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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

We haven’t hit peak populism yet

An election worker brings in a polling location sign for the evening at an early voting center in Berryville, Ark., Feb. 28, 2024. (Terra Fondriest/The New York Times)

By David Brooks

We used to have long debates about American exceptionalism, about whether this country was an outlier among nations, and I always thought the bulk of the evidence suggested that it was. But these days our political attitudes are pretty ordinary. America, far from standing out as the champion of democracy, as a nation that welcomes immigrants, as a perpetually youthful nation energized by its faith in the American dream, is now caught in the same sour, populist mood as pretty much everywhere else.

Earlier this year, for example, the Ipsos research firm issued a report based on interviews with 20,630 adults in 28 countries, including South Africa, Indonesia, Brazil and Germany, last November and December. On question after question the American responses were, well, average.

Our pessimism is average. Roughly 59% of Americans said they believed their country is in decline, compared with 58% of people across all 28 countries who said that. Sixty percent of Americans agreed with the statement “the system is broken,” compared with 61% in the worldwide sample who agreed with that.

Our hostility to elites is average. Sixty-nine percent of Americans agreed that the “political and economic elite don’t care about hard-working people,” compared with 67% of respondents among all 28 nations. Sixty-three percent of Americans agreed that “experts in this country don’t understand the lives of people like me,” compared with 62% of respondents worldwide.

Americans’ authoritarian tendencies are pretty average. Sixty-six percent of Americans said that the country “needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful,” compared with 63% of respondents among the 28 nations overall. Forty percent of Americans said they believed we need a strong leader who will “break the rules,” which was only a bit below the 49% globally who believed that.

Those results reveal a political climate — in the United States and across the world — that is extremely favorable for right-wing populists. That matters because this is a year of decision, a year in which at least 64 countries will hold national elections. Populism has emerged as the dominant global movement.

So far this year, populists have thrived in election after election. Incumbent populist regimes were or are about to be reelected in India, Indonesia and Mexico. Populist parties have done well in Portugal, Slovakia and the Netherlands, where far-right leader Geert Wilders shocked the world by leading his Party for Freedom to power.

European elites are bracing for the European Parliament elections next month. If the polls are to be believed, the parliament is about to shift sharply to the right, endangering current policies on climate change and Ukraine. Experts project that anti-Europe populist parties are likely to come out on top in the Euro-parliamentary voting in nine member states: France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia. Such parties are likely to come in second or third in nine others, including Germany and Spain.

Then, of course, there is Donald Trump’s slight but steady lead in the swing states in the United States.

If anything, the evidence suggests that the momentum is still on the populist side. Trump seems to be expanding his lead among working-class voters. In Europe, populists are making big gains, not just among the old and disillusioned, but among the young. According to one survey, 41% of European voters ages 18 to 35 have moved toward the right or far right. In the recent Portuguese elections, young voters surged to the right-wing populist Chega (Enough) party while nearly half the support for the rival Socialist Party came from voters older than 65.

One obvious takeaway is that it’s a mistake to analyze our presidential election in America-only terms. President Joe Biden and Trump are being tossed about by global conditions far beyond their control.

The trends also suggest that we could be in one of those magnetic years in world history. There are certain moments in history, like 1848 and 1989, when events in different countries seem to build on one another, when you get sweeping cascades that bring similar changes to different nations, when the global consciousness seems to shift.

Of course, the main difference between those years and 2024 is that during those earlier pivotal moments the world experienced an expansion of freedom, the spread of democracy, the advance of liberal values. This year we’re likely to see all those widely in retreat.

Is there a way to fight back against the populist tide? Of course there is, but it begins with the humble recognition that the attitudes that undergird populism emerged over decades and now span the globe. If social trust is to be rebuilt, it probably has to be rebuilt on the ground, from the bottom up. As for what mainstream candidates should do this election year, I can’t improve on the advice offered by Hoover Institution scholar Larry Diamond in The American Interest magazine in 2020:

— Don’t try to out-polarize the polarizer. If you stridently denounce the populist, you only mobilize his base and make yourself look like part of the hated establishment.

— Reach out to the doubting elements of his supporters. Don’t question the character of his backers or condescend; appeal to their interests and positive dreams.

— Avoid tit-for-tat name calling. You’ll be paying his game, and you’ll look smaller.

— Craft an issue-packed campaign. The Ipsos survey shows that even people who hate the system are eager for programs that create jobs, improve education, health care and public safety. As Diamond puts it, “Offer substantive, practical, nonideological policy proposals.”

— Don’t let the populists own patriotism. Offer a liberal version of national pride that gives people a sense of belonging across difference.

— Don’t be boring. The battle for attention is remorseless. Don’t let advisers make their candidates predictable, hidden and safe.

It’s looking like this year’s elections will be won by whichever side stands for change. Populists promise to tear down systems. Liberals need to make the case for changing them in a comprehensive and constructive way.

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