Surfing the wave. How conservative populists hijack politics

There is no obvious solution or path to take that leads us back to safety. There also isn’t any clear way forward using the same politics we’ve grown accustomed to. What is transparent however, is that riding the wave as passive opportunists won’t work and will make things infinitely worse.

If Brexit wasn’t terrifying, it could be the funny. Think about the British shooting themselves off the global stage. Laugh at a “nation of shopkeepers” thinking it made more sense to negotiate deals as the 22nd most populated country not the 3rd. And finally ridicule Oxford, Cambridge, and LSE for the “what is the EU” Google searches that appeared after Brexit. But it’s not funny. You can’t forget that the hate and instability it created exist and worse, Nigel Farage’s obnoxious face is branded into your brain. Most important though, you can’t forget that Brexit belongs to a global conservative populist wave.

The Wave

Essentially waves are shifts that popularized or establish a new political system in multiple geographies, exactly like our current political moment. But this wave isn’t only Brexit and Trump. In every region it has its mark. In Asia, Filipino President Duterte, Japanese President Shinzo Abe, and Indian President Modi each consider themselves strong nationalist leaders restoring their countries to glory with little time or respect for opposition. In the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Turkish President Erdogan have obviously and explicitly floughted anti-corruption measures and embraced hardline Jingoism. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czechia, Austria, and Serbia are all led by conservative governments who pressure opponents and have strong ties to ethnic extremism. In Western Europe, these parties remain a hair’s width outside of power.

Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte in Manila. Photo by Karl Norman Alonzo and Robinson Niñal Jr., Wikimedia.

Not every group mentioned shares the same agenda, but similarities exist that outline a common ideology. These Conservative populists (Conpops) resemble classical conservatives in their belief that Society’s strength comes from its traditions which must be preserved. Conpops add to this a belief that establishment politicians have sold out to globalization and its actions the source of all the country’s ills. The solution is a return to traditionalism, accomplished by ethnic unity, restrictive immigration, strict gender and religious hierarchies, and a reclamation of national sovereignty. These ideas and Conpops’ aversion to liberal democratic norms places them somewhere between center-right parties and far-right Fascists.


The Conpop wave has created two groups; those who live it and those trying to escape its rath or harness its power i.e. Surfers. For the latter the objective is to crowd dedicated Conpopists out of the discussion and get re-elected using their supporters. This way of thinking isn’t new, but it’s remains deeply misguided.

Conpopism is popular because it offers an authentic vision for the future.

Conpopism is popular because it offers an authentic vision for the future. Voters have so little trust in politicians that someone who has firmly held beliefs simply stands out. But either you’re sincere or you’re not and surfers by definition aren’t.  They can’t simply jump on hoping to hijack a movement. Voters will either reject them outright or punish them once they’ve shown their true colors. Prior to Brexit, Boris Johnson was known as a slightly left-of-Conservatism politician who was a Conservative Party loyalist. He, however, saw an opportunity for self-promotion and took a prominent role in the pro-Brexit campaign. Since the Brexit Referendum, however, the public has turned and Johnson’s approval ratings have sunk like a lead weight thrown from Big Ben. The movement he hoped to appropriate has thrown him out as an establishment interloper and he has been left without a leg to stand on.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Photo by UK in Japan- FCO, Wikimedia.

To avoid a similar humiliation, other politicians have advocated that their parties should, instead of embracing this movement, adopt some core positions to arrest its momentum and secure votes. Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, has been on the frontlines of advocating such a strategy. He’s written articles in major newspapers calling on mainstream politicians to “manage migration” and claims to know what the common man is really thinks when he votes for Conpopist parties. Yet by co-opting of Conpopist migration policy, Blair misses the point: Conpopists don’t care who enacts their policies, only that they’ve been enacted. Conpopists sincerely believe in their rhetoric and adopting it only helps them accomplish their goals. Worse, it legitimizes their ideas.  Surfing the rising wave isn’t a viable option, but that hasn’t stopped liberal parties from trying.

The bad news for Democrats is that not every Republican candidate is going to be a racist pedophile.

America and Lessons not learned

Nowhere has surfing been more popular than the United States. In 2016, the Center-Left Democrats lost control of the Presidency, the Senate, and House, on top a slew of defeats across the country since 2010. Whatever strategy Democrats had been following failed them. After the Presidential election, there seemed to be a real reformist zeal inside the party. Supporters called for a new vision, new leadership, and a new breed of candidates. Instead Democrats appointed establishment voices in positions of power, gradually silenced any opposition, and ran radical centrist candidates in competitive elections while backing ridiculous campaigns in places they considered of marginal importance. For example in Georgia, Democrats ran a young, competent, if not bland, centrist in an effort to steal a single congressional seat from Republicans. The election became the most expensive Congressional race in American history and a decisive Republican victory. Meanwhile in Montana’s single Congressional district, Democrats ran a literal singing cowboy locally famous for performing at nudist colonies. His opponent violently assaulted a reporter on video and still handedly won the race. But Democrats have refused to change. When the Alabama Senate election became competitive after the Republican nominee, Roy Moore, was outed as a serial sexual predator, Democrats funneled millions of dollars into the state through secretive Political Action Committees. When minority women turned out to vote for the Democrat in historic numbers, the Party claimed that they’re new strategy of secret money and hating bad things had started to show dividends. Mind you the Democrat won by only 20 thousand votes against a man whose best defense against accusations of pedophilia was that he had asked the victims’ mothers ahead of time. Minority women voters showed up not because they had any particularly attachment to the Democratic message of “Not Trump”, but because the Republican candidate believed America was greatest under slavery and that one of only two Muslims in Congress (both happen to be Black) shouldn’t have been allowed to assume his position because of his faith.  In other words, minority voters didn’t vote for the Democrat, just against an exceptionally terrible Republican candidate. The bad news for Democrats is that not every Republican candidate is going to be a racist pedophile and their strategy won’t work against anyone else. Worse most Democrats have become convinced that if only the party can win back white working class voters  then they will be launched back into power. Many have decided to adopt softer versions of Trump’s Conpopism. Their insincerity has stopped them from actually making inroads while they are actively hurting larger, more vulnerable communities such as women, racial and sexual minorities, and immigrants. In a recent race in Nebraska, national Democratic leaders, like Bernie Sanders, went out of their way to support a candidate who was ardently pro-life despite the party supposedly being determined to stand up for reproductive freedom. The candidate lost anyway, but the idea that reproductive rights are secondary to “electability” was made painfully clear. But perhaps Democrats are an American anomaly and European parties have learned useful lessons?

European Neoliberals

They haven’t. Instead, mainstream parties have attempted to cling to power by either surfing or offering the same stale politics. In the Dutch 2017 General Election, Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) were only narrowly defeated by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. But Rutte pivoted hard during the election, even taking out enormous newspaper ads, calling for immigrants who “don’t respect Dutch customs” to leave the country. Some infractions? Homophobia, Sexism, and calling Dutch people racist. By winning using a strategy that blames immigrants for intangible ills in society, Rutte placed himself in a horrible bind. Either he follows through, forcing immigrants to leavE the Netherlands and the Dutch economy implodes (Immigrants are 11% of the population) or Rutte completely backtracks and loses all credibility. Meanwhile Wilders’s ideas have been completely normalized and his party has secured itself as the second largest in the country. Other European parties should take a long look at the Netherlands before adopting similar rhetoric.

PO and the Future of Poland

Poland is in a unique position. Mainstream parties are now entirely in the opposition and their options are more like those available to the American Democrats than incumbent European administrations. Either Platforma Obywatelstwa and the rest can adopt the positions of PiS and other Conpops, they can simply reoffer their traditional policies with only skin deep changes, or they completely reform themselves by present a competing worldview and vision. None are guaranteed returns to power, but returning to power isn’t the goal the opposition should have. Focusing only on electoral wins reduces politics to a game and ignores that politics is and should be about how we treat ourselves.

And the crisis is that this worldview is just wrong.

If PO adopted the policies laid out by Conpopism, they’re accepting its worldview. Immigrants are the problem, the country is under attack, and only the Church and the traditional family can save Poland. PO can’t choose what they take from Conpopism, it’s a package deal. And the crisis is that this worldview is just wrong. Accepting it, cynically or sincerely, won’t make things better because it addresses the wrong issues. Furthermore, by aligning themselves these ideas, PO will find themselves either like Rutte, tied to an ideology detrimental to the country and their own policies, or like Democrats in the US, shut out of power because voters just don’t believe them or find them convincing enough to ditch uncut Conpopists.

Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders. Photo by Minister-president Rutte, Flickr.

If opposition parties decide to only give their established politics a face-lift, they’ll have their hands clean of legitimizing Conpopism. They’ll also be embracing a world view that reduces people to economic plus or minuses and policies that failed the world so badly that voters have willingly sought out radical right politicians. People might come back, but they also might not. Neo-liberalism is dying a slow, loud, smelly death and putting some makeup on it isn’t going to change that.  If instead marginalized parties self-reflect and reform something truly incredible could happen. PO would have to completely refocus their ideology away from seeing politics as an extension of economics to the reverse. Neo-Liberal parties would have to be honest about their role in creating today’s global inequality and present radical solutions that would explicitly benefit middle and low income citizens instead of society’s elite. Yet such an extreme transformation presents possibly insurmountable difficulties and people may never trust PO again. A sad truth about politics; sometimes you don’t get a second chance.

But there is a solution. We just have yet to find it.

What to do

Our politics are wandering the desert right now. All of us, left or right, are worried about the future and feel that established ways of thinking have failed us. Trust in our institutions has collapsed and in this global vacuum of doubt Conpopism has made a name for itself. There is no obvious solution or path to take that leads us back to safety. There also isn’t any clear way forward using the same politics we’ve grown accustomed to. What is transparent however, is that riding the wave as passive opportunists won’t work and will make things infinitely worse. But there is a solution. We just have yet to find it.


Roman Broszkowski
Roman Broszkowski is an undergraduate International Politics student from New Jersey. His area of study is Eastern Europe and the Middle East.