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The Revolt Against Virtue

The assumption of virtue among those who count themselves as progressive may help to explain the popularity of right-wing agitators, as well as the link between anti-immigrant sentiment and denial of climate change. Anything, it seems, is better than admitting that the experts are right.

NEW YORK – A common explanation for the rise of right-wing demagogues around the world is that many people feel “left behind” by globalism, technology, deindustrialization, pan-national institutions, and so on. They feel abandoned by the “liberal elites,” and so they vote for extremists who promise to “take back” their countries and “make them great” again.

This account is plausible in seedy parts of eastern Germany, the bleak old mining towns in the north of Britain, or the Rust Belt in the American Midwest. But it leaves out the large number of populist voters who are relatively prosperous. These people are often past middle age, and overwhelmingly white. They, too, might feel left behind by changes that bewilder them: the rise of non-Western powers and the increasing prominence of non-white minorities; hence the loathing of US President Barack Obama and the receptiveness to myths – spread by Trump, among others – that Obama wasn’t really born in the US. 

Harder to explain is the extraordinary success of a new far-right party in the Netherlands. The Forum voor Democratie (FvD) didn’t even exist three years ago, but it gained some 15% of the vote in recent provincial elections, making it one of the largest factions in the upper house. Polls suggest that it could soon become the largest party in the country.

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