From Brexit to Sweden: what’s behind today’s anti-establishment revolt?

Saturday 17 November, 17:3018:30, Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, StockholmBattle of Ideas Europe

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This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Stockholm.

How should we understand the recent populist upsurge in Europe and the accompanying collapse of social democracy? From the extraordinary rise of the Sweden Democrats to the Brexit vote and from Italy’s Five Star Movement to Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), explicitly anti-establishment parties and positions seem to be gaining support across the continent. In parallel, social-democratic parties have been losing power or suffering electoral reverses. In Greece, the Social Democrats have been wiped out after implementing austerity. In France, the Socialist Party suffered humiliating defeats in 2017. And in Sweden, the Social Democrats, once the apparent ‘natural party of government’, lost power in 2010 and returned only by leading a minority coalition in 2014.

Critics argue that this is an expression of the rise of right-wing politics. Italy’s coalition between La Lega and the Five Star Movement has taken a hard stance on immigration, rejecting the EU’s demand that Italy takes migrants arriving at its borders. The Brexit vote is often labelled as a bigoted, xenophobic vote – comparable to the anti-immigrant policies of France’s National Front or the hard-right Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Many anti-populist commentators assume that radical right-wing parties are beneficiaries of pre-existing racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, with the spectre of the 1930s deployed to explain the emergence of these trends.

But are things more complicated? Could there be other – more positive – explanations for the way voters are thumbing their noses at the mainstream? For example, many of those voting for the Sweden Democrats, AfD or the UK Independence Party (UKIP) are traditional supporters of parties associated with the labour movement and the left – but which for some time have been social democratic in name only. Does the recent voting switch really represent a radical shift in those voters’ worldviews into hardened anti-Semites or Islamophobes? Or is the problem more likely to be that social democrats across the West have left many people in poorer, post-industrial areas feeling unrepresented in political life? While social democrats have become more concerned with attracting the middle classes and promoting cultural liberalism, they seem to have lost the ability to talk about issues close to the heart of their past supporters, such as tradition, belonging, security and identity. Some suggest the appeal of populist parties lies in their rejection of an old way of doing politics, a defiant rejection of mainstream parties for ignoring important social, economic and cultural concerns.

How do we understand the changing mood in Europe? What accounts for the collapse of loyalty to the political mainstream and social democratic parties? Is this a genuine anti-establishment revolt? In challenging the technocratic approach to politics characterised by the EU’s way of dealing with politics, is this new desire for political change something that can be harnessed by the left? If ordinary Italians, Britons, Germans and Greeks are asking for political change and revolting against the establishment, isn’t that a good thing? Or are today’s populist parties mostly right-wingers in various degrees of disguise? Regardless of specific populist parties, is the alienation of a significant section of the electorate from the party-political mainstream to be welcomed or feared?