Will Political Normality Return in 2017?

If 2016 was the year of populist victories, there are signs this year will be different.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party (Neil Hall / Reuters)

If 2016 was the year that populist protest triumphed in Britain (Brexit) and the United States (Trump), 2017 is shaping up as the year that political normality reasserts itself. Three events in three different Western democracies confirm that some of the familiar laws of political gravity do still operate.

The most spectacular of the events is unfolding in the United Kingdom. The Conservative party under Prime Minister Theresa May is rolling toward a crushing victory over a Labour party that veered to the hard left under Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn joins radical views and stated sympathies with extremists—IRA, Islamist, and pro-Russian—to a personal befuddlement nicely captured in a Vice documentary that showed him autographing apples in permanent marker to distribute to admirers. (Who wants an autographed apple? You can neither eat it as a snack nor save it as a memento.) The befuddlement might be endearing were it not laid atop a paranoid management team staffed by the hardest of the British hard left. As an incredulous Politico reported of Corbyn’s chief of communications, Seumas Milne:

Milne has made a point of arguing that the number of Stalin’s victims has been greatly exaggerated. His views on global geopolitics represent the worst of unthinking, historically illiterate, and reactionary leftism. The South Ossetia conflict? Not the result of Russian aggression but U.S. interference. Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea? Not Moscow’s fault — it’s all down to Western expansionism. The Islamist extremists who killed British soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of London? Merely the “predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the U.S., Britain and others in eight direct military intervention in Arab and Muslim countries.” From Hugo Chavez to Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, every dictator and demagogue standing up to so-called U.S. imperialism is a de facto good guy.

Corbyn-led Labour is polling at about 20 percent in the election scheduled for June 8. Ancient Labour redoubts—Scotland, Wales—are suddenly competitive for the Conservatives. Labour insiders reckon that seats last time won by 6,000 votes must be regarded as likely lost; seats won by 8,000 as up for grabs; and seats won by the (by British standards) massive margin of 10,000 still requiring a lot of work.

The center-city constituency of Stoke-on-Trent—a Staffordshire city formerly the capital of the British ceramics industry—has been Labour since it was created in 1950. This time, the Labour MP is running scared. A Guardian video of encounters between pro-Corbyn activists and local working class voters during a February 2017 by-election shows why. A transcript of the key exchange. (LPA = Labour Party activist; PV = Potential Voter.)

LPA: One thing I’d say about Jeremy Corbyn is that he’s quite different from politicians that’ve come before—like, do you know that none of the Labour Party want him, basically, like, to be the leader?

PV: No-one wants him ‘coz he’s a dick.

LPA: (laughs)

PV: You know what I mean, like?

LPA: Why do you think that?

PV: Well, he was saying stuff like, ah, he doesn’t wanna use our c-, our Trident missiles and all of that shit.

LPA: Yeah.

PV: ‘Coz if someone come over here and started blowing us up, like, what are you gonna do, pour ‘em a cup of tea and be like, “Yeah, crack on.”

LPA: But do you not know that Trident costs, like, six hundred billion pounds, so if we didn’t have Trident, all the things you’ve just said—youth centers, better justice system—

PV: Yeah but the thing is, I don’t actually care, like.

LPA: You do!

PV: But I don’t.

LPA: You do!

If you watch the video, you’ll notice that the activist has a distinctly middle-class accent, and that the potential voter does not, which gives an extra edge to that “you do, I don’t” exchange. Also worth noting is that the Trident program costs nothing like 600 billion pounds: The entire British defense program costs 35 billion pounds per year. The Labour activist would have been more correct had she said, “The Labour parliamentary party do not want him to be leader.” In June 2016, a leadership review was triggered after a dozen frontbenchers resigned and 172 Labour MPs voted no confidence in him. (Only 40 MPs voted to retain him.)

Corbyn is utterly loathed by Labour professionals, who regard him as a hostile outside force imposed on them by reckless hashtag leftists, who paid three pounds each to vote in the 2015 leadership contest, but who have no enduring connection to the party as an institution. The professionals are dutifully trudging to the beating ahead, consoling themselves after each day’s grim campaigning that at least they are approaching one day closer to the post-Corbyn era.

* * *

Another political outsider has risen and fallen even faster in Canada, where the federal Conservative Party is holding a leadership contest following its defeat in the election of 2015. For a brief time, that race was dominated by a reality TV show star who does not even live in Canada, Kevin O’Leary of ABC’s “Shark Tank.” O’Leary positioned himself as Canada’s answer to Donald Trump: a flashy but dubious businessman who denounces politicians as stupid and promises to solve all the country’s problems by simple solutions nobody has ever thought of before. He also regularly said boorish and poorly informed things, such as proposing to sell seats in Canada’s appointed Senate. “I don’t know why we can’t have a hundred thousand or a couple of hundred thousand committed each year per senator. Instead of it being a cost centre to Canada, why can’t it be a profit centre?” (Necessary disclosure: My sister is a member of the Canadian Senate, who didn’t pay for her seat.)

O’Leary generated a temporary spasm of excitement among older voters who watch a lot of TV. But to paraphrase Donald Trump, running for prime minister of Canada turned out to be more complicated than anyone expected. Among the surprises: It turns out a great many Canadians speak French—and expect their prime minister to be able to do the same. Jolted by that unexpected plot twist, the reality show star withdrew from the race on April 26, leaving behind a field of candidates who actually hold seats in Parliament, who show themselves conversant with the issues of the day, and who can answer questions in either of Canada’s two official languages.

* * *

The French presidential race presented the most terrifying possibilities for political upset of any of the year’s major global elections. Polls on the eve of the first round vote, April 23, suggested that France might face a run-off on May 7 between a radical of the nationalist right (Marine Le Pen) and another of the nationalist left (Jean-Luc Melenchon). In the event, Melenchon failed to clear the bar. Le Pen instead will meet the great hope of the European elite, Emmanuel Macron.

Macron is a remarkable case study: handsome, credentialed, only 39 years old, as fluent in English as in French, the former investment banker turned economics minister has never been elected to anything—and yet finds himself the consensus choice of almost every elected official from Besancon to Berlin. Exactly why Macron should have gained so much support from so many influential people is simultaneously immediately obvious—and utterly baffling. A candidate associated with the socialist left who speaks the language of the free-market right; a minister who avows radical change while winning the support of those who like things the way they are—Macron is everything and nothing all at once.

Barring some unimagined convulsion, Macron will likely handily win the presidency. Le Pen is just that unacceptable to that many voters. But the day after? Macron is a nimble figure, who can flip a plastic Evian bottle through the air and land it square on its base. But France wants more economic growth and less terrorism—and Macron offers continuity with the economic policies that have crushed the former and the immigration policies that have aggravated the latter. He promises to implement them better: better trade, a better euro, a better social insurance system, and better assimilation of immigrants. He speaks of more flexibility within the existing system—while refraining from reversing any of that system’s major elements, from the 35-hour work week to the 62-year retirement age to the continuing flow of trans-Mediterranean immigration. French political professionals note the emotional power of the issues addressed by Le Pen, especially immigration restriction. Someday, those issues may find a champion who is less ambivalent about such basic ethical questions as, “Was D-Day a good thing?”

Polls found that an absolute majority of French young people supported either Melenchon or Le Pen. Perhaps those two votes can never be joined together: France is a racially and ethnically divided country, and the young glare at each other even more mutually suspicious than do the old. They are united in their discontent, however—and like other handsome Europhile reformers before him, notably Italy’s Matteo Renzi—it’s hard to a path by which Macron assuages them. Macron leads a personal movement, En Marche. He will not command a majority in either house of Parliament. (The Socialists hold 280 of 577 seats in the directly elected National Assembly; the Gaullist-right Republicans 143 of the 348 seats in the indirectly elected Senate.) How does anything get done? Maybe charisma will overcome inertia, as it did when the teenage Macron wooed and won the teacher, 20-plus years his senior, now his wife. Or maybe the odds will prevail, as they usually do. In which case, the upheavals of 2016 will resume in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Every dog has his day, as the saying goes, and the spring of 2017 looks like the day of the over-dog. Nobody should assume that the under-dogs won’t bark again.