Manufacturing Discontent: The Perils of Populism, Part 2

Polarization in Poland. The success of Sweden's far right. In Turkey, "the supremacy of the people" reigns. And Brexit threatens Britain's economic and social order. Everywhere, populism is winning big. The question is why? Part 2 of a 2-part series.
Pro-leave supporters gather near the Houses of Parliament in London earlier this year. (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

Polarization in Poland. The success of Sweden's far right. In Turkey, "the supremacy of the people" reigns. And Brexit threatens Britain's economic and social order. Everywhere, populism is winning big. The question is why? This episode is the second of a 2-part series.

When everything is based on emotion, truth is defeated

"At the heart of the populism campaign is one slogan: Think Less, Feel More." So says essayist and author Robert Winder, who notes that when everything is based on emotion, truth is defeated. In other words, populists don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. 

That's why, Winder believes it doesn't matter if leaving Europe will hurt Britain's economy, transport sector, medical supply deliveries or even its universities — because the 'good story' is that Britain will be the master of its own house.   

'Take back control' was code for 'build that wall'.- Robert Winder

Robert Winder says it's no wonder that the Leave campaign's simple slogan, 'take back control' was so effective. 

"It's vague, amorphous, and is actually code for fewer foreigners, please. There's no doubt the free movement legislation of the EU was enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans because Britain is full. The National Health Service, the cafes, the restaurants. But it's like this in many capitals. 'Take back control' was code for 'build that wall'."   

But as many observers have pointed out, there were lies and exaggerations as well.  For example, the public was told that if citizens voted to leave, 350 million pounds per week could be saved and put back into the National Health Service.

The Guardian newspaper reported that Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, "found it necessary to distort statistics because the truth did not serve his case". 

Robert Winder also points out that campaigners for the Leave side were trained to stick to a script: Turkey might be joining the European Union and so possibly 80 million more newcomers might be arriving on Britain's doorstep. Tribal fears trumped human reasoning. "Say only two things, NHS, Turkey,  NHS, Turkey, NHS, Turkey, repeat.  And it worked".   

Populism in Sweden

Meanwhile, populists now have a foothold in Sweden as well.  A socialist country for a century and an economic success story, Sweden has often been referred to as the "moral superpower of the world" because of campaigns that embraced Denmark's Jews during WW2, African-American draft dodgers in the 1960s, Iranians fleeing the Shah's regime, Somalis fleeing civil war, and people escaping war in the former Yugoslavia. 

Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme was the lion of the European Left, best known for his campaigns against apartheid in South Africa. 

Volunteers wear jackets that read 'change for real' during a political rally for the right-wing Sweden Democrats party ahead of the Swedish general election on September 7, 2018. (Michael Campanella/Getty Images)

Today the Sweden Democrats, a far-right populist party with neo-Nazi origins, is gaining ground in one of the most gender-equal and economically stable countries in the world. Why?

University of Colorado political science professor, Sven Steinmo believes a central reason is that over a four-year period, Sweden accepted 300,000 refugees — many of them Syrian.  And he says there were challenges absorbing that large number for a small country of ten million. 

Sweden's far right party wants to kick out the refugees and immigrants. And some don't want Sweden's generous welfare payments to go to Syrians.- Sven Steimo

Swedes have told him, "if you walk around downtown, there are many people who look different than the traditional Swede. I don't just mean darker skin but wearing the chador. They now feel awkward and foreign in their own country." 

Sven Steinmo says some Swedes resent generous welfare payments that go to newcomers. 

So what does the populist Sweden Democrats advocate? "Like many right-wing parties, they're better at articulating complaint than solution. Some would say close the doors; others want to kick them out. It's a visceral gut reaction and their policies are not coherent." 

Once again, emotional responses are attracting votes. In the most recent election in September 2018, the Sweden Democrats gained 17 per cent of the vote, not far behind the mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties. 

But can the Sweden Democrats take all the blame for inciting fear and racism? Sven Steinmo thinks there always has to be a receptive audience. It's the basis of the book he's now writing, The Greediest Generation

Sven Steinmo thinks what's going on in many countries, including Sweden, is generational conflict — and that there is a class war between those who are still working and the retired class. He believes many in the older demographic are attracted to the current populist rhetoric. 

Guests in this episode:

  • Sven Steinmo is a Political Science Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And he is the author of several books. 
  • Elif Shafak is an international best-selling author, feminist and co-founder of the European Council on Foreign Relations.   
  • Robert Winder is an essayist, trustee of the Migration Museum In London, England and a best-selling author. 

Further reading:

  • Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain by Robert Winder, published by Little Brown UK, 2004. 
  • The Leap of Faith: The fiscal foundations of successful government in Europe and America edited by Sven Steinmo, published by Open Access, Oxford Scholarship Online. 
  • The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, published by Penguin Books, 2008. 
  • To Fight Against this Age: On Fascism and Humanism by Rob Rieman, published by W.W. Norton and Company, 2018. 
  • Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain by Fintan O'Toole, published by Apollo, 2018.
  • Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World by James Miller, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 
  • Populism and the European Culture Wars by Frank Furedi, published by Routledge, 2017.

**This episode was produced by Mary O'Connell.