Populists Don't Need to Win to Reshape Western Democracy

Truly defeating them in a lasting, meaningful way will require going well beyond what Emmanuel Macron or anyone else of the center-left has so far offered.

Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party candidate for French 2017 presidential election, is seen on a screen while conceding defeat.
Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party candidate for French 2017 presidential election, is seen on a screen while conceding defeat. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)

We know, as a matter of fact, that centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron won 24 percent of the vote in the first round of the French elections, while the far-right Marine Le Pen won just over 21 percent. He exceeded expectations in the tense runoff, with a resounding defeat of Le Pen, 66 to 34 percent. Two people, however, can look at these same results and come to quite different conclusions. For those who fear the rise of populism, this was a victory for humanity’s better angels and a seemingly decisive defeat for Europe’s populist “wave.”

But there is a different way of interpreting the results. In the first round, the reactionary, but not necessarily far-right, Francois Fillon—a pro-Putinist to boot—won 20 percent while the far-left Jean Luc Melenchon came out with 19.6 percent, his best-ever result. When French voters felt free to vote their conscience, the “non-centrist” candidates, in other words, won 61 percent of the vote to Macron’s 24 percent.

Marine Le Pen won around 34 percent in the second round on May 7, slightly less than polls predicted. She lost by a landslide to Macron, but she still won 34 percent in one of the world’s most established democracies, easily her party’s best-ever result. Le Pen also happened to be, if anything, a weaker candidate than Donald Trump, who won not in spite of his idiosyncrasies and lack of political experience but because of them. That he was different than the rest was his raison d’etre. On the campaign trail, Trump, in addition to being vindictive and mean-spirited, could just as easily be charming and funny. Le Pen is none of these things. She is solid. She is a professional politician, and a known political quantity, something that Macron was more than happy to point out in their presidential debate.

Perhaps more importantly, Le Pen suffered from a longtime association with her National Front party, with its history of anti-Semitism, fascism, and its weak spot for Vichy collaboration during World War II. Trump, on the other hand, was able to basically a rent a major center-right party—one of only two that Americans can realistically choose from—for his own purposes. Oddly enough, it is precisely America’s two-party system, long thought of as a moderating influence, that propelled a president, Donald Trump, who is, at once, the most radical, the most secular, and the most ideologically promiscuous candidate in American history.

The French election results are likely to represent the new normal: populist-nationalists representing the second-largest parties in either presidential or parliamentary elections, rather than merely the third or fourth. This has now been the result in the three most closely watched elections in Europe beginning last December, in Austria, the Netherlands, and now France. Even when populism wins, as it did in the United States, it will not win outright, as evidenced by the stark disagreements among the Trump administration’s various factions. But populism doesn’t need to win outright to reshape Western democracy. It can still even hover in the low double digits, as long as it is able to influence, or even capture, the larger right. Max Fisher and Amanda Taub of The New York Times write that “as Brexit proves, the populist wave can do plenty at 13 percent,” referring to the portion of the vote the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, won in the most recent elections.

European parliamentary systems make it hard for a single ideological current to dominate, and this is a virtue, as I discussed in a previous post. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Marxist and socialist parties made considerable gains, but eventually reached their natural limit. As Adam Przeworski and John Sprague write in their seminal history of electoral socialism: “All growth was arrested as [they] approached 50 percent, almost as if electoral institutions were designed in a way that would prevent any political force from obtaining overwhelming support for any social transformation.”

Socialist revolution through the ballot box failed, but the populism of the far right (or of the far left) is something different. It’s ideological, without offering an ideology, at least not a coherent one. It’s a set of feelings, frustrations, and sentiments. It’s a valorization of “the people,” and the people, whoever they are, will remain. Socialism, as an ideology, is more likely to fail if the socialist program fails, but populism can attract a more diverse group of supporters from left and right, precisely because of its lack of a defined program.

The counter to the populists, whether it’s Emmanuel Macron in France or Democrats in the United States, have either won already or might soon win, but then what? Across Western democracies, the technocratic liberalism of the center-left has suffered a series of defeats, with establishment parties collapsing in dramatic fashion. The liberal consensus—which became more about preserving the status quo by tinkering around its margins than about articulating a new vision—plainly does not speak to the increasingly visceral, supposedly “irrational” tenor of modern politics in old and new democracies alike. And this supposed irrationalism, of not recognizing what others say our interests must be, is the way that so many of us, despite our best efforts, feel. (It’s not irrational to want to vote in accordance with what you feel viscerally, if for example you feel that immigrants are or, at least can be, a threat to what you perceive your national identity to be. Or, for the more religious, what could be more rational than wanting eternal salvation, if your starting assumption is that paradise exists and that you must please God to be granted it?)

Some like the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have argued that Emmanuel Macron is “a callow creature of a failed consensus.” While Macron’s vision isn’t necessarily clear—how exactly would he be different than other young, center-left “post-ideological” presidents?—what he does stand for matters. Being open to the European Union and to the world and being unapologetic about supporting democratic values abroad are more significant statements of intent today, now that they are under greater threat. Macron may not be an American-style multiculturalist, but he has tried to minimize tensions around Islam, arguing that “no religion is a problem in France today.” He has hinted at a more permissive interpretation of French secularism, or laicité, saying that “too many Frenchmen confuse secularism and the prohibition of religious manifestations.” He has also reckoned with France’s past of brutal colonization. So when people criticize Macron’s lack of a clear, coherent ideology, they may be right, but for the French Muslims who worry about their future in France, that Macron would be openly more accepting of them is no small matter. For those who worry about whether they can be both French and Muslim, without having to choose, it might as well be everything.

Still, Macron being significantly better than the alternative does not mean Macron solves the problems that have allowed the French far right to inch ever more closely toward France’s permanent mainstream. To truly stem the populist tide in any lasting, meaningful way will require going well beyond what Macron or anyone else of the center-left has so far offered. It is not enough to be better. Macron has often been compared to another “post-ideological” president, Barack Obama, which might sound encouraging. Except that populist nationalism’s greatest victory came to pass after Americans experienced eight years of Obama’s once supposedly transformational presidency. That presidency didn’t transform politics, at least not in the way his supporters had hoped when they celebrated on November 4, 2008.