The first aspect that strikes one when looking at the European political scene is that no country has been spared the ascendance of the populist. Poor or rich country alike, austere or profligate budgets, the political elites have experienced a serious onslaught from those who claim to be standing outside the establishment. In Germany, it is the rise of the Anti-Euro party AfD and PEGIDA (the 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of Europe'), in Greece it is Syriza and the neo-facist Golden Dawn, whilst in the UK it is UKIP and populist comedians of various convictions.
|Experts in shadow boxing - Russell Brand and Nigel Farage|
Photo: JOHN DONEGAN/AAP/Press Association Images/Ben Birchall/PA Wire
Fascinatingly, this is all 'old hats' when looked at from the perspective of the US. There the main challenge to the political establishment happened earlier and has already waned again, the tea party movement. And it is this movement that may tell us something about why things are happening here in Europe and where things are likely to end up.
Initially, the tea party had all the signs of an extra-parlimantarian social movement, advocating empowerment of the citizens vis-a-vis the political classes. As such, it encountered all the challenges of social movements in a time of technological change, where allegiance is paid by 'likes' and collective action is frowned upon as 'old school'. This weakened the effectiveness of the movement significantly, and before long, the tea party morphed into an appendage of the Republican Party. Most observers thought this to be its natural home, its political credo echoing the messages of citizen empowerment over government, yet that is a simplification of the complex mesh of anger and frustration of tea party members who often articulated little more than a virulent anti-politics motive.
The core of this anti-political motivation is a clue as to the kinship between the tea party and their European populist equivalents. For members of the tea party, just like for UKIPers and members of the AfD, it was a keenly felt loss of control that lies at the heart of the problem. Populists differ about what it is over which control is lost, immigration, sovereignty ('I want my country back!') or the national budget (enter Syriza: the German 'occupation'), but they are united in the desire to re-gain control over something that is close to their heart.
This leads to an analysis of the nature of their populism. A brief survey of political realities reveals that none of their promises can be fulfilled. In an increasingly interdependent world, the re-instatement of national sovereignty over 'international forces', be they bankers, multi-national conglomerates or 'the Germans' is wishful thinking. None of the issues that they would like to re-gain control over is 'manageable' in the old, nation-centred way. Immigration into the UK is not simply a problem of the European right of mobility, solved easily by leaving the EU as UKIP proclaims, but is a long term trend fuelled by rising wealth in developing countries that provides just enough means to ever more people to escape stagnant economies or corrupt regimes to get to Europe (or the UK). It is a product of a world becoming ever smaller in economic and geographical terms, with consequences for travel, mobility and economic interdependence.
As for the rest of the populist messages (so-called 'Islamisation' of Europe, or German 'occupation' of Greece) there is little hope for this to change any time soon, simply because they are the results of a wrong take on reality. In essence, populism will fail because it offers the wrong analysis and hence draws the wrong conclusions.
Having said this, all this does not mean that the anti-political mood is going to vanish any time soon. The traditional political elites in Europe and the US have proved reliably insensitive to infuse populists like Farage, the organisers of PEGIDA and Tsipras with new life at every turn. Only honesty about the impotence of political decision making can change that, but that is a counter-intuitive message for everything politician. The bread and butter of political life is the promise of a new Jerusalem, of a solution to all problems. Yet, the space for sovereign political decisions is shrinking and shrinking fast, something you wont catch a politician admit, of populist hue or not. So the political class is caught in the bandwagon of promises, and the populists are clinging on for the ride.