Whither Populism?

Some populist movements might be faltering. But what will take their place?

Whither populism? On that question rests the future of the West. If populism becomes ascendant on both sides of the Atlantic, it will kill the vision of “the West” that Americans and Europeans have promoted since 1945 as a community of nations based on free trade, rule of law, mutual defense, democracy, and human rights. That vision has delivered the longest stretch of peace and prosperity that the West has ever known, yet today it is under assault from both the far left and the far right, with the two extremes often sounding interchangeable in their contempt for “globalism” and free trade, their repudiation of international institutions, and their admiration for the strongman model propagated by the likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

Populism suffered its most stunning success with Donald Trump’s election last fall. But his nonstop stumbles in office, his failure to pass any significant legislation, and his record low approval ratings (55.7 percent disapproval vs. 38.4 percent approval in a compendium of polls) all suggest sharp limitations on populism’s current appeal in the United States. Wednesday’s election results from Virginia, with establishment candidates of both the Republican and Democratic parties holding off populist challengers to win their parties’ nominations for governor (albeit very narrowly in the case of Republican Ed Gillespie), further reinforce this message.

In Europe, too, populism has been receding—at least on the Continent. Far-right challengers failed to win in Austrian, Dutch, and French leadership elections held since the U.S. presidential election, with Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight arguing that part of the explanation is European revulsion against Trumpism.

In France, not only did the centrist Emmanuel Macron hold off challenges from both the hard-left (Marine Le Pen) and hard-right (Jean-Luc Melenchon), but his nascent political party, La Republique En Marche (The Republic on the Move), has now scored a smashing victory in parliamentary elections. He could wind up controlling as many as 440 seats out of 577 in the lower house of parliament—a landslide with few precedents in French history. Marine Le Pen’s National Front, by contrast, will be lucky to win a handful of seats.

At the same time that Macron’s party was winning in France, the populist Five Star movement was losing ground in local elections in Italy. As Reuters notes, “Five-Star candidates failed to qualify for run-off ballots in the 25 largest cities up for grabs on Sunday, including the northern port city of Genoa, home to the movement’s founder, comedian Beppe Grillo.” That does not bode well for Five Star’s chances of seizing national power. And a good thing, too, because of what Five Star promises to do if it wins—“it could pull the country out of NATO and would boycott free-trade deals like TTIP and CETA, challenge European Union austerity rules, drop sanctions against Russia, recognize Palestinian statehood and insist on the removal of all U.S. nuclear weapons from its territory.”

The most powerful country in Europe, Germany, is also avoiding the populist contagion, with the center-right Christian Democratic Union winning a recent state election that is seen as a bellwether for the national election later this year. The appeal that the far-right Alternative for Germany is seeing is fading in opinion polls. The CDU’s leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a favorite for reelection.

Last week’s British election, too, could be interpreted, on one level, as a defeat for populism and a pullback from the Euro-skepticism which led the Brexit referendum to a narrow victory a year ago. The UK Independence Party, which had led opposition to the European Union, was wiped out, winning 1.8% of the vote and no seats in Parliament. The Conservative Party, which had embraced a “hard” exit from the EU at least in part to steal UKIP’s thunder, lost 13 seats, falling just short of a majority. Prime Minister Theresa May was seen as having been hurt by her embrace of Trump—the two walked hand-in-hand during a meeting—just as Le Pen was hurt by Trump’s expression of support for her.

In order to form a government, May is in the process of making a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. While the DUP is to May’s right on social issues (for example, it opposes gay marriage), it will actually be a force for moderation in the Brexit debate because it doesn’t want a “hard” border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU. (Having just driven from southern to northern Ireland, I discovered there was no way to tell when you were crossing the border other than the change of cell-phone providers.)

The most problematic aspect of the British election is not that the Conservatives lost ground—it is that they lost ground to a Labor Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is an unrepentant man of the far left who has been a cheerleader for terrorist groups such as the IRA, Hamas, and Hezbollah and for “revolutionary” regimes such as those in Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, while reviling the United States and Israel. Corbyn has no use for either NATO or the European Union; while he tepidly campaigned for the Remain side in the Brexit election, his heart was never in it. In short, Corbyn is a populist not of the far-right but of the far-left—a distinction with little practical difference.

And therein lies the problem: While it’s possible, based on recent trends on both sides of the Atlantic, to suggest that far-right populism is losing ground, we face the disquieting possibility that Britain will not be the only place where the far-left steps into the vacuum. Indeed, there is real cause for concern in the United States that, with the GOP swinging far to the populist right under Trump, the Democrats will swing to the populist left under a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. The New York Times reports, for example, that Democrats are increasingly shifting in favor of a single-payer health-care system—i.e., state-run medical care—a system far more radical than the one enacted by President Obama.

What the U.S. lacks, and could use, is a charismatic candidate who can mobilize the center of the political spectrum as Macron has done in France. Until such a figure comes along, we will remain in danger of whipsawing from far-left to far-right with no stops in between.