Confronting the Populists

SAINT-MARTIN-LAGUÉPIE – Here’s a confession: I don’t lie in bed at night missing mainstream politics. Instead, I am spending a week at my house in southwest France, walking around the countryside. The early autumn sun is warm on my back, the trees are starting to change color, and local farmers are preparing for this year’s grape harvest. What’s not to like?

Back in the political world, the answer is quite a lot. On the left and right – few mainstream leaders are having such a good year. In fact, one must search for any notable achievements.

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In France, President François Hollande looks like damaged goods as he prepares for next spring’s election. The French economy benefits from high productivity potential and a well-educated work force, but trade unionists and other members of Hollande’s Socialist Party are blocking measures that would restore strong growth. Meanwhile, former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé are vying for control of the center-right opposition in order to challenge Hollande and head off Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front.

Opinion polls indicate that there will be a second-round run-off between Le Pen and either Sarkozy or Juppé, which means that those on the left will have to choose a conventional right-wing candidate if they want to beat Le Pen. She is unlikely to win; but, then again, that’s what most people said about the United Kingdom’s vote in June to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s campaign in the United States for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel – Europe’s foremost politician – has attracted voters’ ire, owing to her principled policy to welcome refugees. The opposition Left Party is barely credible as an electoral force; but the far-right Alternative for Germany has been exploiting anti-immigrant sentiments and chipping away at the support of the government parties (Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats) in subnational elections, including in Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.

In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is flailing as he tries to kick a flatlining economy into gear. The center-right opposition, a shifting firmament led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is lost in the political wilderness, and his main opponents are now the populist Five Star Movement and regional politicians who offer little more than disdain for the national political establishment.

In Spain, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the center-right People’s Party is struggling to form a government after the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party refused to support him, while Catalan separatists continue to beat the drum for independence.

In the UK, where older, alienated working- and middle-class voters (mainly in England) pushed through Brexit, the new prime minister, Theresa May, is fighting to hold her party together. Some cabinet members are pushing for a complete break from Europe – a so-called hard Brexit – while others press more sensibly for a middle-ground approach to maintain trade with the biggest market for British goods and services.

As these examples indicate, populists are resurgent across Europe – even in unlikely places like Sweden and the Netherlands. Now that Trump would feel quite at home almost anywhere on the continent, it is imperative to respond to the pan-Western anti-establishment rage that he represents.

To be sure, slow economic growth in the years since the 2008 global financial crisis has sapped voters’ enthusiasm for traditional parties fighting over the middle ground. Governing parties on the left and the right have generally agreed on issues such as international cooperation, free trade, public spending, and tax cuts. While Ronald Reagan, today’s Republican patron saint, was a big-government spender, Democrat Bill Clinton cut welfare entitlements and balanced the budget.

Today’s populists, however, demand simple – indeed, simplistic – answers outside the scope of mainstream consensus. They blame globalization for damaging their livelihoods and economic prospects, and they seek an enemy – some “other” – whom they can vilify for the uncertainty and downward mobility they have experienced.

The populist worldview admits no shades of gray. There can be no middle way; on the contrary, searching for consensus or accommodation is tantamount to treachery. Through bluster and demagogy, populist politicians are turning back the clock to a pre-empirical world, in which superstition and obscurantism were apparently better for everyone.

Of course, populists’ halcyon past is a dreamland. But how do we deal with the reality that so many voters prefer fiction to fact? We certainly should not give up on democracy, or side with those in the West who, like Trump, admire and seek to emulate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demi-tyrant vision.

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Populists must be confronted head-on. Their shoddy arguments must be rebuked point by point, and their fugues of outrage must be met with calm, rational deliberation. It is no less important to address the causes of economic alienation, which means, for starters, providing better public services for disadvantaged communities, and investing in education, technology, and high-wage, high-skill jobs.

If we run away from populists, or try to copy their tactics and arguments, we will further undermine the social contract underpinning Western democracies. Mainstream political leaders face a challenging road ahead. They will need to adopt a fighting spirit and signal confidence in their cause, rather than succumbing to complacency or resigning themselves to a long-drawn-out retreat. This is a battle that must be won.