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Britain’s Populist Fantasies

LONDON – The election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the British Labour Party is a reminder that life is rich with paradox.

Globalization – the web of travel, technology, trade, and information that binds the world ever more closely together – is hardly a new phenomenon. But politics in many developed democracies has lately been disrupted by populist insurgencies seeking to exit this shared reality. What these groups do not seem to recognize is that the alternative they wish for is a fantasy.

From Syriza in Greece to the National Front in France, voters across Europe are being encouraged to believe in a virtual reality shaped by prejudice and uninformed nostalgia. In the United States, this mood first emerged several years ago, fueling the rise of the Tea Party and now enabling the splenetic presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and other Republican candidates who promise to seal America off from the twenty-first century. (The promise is to some extent literal: By building walls along the country’s northern and southern borders, the candidates would defend the American dream from outside contamination.)

The United Kingdom is the latest victim of this fantasy-driven populism. On the right, we have already suffered the rise of the anti-European, anti-immigrant UK Independence Party, led by the cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling joker Nigel Farage, in whom Britain has found its own version of Silvio Berlusconi, if you can imagine such a thing.