LONDON – The Dutch are famous for building dykes that hold back the tides and storms sweeping across the Atlantic. Have the Dutch now done it again, holding back the wave of populist politics that seemed to be threatening Europe after last year’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States?
The unexpectedly weak performance of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) in the Dutch election on March 15 seems to suggest this. Despite predictions running as high as 25% of the popular vote for Wilders, the PVV gained only 13%. If voters in France’s upcoming presidential election prove closer to the Dutch than to Americans and Britons in their susceptibility to xenophobia and protectionism, their decision will have global implications for politics, economics, and the ideology of global capitalism.
A swing back to the center in continental Europe would strongly suggest that the unexpected victories for populist and anti-globalization movements in the US and Britain were not primarily a response to unemployment and disappointing economic performance since the financial crisis, mass migration, or the threat of Islamist terrorism. This conclusion follows from the fact that France has suffered from much higher unemployment and a longer post-crisis recession than either the US or Britain, as well as experiencing more problems with terrorism and Islamic militancy.
If German voters in the autumn follow the French and Dutch in moving back toward the political center, immigration will also be discredited as the root cause of populism. After all, Germany has experienced a much larger influx of foreigners than Britain or the US. Instead, populism will look more like an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, motivated less by immigration and economic policy than by conservative cultural attitudes among Trump and Brexit voters and the unusual demographic alliances pitting old against young, rural against urban, and university graduates against less educated voters in the US and Britain.