Saving the Center

The political center – particularly the progressive center – wins when it has the initiative, when it is leading the debate, when the solutions it is proposing are radical as well as sensible. Only a strong and revitalized center, one that rediscovers the policy agenda that owns the future, can defeat today's populist surge.

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LONDON – There is no doubt about the waves of discontent and anger sweeping Western politics. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union after four decades of membership, jeopardizing all the intricate trading and political connections that such a long relationship created. Against all forecasts by political pundits, Donald Trump won the United States presidency, something the political class thought virtually inconceivable. Throughout Europe, new political parties are springing up, all based on variations on the same theme: the political establishment has ignored us, and we will throw them out in protest.

One defining feature of this uprising is that the impetus for change has become more important than any consideration of what change might mean in practice. The things said by leaders riding this wave can be wildly out of kilter with normal rules of political conduct; but none of it matters. What matters is that the revolt is happening, and whoever happens to catch the wave will be borne aloft.

By contrast, politicians who make reasoned arguments of a conventional kind merely irritate rebellious voters, arousing impetuous dismissal, if not contempt and derision.

There are stacks of analysis of the factors underlying the populist surge: stagnant working- and middle-class incomes; the marginalization felt by people just managing to get by; the disruption of communities as a result of economic change; and resistance to the seemingly relentless forces of globalization: trade and immigration.