When people are fed up with unfulfilled promises of the ruling party that flirting with discredited elites or coddling refugees, the electorate is not hesitant abundantly use such pronouns as us and them. Charismatic, but short-sighted politicians know this and stir up workers and middle-class with loud speeches that jump down the throat of temperate centrists.


People seek for alternatives, even if they lead to isolationism. CC BY Guillaume Paumier


«We have a vote, but we don’t have a voice». That was one of the first populist slogans that appeared in 2014, during protests in Spain against the budget cuts proposed by the EU. Since then, the classic political axis of left and right rotated 90 degrees, giving a prospect to populist parties to focus on those who are on the bottom and above. The establishment and global elites that seek for maximum profit from unregulated globalization and interventions in the Arab world full of resources turned into main aims for foolhardy demagogues.

The last time Europe saw isolationist outburst was in the early 90s, when the Cold war ended, giving many suppressed states a prospect to violently erupt in search of self-determination. Now, when we see no geopolitical upheavals in the world that became much richer and educated in comparison with the last decade, people tend more to national politics. The reason is a social and economic inequality. The ten wealthiest people on the planet collectively hold $505 billion, more than most countries produce every year, according to Forbes. Moreover, narratives about vast outsourcing of jobs by transnational corporations as well as extensive military operations in the Middle East that allegedly caused the refugee crisis led to the current skepticism towards international affairs.

Populist parties and their political stances

Anti-globalization and anti-interventionism took the first lines in agenda of many populist parties. Retreat from the international affairs of EU, WTO and NATO is the main bridge between left and right populism that depict a deep desire of people to foster isolationist measures. After Brexit and Trump’s «make America great again», Europeans got inspired to leave international arena and focus solely on internal issues. From Farage’s «we want our country back» to the Austrian Freedom Party’s slogan, «Austria first», modern orators use a simple template «put us first!» that reshapes the Union beyond recognition.

But is there a real need for nations to implement isolationism by both economic and geopolitical means? In the political conflict between populists and liberal centrists, national and international, we can hear flaming rhetoric that calls people for a change for the sake of change.

Fear of economics and globalization

The leader of a French right-wing party National Front, Marine Le Pen speaks about international trade pacts in this way «They made an ideology out of it: economic globalization, which refuses any regulation It sets the conditions for another form of globalization: Islamist fundamentalism». For her, anti-globalist sentiments are not derived from socialism, but from purely ethnic issues such as numerous immigrants from Africa and the Middle-East that come to the country for cheap labor without any intention to integrate.

Statistics by a think tank CEPS. The wage premium (earnings of graduates/less than secondary education)

According to this narrative, by hollowing out the domestic manufacturing base and reduction of high-paying jobs for low-skilled workers, the only options for «globalization losers» are protracted unemployment and menial service sector. This simple statement attracted plenty people in France, exposing allegedly harmful trade organization WTO, which, Marine Le Pen suggests to replace with a new international monetary system suitable for protectionists.


However, a speculation about transferring low-skill jobs to the developing world or its emigrants, a point that populist leaders never tire of emphasizing, is not quite right. If we look at statistics brought by a Belgian think tank CEPS, we see that the difference in employment rates of the highly educated and the less educated has remained relatively constant in Europe. Low-skilled workers’ circumstances and opportunities simply don’t deteriorate faster in comparison with high-skilled counterpart.

Moreover, the share of low-skilled workers (who didn’t go to university for secondary education) is drastically declining.  The director of CEPS, Daniel Gros says «At the turn of the century, there were over 50% more low-skilled workers than university graduates. Today, university graduates nearly outnumber low-skilled workers in the work force in Europe; following the prevailing logic, the share of voters supporting anti-globalization parties should be shrinking».

But the fear of globalization is spreading not only in France, but also in Germany, where the main reason to vote for Alternative for Germany is based on demonized image of neoliberal elites and uneducated refugees. According to a report of Bertelsmann Stiftung, 78% of people, who vote for the German right-wing party, are afraid of economic and social consequences of globalization. And this picture is very intrinsic for the rest of Europe.

Statistics by Berelsman Stiftung. The fears of populist voters

In this way, we can see a certain misleading by random, but powerful phrases such as: neoliberal deregulation, foreign outsourcing, falling trade barriers, destabilizing international capital flow or what academics call microeconomics and macroeconomics, but not a vague and simplistic referent «globalization».

Fear of wars and interventionism

Another issue that many populists concern about is interventionism of NATO in Eastern Europe and Middle East. The current Middle East engagement of NATO is a red rag for those anti-Islamists, who link bombardments of the military alliance with the refugee crisis. «The USA and NATO have destroyed Iraq and Libya with their military intervention, bombs and missiles; provided financial, logistical and military support to the opposition against President Assad in Syria, and thus made possible the destruction, chaos, suffering and radical Islamism (IS) in the region» the leader of Freedom Party of Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache said on his Facebook page.

This one-sided rhetoric heavily plays on the anger of people, who are not satisfied with the constant flow of immigrants from South. The rise of ISIS as well as the migration of more than 1 million of Syrians is a result not only of imperialistic ambitions of the States or irresponsibility of the EU. Hard to argue that after long-drawn American and NATO engagement in Iraq and Libya, many military groups could obtain Western funded equipment. As Amnesty International reported two years ago, the current ISIS equipment is made up of “weapons and equipment looted, captured or illicitly traded from poorly secured Iraqi military stocks.”

But since 2014, both NATO and Americans rely mostly on the air force. Moreover, the alliance is extensively patrolling the Aegean Sea, which is the shortest and the riskiest path for refugees to Europe. More than 400 people died, crossing the sea in January. Without assistance of NATO and its ships, the number of deaths would drastically increase.

Syrian forces also introduced their presence above the cities and villages, but using barrel bombs, which are dedicated for massive destructive attacks rather than surgical strikes. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, helicopters of Assad regime or what Le Pen calls the «lesser evil» dropped 12,958 barrel bombs in 2016, leading to demolition of the whole districts in Aleppo.

The left-wing populism is even more radical in isolationist stance, since both Spanish Podemos and Greek Syriza want to leave NATO and remove all the foreign military bases by referendums, the most beloved type of dialogue of populists with nation.

In general, what we can see is not deliberate obscurity, but a totally new understanding of what politics are. There is even no classical separation between left and right, since both communists from Syriza and nationalists from National Front share the same attitude on many issues. According to French opinion polls regarding the left and right axis, people less and less divide politics in this way. In 1980, only 30% considered the notions of left and right outdated. In March 1981 it was 33%, in November 1989, 56%, in 2011, 58%. Today it is 73%. And what are the roles of populism and its narrative of «us and them» here?

According to a French philosopher Alain de Benoist, «populism substitutes the horizontal right-left axis with a vertical one “those on top vs those on the bottom,” but it excites, accompanies, and accentuates new divides that increasingly replace the right-left divide: the divide between those who profit from globalization and those who are its victims». For him, an axis «national and foreign» can also be a new type of thinking that already encourages many isolationists in Europe to build trade barriers up and retreat from geopolitical battlegrounds in pursue of the internal affairs.

But why politics move to the dimension of passions and feelings rather rationality? Another philosopher, Chantal Mouffe says that the electorate is tired of neoliberal center-right and center-left parties that became totally the same, implying careful propositions and repeating them all the time without any results. «Either the people lose their interest in politics – that’s why there is so much abstention – or the people tend to vote for populist parties as we currently witness in a lot of countries. Those populist parties at least pretend to offer an alternative».

In this way we see that opportunity to vote for left or right biased parties is not enough. The electorate demands collective will and voice that will lead them, achieving a real change that stands beyond foreign interests.

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