Populism Is Appealing To European, American Voters, But Eastern Europeans? Not So Much

After decades of living under the repression of communism, many Eastern Europeans emerged with aspirations of becoming more like their Western counterparts. The idea of a liberal democratic government and a free market system was a dream many held and continued to hold as Vladimir Putin rose to power.

But the rise of populist movements led by France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump in the US, is causing many to reconsider whether the West is the example they wish to follow, says Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“It might be a reasonably safe bet that the West will weather the rise of the Trumps, Farages, Corbyns, Le Pens, and others. But the revival of this ugly brand of populism, deployed against the central tenets of liberal democracy, is already doing irreparable damage in the East,” he argues.

That populism also shifts the conversation about the West populism, nationalism, and xenophobia, which only serves Russia’s goal of causing Eastern Europeans to question the wisdom of allying with the West.

Populism is not new to the Europe Union, and has gained new life following the collapse of the global economy in 2007. Politicians seized on the fears of middle class citizens about their economic futures, as well as the rising number of immigrants flowing across their borders in recent years.

“Populist parties usually express a general frustration felt around the wrenching societal changes caused by globalization. In Europe, this frustration expresses itself most dramatically over the issues of immigration and integration of new countries into the European Union. Successful populist parties have tapped into the anger that citizens feel with what they perceive as inadequate mainstream strategies to protect the essential character of national societies and to maintain the social safety net,” wrote Brookings Institute scholars Bilyana Lilly and Jeremy Shapiro last year.

The growing strength of populism is not isolated to nations in Western Europe. In Latin America, one can point to the Leftist populist movements of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

While the populism of Trump and Le Pen are gaining energy, the allure of Chavez’ style of governance has lost some of its appeal, in part due to the fact that Venezuelans economic well-being declined, rather than improved.

As Foreign Policy’s Christopher Sabatini notes: “Chavismo’s damage is real, and deeply felt. But the government of Chávez and Maduro and the Bolivarian project have been marked more by incompetence, corruption, and criminality, than by ideological coherence.”

The example of Venezuela may prove the case for those who argue that while the economic philosophy of capitalism has survived over generations, populist movements tend to fall in and out of favor, argue the editors of The Journal of Democracy.

“Populism is novel because despite all its incarnations it fails to deliver. A powerful message born from fear is useful for unification but fades quickly when the fear does. It’s unsustainable on either side of the spectrum. As the world looks upon the US election and sees the state of our politics, it effects our international credibility. In a globalized world that grows more connected by the second, the fear of integration might become a self-fulfilling prophecy that leaves the West disadvantaged,” they conclude.

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