The myth of the global populist wave
Actually, the center has held
There's an unstoppable tsunami of institution-wrecking populism hurtling toward us, and we're all just standing helplessly on the beach bracing for the inevitable impact.
At least, that's what we've been told, over and over and over again. A phalanx of critics on the left and right sees enormous dissatisfaction with existing political and social structures, and a desire for disruptive change. The Powers That Be are toast, we're told.
But what if they're not?
With the crushing defeat of the xenophobic Marine Le Pen in this week's French presidential election, the Populist Wave Thesis is becoming increasingly difficult to defend. While mainstream parties around the world have faced stiffer-than-expected challenges from upstarts and rabble-rousers over the past two years, on balance the center has actually held.
The Populist Wave Thesis never even made sense on its own terms. Take the U.K. and Brexit, for instance. Why weren't Scotland and Northern Ireland swept up in this so-called wave? In Scotland, Remain captured 62 percent of the vote, and in Northern Ireland, nearly 56 percent. At the time of the referendum, unemployment was higher in both Scotland and Northern Ireland than it was in the rest of the United Kingdom, yet somehow both territories were able to decisively reject the empty sophistry of Nigel Farage and his U.K. Independence Party. In March, parties supporting the Leave campaign won just 30 of 90 seats in Northern Ireland's parliament.
People also forget that joining the European Union in the first place was enormously contentious — particularly in the U.K., which sat out the negotiations for the 1957 Treaty of Rome that created the European Economic Community. While a referendum to join the EEC passed with 67 percent of the vote in 1975, the U.K. was always a reluctant partner and steadfastly refused to join the eurozone. Their decision to leave the EU should not, therefore, be seen as a harbinger of Europe's destruction, but rather as a return to the country's deep and perhaps unresolvable divisions over its relationship with the continent.
If we look at elections more broadly, the evidence for the Populist Wave Thesis is even spottier. In Canada, the 2015 national election gave an overwhelming parliamentary majority to the stodgy center-left liberals and their impossibly handsome standard-bearer, Justin Trudeau. The Canadian left as a whole captured nearly two-thirds of the votes. In the provincial elections set for British Columbia this week, parties of the traditional left are set to continue their dominance.
In January 2016, the resolutely conventional Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa won the Portuguese presidency in a walk, months after leftists gained control of the country's parliament. Two mainstream (and virtually indistinguishable) centrist parties won a majority of votes cast in Ireland's February 2016 parliamentary elections; only a peculiar antipathy between the two groups prevented them from forming a coalition government together. The Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte — who usually serves as evidence for the Populist Wave Thesis — was elected with just over 39 percent of the vote last May, and became president only because his opponents were divided in a system that awards victory to the candidate with the most votes, even if that person lacks a majority. In Iceland, which suffered terribly during the Great Recession, the center-right Independence Party won parliamentary elections last October.
Since President Trump's election and his subsequent embarrassing misrule, the far-right has been badly beaten in both the Netherlands and France and narrowly turned back in Austria. In Germany, the far-right Alternative For Germany is polling in the single digits for September's general election, and Chancellor Angela Merkel's centrist coalition looks poised to win another term in office. Germany took in a million refugees in 2015 alone and is ground zero for the argument that immigration is tearing Europe apart, but there exists scant evidence that standing for compassion and a united EU is going to cost Merkel or her allies at the polls.
Even in the U.S., it's difficult to discern a real appetite for total destruction. Trump decisively lost the popular vote to establishmentarian Hillary Clinton, but was awarded the presidency because America uses an absurd electoral system designed six years before the invention of the cotton gin. Trump won only a plurality of votes in the Republican primary, and occupies the Oval Office now simply because traditional Republicans decided they could live with casting a ballot for a rancid, immigrant-bashing misogynist as long as they got to steal the swing seat on the Supreme Court. And what kind of enraged populist wave returns 97 percent of incumbents to the House of Representatives and 87 percent to the Senate?
Rather than finding solace in the warm embrace of fiery populist rage, many traditional GOP voters simply gambled that Trump's lurid campaign promises were, like everything else about the man, meaningless, and that he would surely adhere to the party's longstanding (and mindlessly cruel) starve-the-poor positions on taxes, the environment, and health care once in office. Thus far they have been proven mostly right, as Trump sold out Skid Row for Saville Row days after the election by appointing an endless succession of plutocrats, con artists, and Wall Street goons to his Cabinet. He's since moved on to pursuing deep austerity measures, gleefully promising to gut the pesky planet-preserving Environmental Protection Agency and the annoyingly life-saving Medicaid program. If the livid, pitchfork-wielding populists that allegedly put him in office disapprove of any of these policies, you can't find much evidence for it in public opinion polling.
Overreacting to one election can lead to bad advice and even worse policy. For instance, Democrats might decide that their party's long and admirable struggle against hate, misogyny, and inequality should be abandoned because, as The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf argues, asking people not to be racist is an unforgivable crime of manners akin to shaming dinner guests for using the wrong utensil. If the burn-it-all-down-and-pour-Bordeaux-on-the-embers crowd was right, Emmanuel Macron should have abandoned his principles in favor of trashing immigrants, making fantastical promises about the economy, and joy-riding the anti-elite fervor. That he did not do so and won an overwhelming victory anyway suggests that perhaps the public is not as eager for radical change as some would have us believe. Maybe — just maybe — the populists have gotten a bit more press attention than the boring, below-the-fold majorities that appreciate the value of not plunging their societies into existential crisis?
But just as we should not read a single, unified narrative into a handful of problematic election results, we should also not dismiss the warning signs coming from places like Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere. Even if there isn't a populist wave sweeping the globe, there may still be trouble down the line. EU elites would do well to rethink the rigid fiscal and monetary policies that prevented many countries from responding capably to the global economic crisis, as well as re-examine the Schengen Agreement. And if they are serious about arresting the decline in public faith in existing institutions around the world, global leaders need to urgently address the interrelated crises of inequality, automation, and climate change, which threaten true calamity.
Doing so, though, doesn't require scapegoating Muslims, recklessly destroying painstakingly constructed institutions, returning to Depression-era protectionism, or handing power to dangerous narcissists who couldn't puzzle their way out of an Escape Room — let alone steer the world through the complex challenges of modernity.