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Populism is now more popular than liberty with European voters: Study

How popular is populism in Europe? A new study reveals that populist parties have displaced traditional advocates of liberty among European voters. It also reveals the nations where populism attracts the greatest support.

The information is found in the 2017 “Authoritarian Populism Index,” released by the Swedish libertarian think tank Timbro, along with the European Policy Information Center.

The report refers to the philosophy of limited government, free markets, and respect for individual rights as “Liberalism,” in the European sense. In the United States, this is sometimes described as “classical liberalism.” And it has been outpaced by populism, the report states.

“Authoritarian-Populism has overtaken Liberalism and has now established itself as the third ideological force in European politics, behind Conservatism/Christian Democracy and Social Democracy,” according to the study’s authors.

Researchers studied political parties espousing a populist message in all 33 nations ranked “free” by Freedom House. That includes all 28 present members of the European Union, as well as Iceland, Montenegro, Norway, Serbia, and Switzerland.

They found that populist parties have nearly doubled their support over the last 20 years, commanding the votes of 55.8 million people, or 17.5 percent of voters. They also hold 1,342 of the 7,843 parliament seats available in the countries surveyed.

Parties advocating Liberalism have remained static at 12 percent support since 1997.

Timbro studied both “right-wing” and “left-wing” populist movements. Right-wing populism, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front, may focus on ethnic or migration issues, while left-wing populism attacks corporate power. Yet both varieties seek to increase government economic intervention, wealth redistribution, and barriers to international trade.

Populist parties receive the greatest percentage of the vote in Hungary (65.2%), Poland (46.4%), Greece (45.1%), Switzerland (30.8%), Italy (28.2%), Cyprus (25.7%), Austria (24%), Spain (21.2%), and Denmark (21.2%).

Are supporters of liberty “populist”?

There are two phenomena in the report worth noting. First, the support for radical left-wing parties have fallen by two-thirds since 1980, according to Timbro. One suspects that the former radicals have simply rebranded themselves as populists.

Second, the report’s definition of populism offers hope and a roadmap forward. Timbro defines populist parties by six markers:

1) the self-image that they are in conflict with a corrupt and crony elite; 2) a lack of patience with the rule of law; 3) a demand for direct democracy; 4) the pursuit of a more powerful state through police and military on the right and nationalisation of banks and big corporations on the left; 5) highly critical of the EU, immigration, globalisation, free trade and NATO; 6) the use of revolutionary language and promises of dramatic change.

By those criteria, supporters of liberty would score 50 percent on the populist scale.

We certainly see ourselves as “in conflict with a corrupt, crony elite.” Cronyism is fueled by large, remote government. The more taxpayer funds, contracts, and favors government has to distribute – and the more taxes, regulations, and sanctions it can impose – the greater the penchant for graft, bribery, and corruption. Classical liberalism would avoid this pitfall by constraining the state within strictly delimited boundaries.

Free marketeers are “highly critical” of the EU – and rightly so – with its tens of thousands of regulations, 18 percent tariffs on imported food, and an often imperious advocacy of an “ever-closer union.”

The rhetoric of classical liberals should not be considered revolutionary. It is rooted in the reality of human nature as described by revelation and manifest throughout history. Their proposals should be based in reality, with a strong infusion of prudence. But if the modern transatlantic sphere were to embrace a classical liberal outlook, it would experience “dramatic change.”

Liberty recognizes two of the main driving forces of the populist explosion: cronyism and global governance. And it prescribes the right cure. To prevail, its adherents must offer a different narrative than the shrill, envy-filled braying of homegrown demagogues. They must show the superiority of their prescriptions.

In a word, they must compete.

The report concludes that “left- and right-wing anti-establishment parties are here to stay. Whether or not their authoritarian and illiberal ideas will spread too remains an open question.”

That question hinges on the whether advocates of liberty will make a case for the views that have laid the bedrock upon which every other ideology contends.

(Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. 

Rev. Johnson was a panelist at the 2016 CPAC. His writings have appeared in The (UK) GuardianHuman EventsThe Stream, Real Clear Policy, Aleteia.org, Conservative ReviewThe Daily Caller, and have been cited by National Review, CBS News, and Fox News. 

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