Euroscepticism To Maslow: A Multifaceted Populist Menu In Europe – OpEd


Some heralded Marine Le Pen’s loss in last year’s French elections as the “defeat of populism.” Far-right Pen convincingly lost to Centrist Macron. However, the situation in France is unique to Europe, and although Pen lost the elections, she still received about 42% of the votes. Populism has not been wiped out in France. On the contrary, it has grown steadily over the years. Similarly, Georgia Meloni’s Brother of Italy party, known for Eurocentric ideologies, won the 2022 general election 2022 in Italy. 

More recently, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Greece are other nations where left- and right-wing populism has been seeing a marked rise. Nationalism, Euroscepticism, anti-immigration, and policies that focus on national interests have been some common characteristics of these campaigns. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to paint these populist movements with a single brush. Every country has a set of issues and fears that may give rise to populism in that country. High youth unemployment has fueled public disenchantment in some countries like Greece, France, and Italy. However, the dynamics are significantly different in Switzerland, where the quality of life is among the best in Europe, and the unemployment rate is meager. Yet Switzerland is often called the ‘cradle of populist movements’ in Europe. The bottom line is that it is too simplistic to paint populism as a one-size-fits-all solution. Every country has its own set of reasons for the rise and success of populism. 

Social Media such as Facebook, YouTube, Google-based interactive platforms, blogs, Twitter, etc., have allowed people to form opinions faster, take sides, and form interest groups built around ethnicity, sentiments, and political leanings. 

Social media strategies and big data analytics are available to track every person’s browsing interest and supply ads, posts, and targeted information to specific persons’ interests, thus reinforcing the conviction in their ideas. A company, sometimes hired by political parties, could harvest demographic and other information taken through Facebook and other social media sites and then intermittently relay specific news and opinion pieces to form interest groups where a political agenda could be set faster than ever. In elections, a slight tilt in favor of the party could change the equation. So here we have identity politics in the fast lane, aided by social media.

But let’s now turn our attention to globalization, which some perceive may be the root cause of right-wing populism in Europe. If we go back in history, globalization happened through the maritime trade linkages, east-west trade, and trade along the Silk Route. However, the new wave of globalization has been attributed to a knowledge-based economy, the internet, and the easing of international trade laws post the Cold War, to name a few. Undoubtedly, globalization brings immense benefits – it makes companies leaner and more innovative and opens the entire globe as a marketplace. But here is the problem – one may argue that it also takes away jobs. When jobs are lost, and natives must compete for employment with the immigrants, it leads to disenchantment and anti-immigration sentiments among them. Globalization further leads to inequality, which is another reason for discontentment.

Few academics have suggested that a growth-expectation gap could explain the grievance of certain people, leading to disenchantment with the establishment. According to them, when the nation’s growth does not keep pace with people’s expectations, it leads to public dissatisfaction. 

Here, I would like to give another perspective and draw attention to the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, the famous human needs pyramid that most of us are familiar with. The pyramid starts with Physiological needs at the base and then goes up with other conditions such as — safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. As per the pyramid- physiological needs such as – food, shelter, sleep, etc., are man’s most basic needs that must be satisfied first as these are critical to survival. What matters the most to a commoner is how he will pay the bills and put food on the table for his family. Other needs come later. 

I take this parallel of Maslow’s pyramid to hypothesize a point in the context of populism. Most populist movements start when people’s basic needs are deprived or as they feel so. People then tend to find reasons for their plight, for example, jobs moving abroad or immigrants taking away their jobs, rising cost of living, high taxes, etc. A wedge is created between people and the elites where people believe that the establishment does not hear their voice or that somehow the political class or the elites are oblivious to their plight. A charismatic leader or a demagogue effectively utilizes people’s discontentment by championing their cause to achieve political goals. 

Well, most governments in the office understand this now, which is why you see leaders having regular meetings with the people’s representatives and conducting frequent town halls directly with people. As if they are always in “campaign mode.” Some time back, French President Immanuel Macron held grand debates nationwide. 

Nonetheless, Populist parties, even if they come to power, are susceptible to two issues – the danger of their leader becoming an authoritarian and secondly, instability of their very own government: 

On the first point, Populism could threaten how we value democratic processes and norms. This is an anti-climax since the ideology that promised to be the voice of the people may also give birth to an authoritarian in the garb of the leader who is seemingly representing the cause of the people, and even if their leader turns to be an authoritarian his support base would still be convinced that this attitude may be necessary to fight the elites. He is doing so for their cause. 

On the second point, even when a populist party comes to power by overthrowing a mainstream political party, there is always a risk, and this risk is due to their relative inexperience in governance. I am mentioning here ‘relative inexperience’ as some populist parties are decades old but may have less or no experience running a government. People want a better quality of life, but most would not trade this with instability in government. Hence, there is always a good chance that the established parties may return to power after the hiatus of one or two elections.

As we navigate the complexities of the 21st century, reconciling individual aspirations with a sense of shared national identity remains. The future will determine if populism remains a fleeting phenomenon or a driving force.

Dr. Sameer Kumar

Dr. Sameer Kumar, Associate Professor,  Asia-Europe Institute, Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.

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