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Populism Spreading Around the World

Sep. 28, 2016

US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly landed in hot water for making controversial remarks. But he's still in the running as the campaign hits the home stretch, thanks to his success in appealing to ordinary Americans.

"We will build a great wall along the southern border... and Mexico will pay for the wall," Trump has said.

He enjoys wide support among blue-collar white voters. Many of them believe their jobs have been taken away by immigrants or lost to cheap labor overseas.

"Trump all the way!" says one Trump supporter. "We've got too many issues, with those coming in, who are not vetted, who create major problems."

Populism is also on the rise in Europe. In France, far-right candidates calling for tough anti-immigration measures and an exit from the European Union have done well in recent elections.

"The EU is set to accept 500,000 to 700,000 immigrants, but we say 'No' to that," said Marine Le Pen, National Front President.

Populism also led Britain to leave the EU.

"Let's do it, together. Let's take back control! Vote to leave! And protect our right and democracy!" said Boris Johnson, the former London mayor.

Such calls from the "Leave" camp were attractive to economically disadvantaged voters. They believed that immigrants were a drain on an already weak economy.

Populism's growth was addressed by concerned world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly last week.

"A crude populism, sometimes from the far left but more often from the far right... I do not believe those visions can deliver security or prosperity over the long term," said US President Barack Obama.

"Acting together, we can respond to rising xenophobia and turn fear into hope," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The Lure of Populism
Sho Beppu

Populism is defined as a type of politics that represents the interests and voices of ordinary people. That in itself is not necessarily a problem but the kind that's growing in some Western countries is causing concerns among global leaders.

I spoke about this with Francis Fukuyama, a political science professor at Stanford University. He is a third-generation Japanese American.

He's best known for his 1992 book "The End of History and the Last Man." In it, he argued that liberal democracy is the final form of human government. But now, he warns that democracy is falling into decay.

Why are populist leaders gaining so much influence in the US and Europe? What will be the effect in Asia? Is the trend unstoppable? To find out more, I sat down with Professor Fukuyama in Washington DC.

Beppu: What do you think is behind this political populism, the spread of political populism in countries that are supposed to be the champions of democracy?
Fukuyama: First of all, populism is a part of democracy, because it’s people, ordinary people that are angry about the way that they have been treated by elites. In the U.S. and in Europe, the elites really screwed up in big ways. Their policies were responsible for the biggest recession and bank collapse since the Great Depression.

In fact, it is really interesting that it is more social class than it is race or ethnicity or gender. The white working class was not at the bottom of the heap. You know, you had African Americans and recent immigrants and so forth, who are at a social level below them. And what has happened in the last 20 years is that group that found themselves as the middle class has been pushed, you know, downward into that bottom segment. And I think the other big problem is that neither political parties has really represented this white working class.

Beppu: We do know that thanks to globalization, there are much less people living in extreme poverty, there are much more less cases in infant mortality, for example. Why is this fruit not being felt or understood by some people?

Fukuyama: The trouble is that these benefits are experienced in other countries. So China has seen this huge growth in employment and the big middle class, but a lot of that has come at the expense of the jobs of ordinary American workers with outsourcing and relocation of factories, you know, not just to China but to Mexico and other places like that.

Beppu: The globalization is not a zero-sum game. It doesn't mean that if the South gets richer, the North becomes poorer.

Fukuyama: So the economic fields of free trade are saying that all countries will get richer as a result of globalization, but they are also say that the distributional effects are not going to be equal, that some people will get a lot richer, and other people will get poorer. And traditionally, the answer that the economists give us is that 'well, you have to give the losers from globalization new skills and better training.' But that has not happened, not in the United States, and not in many European countries also.

Beppu: Do you think this could last even after the elections, even if Trump wins or loses?

Fukuyama: I definitely think that he has really transformed American politics. What was surprising was that you didn’t get populism before this. And now, these people are mobilized, they are angry, and if he loses, and especially, if he loses by a small margin, they are still going to be very angry. And I think that the problem with eroding these norms of civility and discourse is also something that is not going to be easy to change. Because once you say certain things publicly and you don’t get criticized or punished for it, and then you know, more people will do it. They want a strong leader, you know, that isn't going to be constrained by ordinary rules. And I think that is a very, very dangerous tendency.

Beppu: It is not only in the America, we saw that in the UK. And we're worrying about that to happen in France. How do you analyze this spread now in this other so-called democratic countries?

Fukuyama: Elites in Europe also made a series of big mistakes. So their big mistakes were in the design of the European Union. The euro, I think, clearly was a huge mistake. You have a monetary union without a unified fiscal policy. Many economists would tell you this is a recipe for disaster as the one that we had experienced with Greece and that, you know, crisis there.

The Schengen system that permits free movement within Europe, again, only works if you have secure outer borders. And Europe doesn’t have secure outer borders as you see with the Syrian refugee crisis. You have all these people entering to Greece and Italy, and then, there is no way of controlling their movement. And that is really the thing that I think that drove Brexit by British voters wanting to get out of the European Union.

Beppu: Do you think this trend of political populism could come to Asia? Some might say it's already there, some might say it would come. How do you see this?

Fukuyama: It's different because you don't really have this reaction to immigration since there just isn't that much immigration in Japan. It’s clearly the case throughout most of Northeast Asia that you have much higher levels of nationalism, old-fashioned nationalism today. It’s true in Japan. It’s true in Korea and it is true in China.

And I think that is fundamentally driven by the rise of China, because the rise of China is just a huge challenge to everybody. And I think Japan has understandably been quite worried about this, and they perceive of this as a threat. And then, therefore, you know, these kind of national rivalries have come to the fore. And I think that has kind of absorbed a lot of the fear and anger and concern rather than the economic issues.

But on the other hand, it is possible that this could happen, because if you are a young person in Japan, you no longer have access to the lifetime employment system. Your future is much more uncertain. And in that respect there is a possibility you know that you could have this kind of intergenerational conflict emerging at some point.

Beppu: Then what should the politicians do? What can the elite or establishment do to contain the spread of such danger?

Fukuyama:I don’t think populism is anti-democratic or necessarily a bad thing. In the 1930s after the Great Depression, we had populism in the United States, but this was mobilized by Franklin Roosevelt to the New Deal Coalition. And used in a positive way to lay the basis for the modern American welfare state.

So it is possible that you could get a leader that would not have these counterproductive strategies like Trump or Sanders, but somebody that can actually use it to fundamentally remake the system. One of the background things that make people angry is the role of money in politics in the United States. There is a broad perception that the entire political class has been corrupted by money, and that is something that we could do something about.