Peak Populism not like Peak Oil. Expect Trumps, Hofers in future too

Right-wing populists are much the same anywhere in the western world — think Donald Trump, Norbert Hofer, Marine Le Pen — and they draw the same kind of supporter — less-educated men over 50 stuck in a rural or small-town fastness — but does that mean we’ve hit Peak Populism? That changing demographics and urbanization mean that we are witnessing Peak Populism, which will act like Peak Oil.

American geologist M.King Hubbert’s theory about the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum suggested that after a certain point, oil will go into terminal decline. Can populism do the same?

Yes, it can, but the more interesting question may be whether it will do so. Will populism really go into decline?

Let’s first address the “can it decline” issue.

On Bloomberg View, Leonid Bershidsky offers a fascinating analysis of the Peak Populism phenomenon. “If it doesn’t win any major electoral victories in the next few years, it will have to slink off to the fringe,” he declares.

He cites the close electoral race in Austria. Norbert Hofer, of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party, lost the presidential election despite winning the first round and leading in the polls right up to election day. But by the actual time of voting, Mr Hofer was not just running against progressive Alexander van der Bellen, who was backed by the Green Party. He was, as Mr Bershidsky correctly points out, running against everyone else who didn’t want the far right to win.

The writer goes on to compare the demographics of Mr Hofer’s supporters with those of Donald Trump’s. Both populist politicians draw poorly educated men over 50 and do rural areas and small towns.

But this is falling support base because:

both in the US and in Europe, women make up more than half of the total population

millennials are set to become the main voting bloc both in the US and in Europe

urbanization is a reality, not just in the US and Europe, but right the way round the world. According to estimates, more than one million people move to cities globally every week. The UN says that 6.3 billion people will be living in cities by 2050. That’s 67 per cent of the planet’s population

So, it’s clear that the spaces — rural — where Hofer and Trump voters can flourish, are declining. And there will be fewer Hofer and Trump voters because of population change.

And yet, I am reluctant to write off right-wing populism purely on account of demographics and urban trends. There will always be a market for the politics of grievance. The grievance itself may change — and with it the defining identity of its supporters.

We’re not at Peak Populism and may never be.

Originally published at on May 30, 2016.

PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Sign up for free email updates on email me at

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