The upsurge of populism in the United States and Europe has us asking the wrong questions. The issue that should concern us is not what populists have in common. The similarities between Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage are unimportant. We also should stop wondering why voters on both sides of the Atlantic are so easily beguiled by political messages that combine rejection of the ‘establishment’ with some kind of appeal to identity politics. There has never been a shortage of voices calling for the overthrow of the elite or disgruntled voters willing to follow them and any slogan that promises that a history of victimhood can be replaced wth a future of privilege is always going to be attractive. Such mobilization against ‘the system’ is a hardy perennial of democratic politics.
If there was a moment when it was possible to speculate that the British election would send a clear signal about Britain’s relationship with Europe, it was short-lived. The British people may well deliver a decisive majority to Theresa May and, in the best-case scenario for her next government, she may be able to leverage that majority to win a good deal for Britain and to lay the foundations for Britain’s new role in Europe and at the global level. Even if that all came to pass, however, future historians would be hard-pressed to say those outcomes were a clear message from the British people. Britain’s relationship with Europe is at best peripheral to a contest that is much more about leadership style, domestic policy, and the complex web of security that surrounds terrorist violence. Leaving aside the peculiarities of the British electoral system, you could easily imagine this contest playing out in any one of a dozen different countries on the Continent. Britain is not having an election about Europe; it is having a very European election.
The election of Emmanuel Macron is the triumph of populism and not its demise. His direct appeals to French voters were more compelling than those of Marine Le Pen. Nevertheless, the strategy of the two second-round candidates was much the same: play to emotions and identity; circumvent the established traditions of party politics; run against entrenched elites as much as against the other side. Now comes the hard part of converting a populist movement (En Marche!) into a political party capable of governing the institutions of state (La République En Marche!). Macron’s supporters no doubt realize this is important but are understandably still glowing in the confirmation that their France can embrace hope and change. Thinking back to the last successful hope-and-change candidates, however, it is necessary to stress how things can go wrong.
The inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States represents the triumph of populism over the world’s greatest democracy. It also sets the stage for populists to make further gains across Europe. Trump’s affection for Nigel Farage is plain to see. His affinity for (and his attraction to) populists of other shades is easy to find as well. The challenge is to sort out what this means for the European project. Populists tend to stake out Euroskeptical positions, and Donald Trump has made no secret of his indifference for the European Union, but it is hard to say just how populists can have a lasting impact unless they somehow manage to seize control over government.
The political landscape of Europe is changing rapidly and in ways that are hard to interpret. The recent Italian referendum is a good illustration. Matteo Renzi inherited an agenda to reform the Italian constitution when he became prime minister. He negotiated an agreement with the centre-right on the precise details of the package. He shepherded the agreement through two majority votes in each of Italy’s two chambers of parliament. He then brought the agreement to a popular vote as per constitutional requirement and with an electorate broadly disenchanted with politics and therefore favourable to reform. Nevertheless, virtually every party outside the government opposed the reform package and Renzi lost the referendum vote by a spread of twenty percentage points. Now Renzi is out of office. Italy is without a viable electoral system because of changes made in anticipation of the (failed) constitutional reforms. And it is unclear whether the new government headed by Paolo Gentiloni has sufficient support in the Senate to pass a new electoral law. Most Italians did not want Renzi’s constitutional reforms and yet they are not happy with the status quo either. Disillusionment with politics has grown as a result.
The center left in Europe is ceding ground almost everywhere. The British Labour Party not only lost the May 2015 elections but then threw itself into the arms of Jeremy Corbyn. Barring a Brexit debacle for the ruling conservatives, Labour is unlikely to return to power in the next decade despite Corbyn’s success at recruiting new party activists. The Spanish socialist workers party (PSOE), having been weakened by widespread corruption, jettisoned its leader and looks ready to offer tacit support for a minority government led by the conservative Popular Party (PP) to avoid facing the voters this December.
Europe’s heads of state and government face a real dilemma. They want to attract support for European integration from the people of Europe and they also want to show the outside world that the European Union remains a major source of dynamism and innovation. So the question is how best to achieve those two goals. Should they propose a new project that will attract everyone’s attention or should they try to come up with some ‘vision’ that explains why Europe still matters?