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A Grassroots Antidote to Populism

Across Western democracies, traditional parties are collapsing or assuming unrecognizable new forms, while populists have successfully exploited voter disaffection. But as French President Emmanuel Macron's La République En Marche ! shows, a grassroots progressivism that focuses on voters' real concerns is a viable alternative. 

PARIS – The political parties that once dominated Western democracies have been shaken to the core. Many have suffered electoral debacles, not least in France, Italy, Greece, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Others have changed so radically that only their name remains the same. The Republican Party of US President Donald Trump has little in common with that of former President Ronald Reagan.

These developments are similar across the West. Leaders of the once-dominant parties oscillate between denial and despair, while populists siphon off their traditional supporters. Some refuse to see any legitimate reason for their defeat, dismissing their opponents’ supporters as “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton did shortly before losing to Trump in 2016; others are too petrified by the populist surge to mount a counteroffensive.

But neither denial nor complacency will break the political impasse. Progressives must rebuild, and that starts with diagnosing the traditional parties’ shortcomings. Part of the problem is that traditional parties failed to recognize the real issues of the age. Still fighting on old ideological battlefields, they turned a blind eye to declining social mobility, mounting environmental crises, rising geographic inequality, tensions over multiculturalism, and other issues that actually matter to voters. Decades ago, they were the vanguard. Today, they are alone in the woods, wondering where everyone went.

The social sciences may hold an answer as to why the mainstream lost its way. The gap between their objective analysis of reality and government policies has become a chasm. In most Western countries, for example, economists have long known about the growing divide in terms of incomes and other indicators between some affluent cities – which benefit from globalization – and the rest of the country. Yet not until French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration did a national leader enact tax cuts on the basis of where one lives. As a result, 1% of France’s GDP is now being redistributed first to the poorest parts of the country.

Traditional parties could also learn something from listening to voters directly, rather than only through the filters of media and pollsters. Back in 2016, Macron’s movement, En Marche !, started with the largest door-to-door listening tour in France’s history. What voters told canvassers then became the foundation of Macron’s presidential campaign.

For example, more than a year before revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual predations, “La Grande Marche” had gathered innumerable testimonies from women about harassment, and Macron issued a pledge to fight the problem if elected. At the time, Macron’s stance made him the butt of opponents’ jokes; the laughter soon faded with the onset of the #MeToo era.

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Still, an accurate understanding of society is not enough. Traditional parties also suffer from poor organization. They have long believed that modern politics should be organized around elections, with activists showing up periodically to hand out leaflets and cheer on the candidates. This was not cynicism, so much as a symptom of an approach that treats democracy as a marketplace comprising government providers and citizen consumers. In this view, seizing and holding power is a party’s sole raison d’être. It is little wonder that citizens and even party members feel ignored between elections.

Despite these weaknesses, established parties had a number of advantages that forestalled their collapse. In recent years, they have had a technological edge over less-established opponents, and they were the only political actors with organized constituencies that could mobilize people for elections, organize protests, and start petitions.

But this model is no longer sustainable. Citizens nowadays refuse to be mere consumers of public policies. With rising levels of education have come new demands for empowerment. Voters want to be treated as political actors in their own right, not as pawns in someone else’s game.

Moreover, governments themselves are no longer the sole providers of policies. This is one of the hard lessons we learned during two years working alongside Macron at the Élysée Palace. The leading policy challenges today – climate change, religious extremism, digital disruption, gender equality – do not admit of solutions only by national governments. Such challenges demand deep cultural changes, and, in most cases, action at the sub- and supra-national levels.

Finally, technology has lowered entry barriers to political participation, such that traditional parties can no longer count on an incumbent advantage and entrenched support networks. When you have mastered Google, Twitter, and Facebook, you don’t need a century-old party machine.

Political movements must be rebuilt accordingly. The focus should be on specific actions, not just elections. A party’s formal management structure should serve as the administrative “back office”; the front office should be staffed by the people on the ground. At La République En Marche !, we refer to these as local citizen projects. They can include anything from after-class reading courses and migrant integration programs to cooperative vegetable gardens and digital training sessions for senior citizens. In each case, the point is to offer solutions tailored to local problems, thereby strengthening communities. Such projects should now be regarded as essential complements to public policies.

In the future, a party’s ability to offer rewarding avenues for political and community engagement will be essential to its attractiveness. And by demonstrating progressivism in action on a daily basis, parties will have already laid the groundwork for success when election day arrives.

When voters refuse to hear what you have to say, shouting louder is not the answer. This is the hard lesson traditional parties learned. Only by demonstrating a commitment to improving lives, rather than simply winning elections, can you convince people to come to your side. Reconnecting with voters’ concerns thus goes hand-in-hand with adapting party organizations. For a winning alternative to populism, we need grassroots progressivism.

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