To their core, the elites believe the national populist revolution is the product of a fleeting tantrum of old, white, racist males. Every voter concerned by massive unchecked immigration of low-skilled workers is met with a charge of being a racist. Every voter concerned by the gutting of heartland manufacturing jobs to the East is met with the suggestion to learn to code. The disdain elites have for working-class people is nothing new and it is palpable.
Liberals must embrace the legitimate concerns voters raise about globalization, trade, and mass migration, especially if they don’t want to continue to fan the flames national populists. The essence of this movement is a belief that media doesn’t reflect us, democracy doesn’t represent us, and the economy isn’t working for us.
The erosion of faith in the system is undermining the very legitimacy of our democratic institutions. And like the hydra from ancient Greek mythology, every time the establishment tries to cut down both left- and right-wing populists, they grow an additional—oftentimes more extreme—head. They mocked and ignored the concerns of Pat Buchanan’s voters in 1996 only to have Donald Trump win the presidency; they cheated Bernie Sanders voters out of gaining a voice in the 2016 election only to have AOC rise from the ashes in 2018.
Millions of people across the globe have turned to national populists to fill the void left after elites have them feeling neglected, loathed, and derided. And as the elites continue to bury their heads in the sand, dismissing the concerns of working- and middle-class voters, and rejecting the popular will of the people, it is the elites who are undermining democracy.
What Happens If They Don’t Listen?
The first is that liberals start listening and give national populists a seat at the table, their ideas are given legitimacy and are debated and discussed without being marginalized, and their politicians and political parties are members of coalition governments over time. This is what has happened in places like Australia, Austria, Denmark, New Zealand, and Switzerland. National populist parties and politicians have places inside the government and in larger centre-right and even some centre-left coalitions. None of those states have fallen into dictatorships or have rolled back democracy.
Concerns over immigration and globalism are fairly debated and concessions are made on both sides. If national populists don’t rise through normal democratic means, then they will gravitate to strong men who promise to completely dismantle the current economic and political system. Potentially, this leads to an erosion of freedoms and an authoritarian form of populism.
If elites still choose to ignore the will of the people, and if government bureaucracies thwart democratically elected leaders, then the future will become much more dystopian. A certain portion of the population will fall into the belief that their voices are actively being suppressed and that there is no legitimate to address discontent aside from using violence. Those actions are rightfully condemned by all people wanting to live a civilized society.
If the concerns of voters who have turned to national populists are heard, if bureaucrats allow for democratic changes to occur, if politicians start prioritizing their own citizens over that of special interest groups, international corporations, and political orthodoxies, and voters finally feel like their governments care about people like them, then the tides can turn to preserve liberalism. If none of those things happen, then we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of liberal democracy as we know it.