The roar of anger that fuels the advocates of national-populist political campaigns can be heard, like an echo, in many corners of the planet. Javier Milei is the most recent case of a sweeping wave ― including the likes of Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro and Meloni ― representing a radical overhaul of the political system as a popular rejection of all conventional approaches. The far-reaching impact stems from the many similarities between various elements of the reactionary international scene. Nevertheless, this does not exclude the existence of some significant differences in the underlying causes of their success and in their proposals.
Milei’s personal traits and political views make him a hyperbolic figure, even within the radical world of the reactionary international, and, not surprisingly, his victory is generating considerable incredulity and disbelief in the ranks of progressives and moderate liberals. His proposals reflect extremism to an exceptional degree, they are devoid of solid intellectual foundations, threateningly retrograde in their conservatism, and are promoted by a leader whose demeanor does not exude the calmness that is expected of a leader.
However, Milei’s hyped-up chainsaw is in keeping with the spirit of rejection of the establishment that is inherent to the national-populist world. This took the form of the United Kingdom’s vote for Brexit in defiance of the position of the main parties, the multinationals and the unions where the “screw the experts” slogan prevailed; the U.S. conquered by Trump and his “drain the swamp” mantra; in an Italy governed today by the only party in parliament that did not support the government of national unity during the pandemic ― the far-right Brothers of Italy ― which only had 4% of the votes in the term of office, and which took advantage of this solitary opposition to attack everything and everyone, and later became the country’s leading party; and Brazil, which gave rise to Bolsonaro, who was not a representative of any of the nation’s main parties.
It is the popular spirit of the complete overhauling of a political system based on the outrage of citizens who feel that they are not served by it, it does not protect them, it does not work for them, and it is biased and rotten. Such deep frustration fuels the appetite for radical change and spawns outsiders who preach a populist blend of caste demonization, nationalism, conservatism, historical revisions, nostalgia for a supposedly greater past ― making America great again; regaining the control supposedly lost in the United Kingdom; the wilderness that began with democracy in Argentina, and so on.
Savvy leaders pour fuel on the fire by tapping into the possibilities of modern times: social media today, and soon, increasingly so, artificial intelligence will become an issue to contend with. Politics is carried to the emotional terrain, and once there, it is difficult for rationality to prevail.
However, this common basis should not mask the differences. These frustrations are stoked, depending on the case, by resentments due to national or global causes in different proportions. In some countries, the former predominate by far, and in others, the latter may be more significant.
In the case of Argentina, it is evident that Milei’s victory represents a total rejection of the administration of Kirchner’s Peronism. Similarly, Bolsonaro’s success was based on a deep-rooted antipetismo (towards Lula and Rousseff’s Worker’s Party). In these cases, the progressive proposals mainly lost because of their own failures. This was either due to economic management with disastrous results, or because of the large shadow of corruption that loomed over them, rather than a national longing for isolation from a world importing problems.
In other instances, the boom in national populism responds to a greater extent to global phenomena, to a protectionist instinct facing global challenges, the developments of an interconnected world, the harmful collateral effects of certain forms of free trade, migratory flows, technologies that benefit some while harming others and climate change and its challenges. In this area too, social democracy has paid the price for past mistakes, its adherence over a long period of time to values with a liberal overtone, which made it indistinguishable from the moderate right. Yet in this case it seems to reflect more a general evolution of the world that is not the direct responsibility of the left either. Trump, Orbán and Brexit are perfect examples in this scenario in which the rejection of anything that comes from outside carries enormous weight and supports protectionist, nationalist, conservative proposals and a longing for a return to the past.
According to the main driving force, for instance, the positions on free trade, immigration or foreign policy may differ, or in any event have greater or lesser influence on the approach.
Other differences inherent to the national-populist surge involve the origin of the figurehead. In some cases ― as with Milei or Bolsonaro ― they are complete outsiders who rise to power. In others, it is a matter of traditional parties that slide towards this type of ideology ― Republicans in the United States and Tories in the United Kingdom.
The two different scenarios entail distinct implications. These involve the brakes that, regardless of a turnaround, may be pushed by a traditional party, with a long history, in which moderates remain active, and the plight of those who are not enslaved in them. Of course, they also boast political dominance in the parliament ― absolute majorities or the need to negotiate ― and a democracy in which they can rise to power.
The national-populist wave is by no means invincible, and has suffered setbacks ― recently in Poland and Spain. A pattern emerges whereby their lousy governance performances lead to poor electoral results, impeding the re-election whenever democracy maintains sufficient strength, as in the USA (Trump’s defeat); Brazil (Bolsonaro’s loss) or Poland (the PiS’s failure). The case of Hungary illustrates the risks of circumstances in which the national-populist approach successfully erodes democratic values enough to stifle genuine options for change (the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) believed that the last elections in Hungary were free, but not fair).
Unfortunately, according to the most respected international studies on the subject, the quality of democracy is in decline in many parts of the world.
The traditional conservative right, in a panic crisis owing to the rise of radical national-populist movements that annihilate them (France, Italy) or compress their space to the point of making it impossible for them to govern without them, have increasingly opted to cooperate with the radicals or even to adopt their arguments. History will pass judgment on them for this.
Meanwhile, the social-democratic left and the liberals should reflect in depth. Not only on the global issues that give rise to extremists and offer answers in terms of social protection (“Europe that protects,” as Macron proclaimed; “provide security,” as Sánchez pointed out in his investiture speech). This is both correct and essential. However, it is necessary to more thoroughly analyze the whole spectrum of actions and failures that, from the realms of moderation and progressiveness, have contributed to the phenomenon of the national-populist wave in the Western hemisphere. This is a very significant threat to the preservation of fundamental rights and, in some cases, of the most basic democratic values. Milei’s case is probably the most radical of all, and demonstrates that its development may reach unimaginable and potentially explosive places.
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