Much of the discussion about the causes of “populism” that is currently taking place seems to me to be hopelessly binary. The term is now used to describe an extraordinarily diverse array of figures, movements and parties (and even, in the case of Brexit, outcomes) in different geographical locations. The causes clearly differ in each case – even within Europe. But even many of those who recognize this seem to think it is possible to make the claim that, in a specific case, populism can be explained by either “economic” or “cultural” factors rather than a complex interaction between the two. A good example is Timothy Garton Ash’s essay in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, in which he claims that the success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is caused by culture rather than “economic factors”. It seems to me the reality is much more complex.
Writing about Germany, Garton Ash argues that:
Unlike in Britain and America, economic factors play only a small part here. It’s not just that Germany as a whole is doing well economically. In a 2016 poll, four out of five AfD voters described their personal economic situation as “good” or “very good.” This is not a party of the economically “left behind.” It gathers the discontented from every walk of life, but those who predominate in its ranks are educated, middle-class men. A leading CDU politician told me that the angry protest letters he gets from defectors to the Alternative will typically be from a doctor, businessman, lawyer, or professor. This strong presence of the educated upper middle class distinguishes German populism from many other populisms.
Garton Ash does at least go beyond the most facile version of the argument that economic factors cannot explain populism in rich countries – even in rich countries like Germany, some people are not doing so well (the “left behind”) and are pretty angry about it. But even those who are not “left behind” and see their economic situation as “good” or “very good” may fear that things may change in future. Analyses like Garton Ash’s that look only at absolute levels of economic well-being (here is another example) rather than the sense of economic insecurity people feel are too one-dimensional. Moreover, focusing on voters’ personal economic situation assumes an extremely atomistic view of how people vote. Surely, even if they are doing well themselves, and do not even fear that this may change in future, they may simply care about others in their neighbourhood, region or country who are not doing so well?
More importantly, people may vote for parties like the AfD precisely because they’re doing well. The AfD was created in 2013 in opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the euro crisis. After she reluctantly agreed to bail out Greece in the spring of 2010 – though only if it implemented extreme austerity and structural reforms – many Germans feared the emergence of a “transfer union” in which fiscally responsible countries would endlessly subsidize the fiscally irresponsible (the AfD’s name was a direct response to her statement that “there is no alternative” to bailouts). The AfD stood for an extreme version of her own endlessly repeated idea that countries should be responsible for their own debt – even in a currency union such as the eurozone. Its voters oppose “expropriation” – in other words, having their money taken away from them.
Of course, this does not answer the more difficult question of exactly how many of the nearly 6 million Germans who voted for the AfD in the recent election did so for this reason – in other words because of “economic factors” – and how many did so for “cultural” reasons (that, is anger at immigration and/or Muslims and/or at the progressive cultural change in Germany since 1968). It is worth emphasizing, however, that over two million German voters voted for the AfD in the last election in 2013, when its focus was still on the eurozone. So it seems to me plausible that around one-third of AfD voters may be motivated at least in part by fears of “expropriation” in a “transfer union”. In the end, though, it may be impossible to separate cultural and economic factors. They are linked in the rhetoric of AfD leaders, who claim that, in both the euro and refugee crises, Merkel suspended the rule of law.
What I think this all illustrates is that there is a complicated typology of “populism” – even in Europe. The problem with the term is that it tends to elide the differences between different types of Eurosceptic parties. In particular, there are important differences between left-wing and right-wing Eurosceptic parties. But it seems to me that there are also important differences between “populism” in creditor countries and in debtor countries. It is striking that in debtor countries such as Greece and Spain, left-wing parties such as Syriza and Podemos – which focus on economic rather than cultural issues – have emerged as powerful political forces. In creditor countries, on other hand, right-wing parties such as the AfD and the Finns Party – which focus on both cultural and economic issues – have made a greater impact.