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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.

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