Yesterday’s conventional wisdom: A wave of insurgent populism is sweeping the West, threatening its foundational institutions – the European Union, the Western alliance, even liberal democracy itself.
Today’s conventional wisdom (post-first-round French presidential election): The populist wave has crested, soon to abate.
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Chances are that both verdicts are wrong. The anti-establishment sentiment that gave us Brexit, then Donald Trump, then seemed poised to give us Marine Le Pen, has indeed plateaued. But although she will likely be defeated in the second round, victory by the leading centrist, Emmanuel Macron, would hardly constitute an establishment triumph.
Macron barely edged out a Cro-Magnon communist (Jean-Luc Melenchon), a blood-and-soil nationalist (Le Pen) and a center-right candidate brought low by charges of nepotism and corruption (Francois Fillon). And the ruling Socialist candidate came in fifth, garnering a pathetic 6 percent of the vote.
On the other hand, the populists can hardly be encouraged by what has followed Brexit and Trump: Dutch elections, where the nationalist Geert Wilders faded toward the end and came nowhere near power; Austrian elections, where another nationalist challenge was turned back; and upcoming German elections, where polls indicate that the far-right nationalists are at barely 10 percent and slipping. And, of course, France.
In retrospect, the populist panic may have been overblown. Regarding Brexit, for example, the shock exaggerated its meaning. Because it was so unexpected, it became a sensation. But in the longer view, Britain has always been deeply ambivalent about Europe, going back at least to Henry VIII and his break with Rome. In the intervening 500 years, Britain has generally seen itself as less a part of Europe than an offshore island.
The true historical anomaly was Britain’s EU membership with all the attendant transfer of sovereignty from Westminster to Brussels. Brexit was a rather brutal return to the extra-European norm, but the norm it is.
The other notable populist victory, the triumph of Trump, has also turned out to be less than meets the eye. He certainly ran as a populist and won as a populist but, a mere 100 days in, he is governing as a traditionalist.
The Obamacare replacement proposals are traditional small-government fixes. His tax reform is a follow-on to Reagan’s from 1986. His Supreme Court pick is a straight-laced, constitutional conservative out of central casting. And his more notable executive orders read as a wish list of traditional business-oriented conservatism from regulatory reform to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
I happen to support all of these moves, but they don’t qualify as insurrectionist populism. The one exception may be trade policy. Trump has made gestures and threats to those cunning Mexicans, Chinese and now Canadians. But it’s not yet clear if he is serious about, say, withdrawing from NAFTA or just engaging in a series of opening negotiating gambits.
The normalization of Trump is one indicator that there may be less to the populist insurrection than imagined. The key, however, is Europe, where the stakes are infinitely higher. There the issue is the future of the nation state itself, as centuries of sovereignty dissolve within an expanding superstate. It influences every aspect of daily life – from the ethnic makeup of neighborhoods to the currency that changes hands at the grocery.
The news from France, where Macron is openly, indeed ostentatiously, pro-European (his campaign headquarters flies the EU flag) is that France is not quite prepared to give up on the great experiment. But the Europeanist elites had better not imagine this to be an enduring verdict. The populist revolt was a reaction to their reckless and anti-democratic push for even greater integration. The task today is to address the sources of Europe’s economic stagnation and social alienation rather than blindly pursue the very drive that led to this precarious moment.
If the populist threat turns out to have frightened the existing powers out of their arrogant complacency, it should be deemed a success. But make no mistake: The French election wasn’t a victory for the status quo. It was a reprieve. For now, the populist wave is not in retreat. It’s on pause.