From Italy and Brexit to Trump, don’t blame every electoral upset on “populism”

Gemma Acton
Matteo Renzi At The Democratic Party PD National Assembly
Matteo Renzi has resigned after losing a constitutional reform referendum (Source: Getty)

In a world characterised by steadily decreasing attention spans and rampantly rising information onslaughts, the temptation to simplify just to keep on top of the newsflow is immense.

The risk, of course, being that critical nuances are disregarded and inaccurate conclusions are drawn before being flung around on social media and becoming alleged “fact” in a post-truth society.

So it goes with the bucketing of the series of high profile upsets to the political status quo this year into an allegedly uniform set of “populist” votes.

The danger with this boiled-down view is that those – such as France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen or Germany’s far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party – who would benefit from such a narrative being true can run with this story, helping develop its momentum into an inexorable tide.

Read more: It’s time to face facts: Pandora’s Box is open and Europe is finished

So as we look ahead to a series of political events in 2017 which will be critical to determining the direction of the European project in years to come, it is imperative that we all – as reporters and as readers – take responsibility for trying to understand what political outcomes actually reveal.

French Far Right Party 'Front National' May Day Demonstration In Paris
Marine Le Pen would dearly love a rising "populist" tide to lift her own electoral chances (Source: Getty)

What’s clear from the Brexit result, Trump’s victory and the No vote in the Italian referendum is that there are swathes of the world who feel they have been left behind by an elite in the multi-decade scramble for globalisation and technological advancement. It is also clear that distrust of and disillusionment with the so-called elite is elevated both within certain countries and on a wider cross-border level, as represented by gatherings such as the annual World Economic Forum meet in Davos.

Read more: Why everyone called Brexit wrong: Analysts are too close to the elites

So yes – there is a common element to these events which needs to be taken seriously. But let’s not forget the individual nuances which discredit attempts by opposition parties to profess that “populism” is coming to a town near you soon.

To take a live example, if you believe the Italian No vote and Brexit vote share populist similarities, take a look at the age cohort breakdown. While 71 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 voted Remain in the UK (ie for the status quo), according to YouGov, in Italy the result was flipped, with only 19 per cent of Italians aged 18 to 34, according to QUORUM, voting Yes. Enthusiasm for Remain fell at every higher age bracket, but in Italy the exact opposite was true.

Younger Britons tended to back Remain (Source: Getty)

While there are a multitude of influences on voters, if we start with the premise each person chose the option which they saw as better for their own futures, what this indicates is that the majority of voting youth in the UK believed the opportunities offered by the status quo were more compelling than the alternative. Turning to Italy, youth overwhelmingly preferred to take their chances on heightened political and economic uncertainty compared to the existing situation.

Considering Italy’s current youth unemployment rate of 37.1 per cent versus the UK’s 13 per cent, or the around 5 per cent growth in Italy’s real GDP since the introduction of the euro in 1999 versus the UK’s near 40 per cent, this result starts to make sense.

Read more: Italy’s exit from the Eurozone is now almost inevitable

Add in a host of other factors, such as a still malfunctioning labour market (despite attempted reforms) and decades of widespread political corruption, and the promise of the unknown for Italian youth grows in appeal.

While delving into the specifics of the messages from each key political outcome in 2016 will take far more space than this publication has kindly granted me, I hope the overall point is clear.

Let us do voting majorities the service of taking time to understand their individual concerns, grievances and aspirations rather than trying to conflate a multitude of unique issues into one conveniently digestible “populism!” soundbite.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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