Populism and the Decline of the Mainstream Center-Right in European Politics

Sunday November 21, 2021

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What Happens Next is a podcast where an expert is given just SIX minutes to present his argument. This is followed by a Q&A period for deeper engagement.

This week’s topic is European Politics.

Today’s speaker is Tim Bale. Tim is a Professor of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary at the University of London, where his research focuses on European and British politics.

Tim just published a new book entitled Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis.

In this call I am interested in learning about the populist trends in European politics in the UK, France and Germany.

In the UK, I want to find out about Post-Brexit relations with the EU, what direction Boris Johnson will take the Tories, the implications of the Scottish desire for independence, and is there a future for the Labor Party?

In France, I want to understand how it was possible that a new upstart political party run by Macron won the presidential election and took a majority of the legislature in the last election. And what are the ongoing implications of Macron’s victory for the old political establishment and their political parties. I want learn what the likelihood that Macron will win reelection and who will likely represent the political right in a future presidential runoff.

And in Germany, will center political parties maintain governing control after Angela Merkel retires from the political stage? And what direction will German politics go with a multiparty coalition?

So much to discuss, so with that I turn to Tim Bale, please begin your Six Minute Presentation.


Tim Bale

Topic: European Politics
Bio: Professor of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary at the University of London,
Reading: Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis is here

Tim Bale:
What are the big political issues facing Western Europe right now? Well, there are the perennials, increasing economic growth to help pay for the welfare state, which is coming under massive strain as European societies are aging and the demands for health and social care are increasing year on year. We also have to worry about regional disparities. Italy and the UK has its north and south divide. Germany has its east and west divide.

And then of course, there’s immigration, mostly from the Middle East driven by poverty and by civil wars in places like Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. Immigration can help out our aging societies, but it also has triggered a huge backlash, particularly among the less educated. And that has presented mainstream right parties in Europe with an opportunity to frame their liberal left opponents as soft on immigration and suggest that they are somehow out of touch with ordinary people.

Center-right parties are finding that many of their relatively affluent younger college educated voters are turned off by nationalism and by social conservatism, particularly if it has a religious tinge. And it’s the Christian Democratic parties that are doing worst of all. Which brings us to Germany. The CDU/CSU, which has dominated German politics for 60 to 70 years, is in trouble. It managed for a long time to buck the trend of Christian Democratic decline in part because Germany’s left fragmented much earlier than the left in other countries because of the rise of the Greens early on there, and because the CDU/CSU was extraordinarily good at finding excellent leaders, Konrad Adenauer after the Second World War, and then much later on Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel, and because of the history of Germany, in some senses inoculated German voters against very radical alternatives on the right.

But at the last election, the CDU/CSU, which got 41% of the vote in 2013, dropped from 33% in 2017 to just 24% in 2021, and looks likely to lose power as a result. Interestingly however, the CDU/CSU lost most of its votes not to the populous radical right, Alternative fur Deutschland, the AFD. But rather it lost votes to the mainstream center-left Social Democrats, which is in some ways a solitary reminder for those of us writing about these very polarized times that competence, that the economy, stupid, that convincing leadership and time for a change are still quite powerful forces in electoral politics.

But it’s also worth remembering that the CDU/CSU lost votes to the Greens and to the liberal FDP, which is a reminder of the fact that what the late Ronald Inglehart, the US political scientist, called the Silent Revolution, the spread of liberal, progressive, and post-material values, composed just as much of a problem for center-right parties as the backlash we were talking about earlier.

The next case and test in some senses for all this will be France where an already fragmented mainstream right is facing a threat from the far right in Eric Zemmour, a xenophobic anti-immigrant politician who has broken through, and trying to unseat the current president, Emmanuel Macron, who above and beyond any other politician in Europe has been able to fashion a kind of centrist populism. Meanwhile, across the channel in the UK, we have a fairly traditional Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, which in these post-Brexit times has turned itself into a kind of ersatz populist radical right party which seems to have less in common with the Conservative Party as we once knew it than it does with former President Trump.

At the same time, he’s prosecuting what some people like to see as a culture war or a war on woke.

Tim Bale QA

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