Opinion

Greece's populist powder keg

The message from the elites to the Greek people is clear: "We will overrule you"

It didn't take a military conquest from Europe to keep Greece in the eurozone. But because the deal to "save" Greece imposed even harsher conditions on Athens than Greek voters had decisively rejected in a nationwide referendum just days earlier, Greeks could be forgiven for feeling as if they'd been the victims of a coup. The message to Greeks, not just from the rest of Europe, but from their own leaders, seems to be, "We will overrule you."

For now, Greece's populists have the worst of both worlds. Not only have they failed to be liberated by a big fix (continued euro membership plus massive debt forgiveness, for instance), they haven't even been freed by a big breakdown (banishment plus, at least, some sovereignty they can be proud of). The creaking euro system remains in place, only with greater strains and longer timelines.

Remarkably, a growing group of influential outside observers are rooting for Greece's anti-Europe populists. In America, liberal chieftains like Paul Krugman are convinced the deal is a disaster. And conservatives like AEI scholar Michael Strain basically agree with that conclusion. The principles are different — the American left intuitively supports super-sized writeoffs, while the American right sees the euro as a bureaucratic folly — but the conclusion is the same: Europe must attend to the long term, and with this deal, Europe has blown the chance to do so.

Greece's euro-weary populists know the euro crisis has become the new normal. No one — elites and laymen alike — is able to fast forward to a post-crisis world. The frustrated, disillusioned populists won't accept that forever.

For now, Greek populism has been put in a box. But how tight is the lid?

The frustration of Greeks should feel familiar enough. It's a frustration born of the inability to chart a course for the future — especially one that's in closer accord with the foundations of the past than with the slippery, panicky present. If the Greek people truly rebel against the deal, they (and we!) will be in uncharted territory. That's scary, but at least it's not the same stagnant holding pattern.

Fittingly enough, Greek outrage over stagnation as official policy makes it a microcosm for the world. Everywhere you look, people see superficial change that only reinforces prevailing constraints. While Europe contorts to keep the euro rolling, Egypt has returned to military rule, and Mexico to cartel conflict. In the U.S., amid a presidential contest shaped by Bushes and Clintons, the administration's agreement with Iran augurs yet another episode of extended crisis management as a new normal. The same can be said of America's approach to ISIS. The list goes on and on.

Few are willing to come out and say they want Greeks to revolt against the deal their European overlords have offered. But if they did, the world would stop and take notice. People would palpably sense the possibility of breaking out of the present day's grand paralysis. What would happen next could well be harrowing. But sometimes that's the price policymakers pay for trying to conquer history.

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