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Send in the Clowns

NEW YORK – When too many Italians voted late last month for either a louche and discredited business tycoon or a comedian, European stock markets plummeted. With no public trust in the political class, Italy might become ungovernable.

But Italians are not alone. Rage against the political establishment has become a global phenomenon. Chinese bloggers, American Tea Party activists, British Europhobes, Egyptian Islamists, Dutch populists, Greek ultra-rightists, and Thai “red shirts” all have one thing in common: hatred of the status quo and contempt for their countries’ elites. We are living in an age of populism. The authority of conventional politicians and traditional media is slipping away fast.

Populism can be a necessary corrective when political parties grow sclerotic, mass media become too complacent (or too close to power), and bureaucracies are unresponsive to popular needs. In a globalized world managed by bankers and technocrats, many people feel that they have no say in public affairs; they feel abandoned.

Our national politicians, increasingly powerless to cope with serious crises, are suspected, often with good reason, of simply looking after their own interests. All we can do is vote the rascals out, sometimes by voting for candidates whom we would not take seriously in more normal times.