Language selection


Cultural insecurity as the main root cause of populism”

Introductory Remarks Presented at the 22nd Forum 2000 Conference Democracy: In need of a critical update?

Prague, Czech Republic, October 8th, 2018

Presented during the panel discussion:“Winners and Losers: Is Democracy Being Punished for the ‘Sins’ of Global Capitalism?

Stéphane Dion
Special Envoy of Canada’s Prime Minister to the European Union and Europe, and Ambassador of Canada to Germany

The question that we are asked to answer in this panel is: “Is the current rise of populism a direct response to a badly managed globalization and capitalism?”

I would like to say yes, as then it would be less difficult to address. If the populist surge was mainly driven by growing inequalities and loss of social mobility attributed to economic globalisation, technological displacement and neo-liberal ideologies, then we would have an additional reason to champion inclusive growth and to make:

But as valid as these policies are, they will not keep us immune from the surge of populism, because this phenomenon is much more driven by ethno cultural insecurity than by economic insecurity. Populism is a phenomenon driven more by value than class. It is the triumph of ethnic-based notion of identity politics, putting at the forefront: fears of migration, of racial diversity and of religious pluralism, and especially fear of uncontrolled borders.1

In Canada, during recent years, the federal government, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s leadership, provided substantial additional support to low income families with the Canada Child Benefit, to seniors by boosting Canada’s Pension Plan and to the working poor by increasing the Working Income Tax Benefit. As valid as these policies are, they do not exempt Canada from a possible wave of populism. We have seen this populist surge in some European countries where the unemployment rate is very low, the society is still relatively egalitarian, the social safety net is still robust, and where economic growth remains enviable.

But let’s define populism. Populism is an ideology that depicts the people as being under threat by corrupt, egocentric and disconnected elites. It can be deployed by the extreme left (radical socialism and anti-capitalism) or by the extreme right (defense or nostalgia of a homogeneous nation, inciting xenophobic outlooks).

As I said, two main explanations have been advanced for this current wave of populism: economic insecurity and cultural insecurity.  

Indubitably, economic insecurity is an underlying factor, especially for the extreme-left brand of populism. In countries where the youth unemployment rate reached 50%, one may have anticipated the rise of parties like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, la France insoumise in France, Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy.

However, the most prevalent variant of populism is the right-wing one, and its main driver is ethno cultural anxiety linked to the fear of uncontrolled migration. Cultural backlash against immigration is, by far, the main predictor of right-wing populist vote. Much more than economic anxiety or distress, populism’s appeal is correlated with a growing sense of cultural insecurity. Populism’s supporters are hostile towards immigration, and give a high premium to authoritarian values such as stability, order and tradition. 

One might almost say “it’s NOT the economy, stupid”, being that so many voters are inclined to let their voting preferences be guided by their cultural and identity concerns over economic interests.  For them, “it’s the migration, stupid.”

Populists speak about migration – and Islam in particular – as an existential threat to national culture and to Western civilization. Everywhere, populism has influenced mainstream political parties’ platforms and discourse. This creates an especially difficult political arena for center-left parties, who are struggling to campaign and build their credibility with voters on issues like “identity” and cultural security. With the political spectrum polarizing, it becomes harder to build consensus, and to build the coalitions that so many European electoral systems require for effective, stable governance.

Central, Eastern and Balkan European post-communist countries are the only region where populists routinely beat mainstream parties in elections.  These countries are new democracies and have had little recent experience with immigration, especially with non-Christian immigration, and consider it with much apprehension.2

We should not be surprised by the fact that the countries having little experience of immigration - especially non-white and non-Christian immigration - register an exceptionally strong cultural backlash against it. Similarly, everywhere in Europe, it is in the racially homogeneous community zones with the lowest percentage of foreign born people that the vote for anti-immigration parties is the highest. These towns and rural areas like their homogeneous societies and fear the cosmopolitanism that they see in large metropolitan cities like London, Paris or Vienna. Similarly, in the United States, “the racial and ethnic isolation of whites at the zip code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.”3

Everywhere, one will find aging ethnically homogeneous towns and rural areas in demographic decline, economically stagnant and unable to retain their young people.   As a result, they are losing confidence in the future of their way of life. Campaigns to restrict immigration provide strong appeal to them, offering hope to protect the world they know.4

A sense of demographic displacement is also at play. Many countries feel threatened by the prospect of immigration, especially when it is juxtaposed with the economic emigration of their own populations, which is resulting in a massive brain drain and a collective societal loss.

In post-communist European countries, some of which have almost disappeared over the two last centuries, or at minimum have been dominated by various imperial powers, an aging non-renewing population is all the more vulnerable to nativist populist rhetoric.  The existential fear of disappearing continues to be part of their collective memory. Now that they are finally able to enjoy their own sovereignty, large parts of their population desire an ethnically homogeneous state, as a safety net.

Therefore, the main question is: how can we find ways to reassure our populations of our commitment to control borders and to defend physical security, all the while honoring the normative commitment to support the safety, rights and prospects of asylum seekers? Furthermore, how can we strengthen the confidence in inclusiveness as a condition for a successful country in this global world?

As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt concluded their best seller “How Democracies Die”: “Few societies in history have managed to be both multiracial and genuinely democratic. That is our challenge. It is also an opportunity.”5  To seize this opportunity, Canada, as a country of immigration and a multicultural liberal democracy, is willing to do its part by sharing its best practices, by learning from others, and collaborating accordingly. More and more, cultural diversity will be a fact, and inclusion must be the choice - the right choice.


1The main common theme of populist authoritarian parties on both sides of the Atlantic is the reaction against immigration and cultural change. Economic factors such as income and unemployment rates are surprisingly weak predictors of the populist vote.” Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Trump and the Populist Authoritarian parties: The Silent Revolution in Reverse”, American Political Science Association, 15 no. 2 (June 2017). ;
See also: Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Most Trump Voters Were not Working Class”, Washington Post, June 5, 2017. ;
Roger Harding, “Key Findings: A kind-hearted but not soft-hearted country”, 2017, The National Centre for Social Research’s British Social Attitudes 34. ; Eric Kaufmann, “Immigration and White Identity in the West: How to Deal With Declining Majorities”, Foreign Affairs Journal, Sept 8, 2017. ; Holger Lengfeld and Clara Dilger, “Cultural and Economic Threats: A Casual Analysis of the Party Identification with the Alternative for Germany (AFD) using the German Socio-Economic Panel 2016”, Zeitschrift für Soziologie, (August 2018 edition). ; German Lopez, “Polls Show Many – Even Most – Trump supporters Really are Deeply Hostile to Muslims and Nonwhites”, Vox, September 12, 2016. ; Rose Meleady, Charles R. Seger and Marieke Vermue, “Examining the role of positive and negative intergroup contact and anti-immigration prejudice in Brexit”, The British Psychological Society (2017). ; Diana C. Mutz, “Status Threat, not Economic Hardship, Explains the 2016Presidential Vote”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (26 March 2018). ; Nate Silver, “The Mythology of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support: His Voters Are better Off Economically Compared with Most Americans”, FiveThirtyEight, May 3, 2016.

2 Jacques Rupnik, « La crise du libéralisme en Europe centrale », Commentaire no. 160, (2017), ; Slawomir Sierakowski, “How Eastern European Populism is Different”, Project Syndicate, (5 February 2018),

3 Jonathan T. Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell, “Explaining Nationalist Political Views: The Case of Donald Trump” (2 November, 2016),

4 Philip Auerswald and Joon Yun, “As Population Growth Slows, Populism Surges”, The New York Times, 22 May, 2018,

5 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, "How Democracies Die", Crown, New York, 2018, p. 231.

Date Modified: