Geert Wilders, the far-right anti-Islam populist leader, failed to win the most votes in the Netherlands on Wednesday, but the conditions that contributed to his rise are roiling Western democracies.
Despite the loss, Wilders’ sudden rise over the past decade and the fact that he was actually a formidable opponent to Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who won the election, is part of a trend that is leading politicians in Western countries to turn inward.
Rhetoric against migration is a common thread among leaders like Wilders, Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, Germany’s Frauke Petry and Britain’s Nigel Farage. But immigration alone does not explain the electoral gains for once-fringe ideas.
The 2008 financial crisis is a significant inflection point. Income inequality in Europe steadily fell in the decade before the global recession and stagnated in the ensuing decade. Austerity measures to ameliorate the pressure of the crisis affected the poorest half of Europeans most. As countries began to bounce back, the economic recovery failed to reach those who suffered most under austerity.
The number of Europeans living in “severe material deprivation,” rose from 7.5 million in 2009 to 50 million by 2013, according to Oxfam. Those millions of people can’t afford things like heat for their homes, a car or unexpected expenses.
“We live on a rich continent where poverty and inequality are on the rise and are the product of political choices, not fate,” Oxfam’s Natalia Alonso said in a statement. “To tackle inequality and poverty in Europe, we must reduce the influence the rich and powerful have in shaping government policies in their favor at the expense of the majority of European people. Greater public transparency on policymaking would be an important start.”
Right-wing populism tapped into that need. Leaders railed against major political parties accusing them of enacting policies that do not benefit the middle class. Accusations of corruption are used to discount policy proposals from mainstream parties – a tactic effectively deployed by Trump when he promised to ‘drain the swamp.’
“Decades of failure in Washington, and decades of special interest dealing, must come to an end. We have to break the cycle of corruption, and we have to give new voices a chance to go into government service,” said Trump, announcing a government reform plan, in October. “If we let the Clinton Cartel run this government, history will record that 2017 was the year America lost its independence. We will not let that happen. It is time to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.”
Industrial and low-skill labor left once-thriving communities without economic engines. Financial stress is the suspected cause for the sharp increase in the death rate for middle-aged whites, starting in 1998. Drugs, alcohol and suicides are the leading culprits, but the causes are likely deeper. Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that the group most affected were people who had a high school degree or less.
“If what is happening is an epidemic of despair, that people on the bottom of the economic heap are being increasingly left out as inequality expands, then what we are seeing is just one more terrible consequence of slow growth and growing inequality,” Deaton said in a statement.
A survey in Europe found that people unhappy with their national public service were more likely to feel the same about the European Union. The Brexit vote is an example where that played out.
The Syrian civil war and the migration crisis it caused gave the rising right a scapegoat. People flooding across the border to escape violence and poverty were depicted as new competition keeping newly unemployed middle-class workers out of jobs. Farage, once a fringe politician, leveraged the issue and his long vocal opposition to migration in support of leaving Europe.
“Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom … this will be a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people,” said Farage after the successful Brexit vote. “We have fought against the multinationals, we have fought against the big merchant banks, we have fought against big politics, we have fought against lies, corruption and deceit.”
Wilders went further by railing against Islam and its threat to the Netherlands. A challenge from the right in Germany uses opposition to Chancelor Angela Merkel’s admission of refugees as a cornerstone campaign issue. And Le Pen hopes that her nationalist party once led by her father will lead to the presidency of France. All tailor their appeals to the middle class with promises of restoring the economic stability they enjoyed before the financial crisis.
Oxfam blames the austerity measures and regressive tax systems as the leading drivers of inequality in Europe. That is backed up by research on 13 European countries that found austerity measures increased income inequality. Those factors make anti-establishment and fringe political movements more appealing.