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?)