There have been many efforts to explain the rise of global populism, most of which posit it as a blowback against globalisation and the unequal economic effects that it has had on developed-country populations. The liberal international order has exacerbated income inequality, with middle classes rising in places like China and India at the expense of working classes in North America and Western Europe.
But there has been a competing explanation for the shift that is rooted in cultural identity rather than economics. Or rather, identity becomes the way that voters interpret economic decline. Many core supporters of populist politicians, from Brexit voters to supporters of Donald Trump, are former middle- or working-class citizens who believe their social status has been threatened by larger social forces: the massive entry of women into the labour force, the large numbers of immigrants and refugees entering their country, and elites who seems largely indifferent to these outcomes. But they are joined by many other voters whose jobs are secure and whose incomes are rising, but who worry about the loss of cultural identity. According to political scientists Marisa Abravanel and Zoltan Hajnal, immigration has displaced race in the United States as the single most important factor explaining white voter shifts into the Republican Party.
In Europe, these fears were vastly stimulated by the entry of perhaps a million refugees from Syria in 2015, and German Chancellor Merkel’s apparently open-ended invitation to accept them. This provided an opening for opportunistic politicians throughout Eastern Europe to warn of the dangers posed by the European Union’s system of free internal movement, despite the fact that most countries there have tiny immigrant populations. Sweden and Germany, which took a proportionately large number of migrants, have seen the rise of the Sweden Democrats and the Alternative for Germany, new populist parties riding the anti-immigration wave.
Understanding the degree to which populism is rooted more in identity rather than economics is important in understanding how to counter it, and the threat it poses to liberal democracy worldwide. If the main driver of populism is inequality, then better welfare state protections for the poor might be the answer. But that doesn’t explain why Sweden, with one of the world’s largest welfare states, is suffering a populist upsurge, with the Sweden Democrats winning third place in the election in early September. If the issue is one of identity, then the focus needs to be put squarely on the issue of immigration, and the discontents it causes.
There is an assumption frequently made by many on the left that opposition to immigration is primarily driven by racism and xenophobia. That is surely the case with many in this camp: one has only to listen to the rhetoric of Matteo Salvini of the Italian Lega or of Donald Trump to see that race lies behind much of their animus. But there are other voters who are not racist, but who are troubled by, first, the fact that much of the new migration is illegal; and second, that the numbers are so large that the receiving countries will have a hard time assimilating the newcomers to the national culture.
These are, indeed, serious issues in and of themselves. The United States has not been able to enforce its own immigration laws, and the European Union has not be able to secure its outer borders, for many years now. The Schengen system of free movement within the Schengen zone is workable only if its outer borders are secure. With the closing of the Balkan route into Western Europe, new refugees have been piling up in Greece, Italy, and now Spain, with predictable populist results. These countries need much more help in coping with this problem than they have been getting to date.
The free movement of people within the EU is one of the pillars of current EU policy, one largely driven by economic efficiency concerns. But in addition to triggering a populist backlash, this freedom has also had a devastating effect on many of the sending countries in the east, where Ukraine, Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria have lost up to a quarter of their populations — often the most ambitious and best skilled — to western Europe in recent years.
Another legitimate reason to question the current immigration regime concerns assimilation. Immigration brings welcome diversity and economic benefits, but that diversity works only if migrant populations are integrated into the core values of the host country within a generation or two. Countries can support a high level of immigration if they have the institutions to integrate newcomers, which requires substantial investment of resources. It also requires social consensus on a national identity that is liberal and accessible to the different groups that make up our de facto multicultural societies.
Defeating identitarians of the right will require addressing their legitimate concerns, while firmly opposing those who are simply racist or xenophobic. All modern democracies need to have a sense of political community within which citizens of varied views can deliberate and come to collective decisions. Identity politics on the left and right have been pushing us in the opposite direction, towards exclusive identities often based on fixed characteristics like ethnicity, race, gender, or religion, that leads to polarisation and a zero-sum competition between groups. Since identity is socially constructed and inherently flexible, this is an area where the right sort of political leadership can push us in a different direction.
Francis Fukuyama spoke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival this month. His new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, was released in September.