial differences between the parties, and Europe has that problem in spades. America's parties may offer little to choose from in policy terms, but American partisans have come to feel there's a massive difference between them. Ask a riled-up Republican who the typical Democrat is, and he'll say: a homosexual black union activist. Ask a riled-up Democrat the same question about Republicans and you'll get the reply: a gun-toting, Confederate-flag-waving, gay-bashing theocrat. These sentiments may be inaccurate and unreasonable, but they're also a million miles away from Jörg Haider's not-a-dime's-worth-of-difference critique that makes many Europeans see populism as an ominous threat to political stability.

If there's no right-wing populism on the horizon in this country, we have raw, ugly partisanship to thank. History may leave us with a surprising verdict: that America's strongest bulwark against fascism proved to be Newt Gingrich.

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More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He writes a weekly Washington column for New York Press, and is a regular contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
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