Democracies Search for Something to Believe In

Nico Yardas, Hamilton College:


When it comes to the Democratic Party, candidates need to present themselves as something to believe in.  It’s not enough for individual candidates to inspire voter confidence; the party as a whole needs to inspire belief in voters. This is a subject that has been covered ad nauseam by pundits and commentators, especially in reference to the apparent rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’, whose ascendancy was apparently halted in France by Emmanuel Macron and his LREM party (La Republique En Marche!). But fundamentally, there is a deeper problem haunting western democracies (and indeed, the world): people don’t believe in the political process anymore.

The 2016-2017 political cycle saw heavyweight pundits and political analysts all miss the mark by a long shot. It also saw the ascendancy of the ‘alt-right’ movement, beginning with the June 2016 Brexit referendum that ousted then-Prime Minister David Cameron. That same month, the rhetorically bombastic Rodrigo Duterte was elected President in the Philippines and expressed desire to distance his country from the U.S.  Somewhat under the radar, two of the three musketeer countries – Brazil and Venezuela, with Argentina being the third – of the ‘Pink Tide’ movement in South America succumbed to the global frustration: in Venezuela, continuing mass protests against Hugo Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, erupted over the summer in response to food shortages, and Dilma Rousseff, of the Worker’s Party in Brazil, was impeached in August 2016. In November 2016, the world was sent ‘reeling’ from President Donald Trump’s victory over the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton (and Matteo Renzi lost his bid at constitutional reform in Italy in December 2016, resigning after a referendum in a belated pantomime of Brexit).

Since then, exclamations of “oh no, what went wrong?!” “That man is disgusting, how did we elect him?” filled America to the stratosphere. Many fingers, especially from political analysts, think-tanks, and the Democratic party, pointed to Vladimir Putin, cacophonously accusing the Russian president of sponsoring Donald Trump and hacking the American election. A new trend came into vogue: analyzing the alt-right as an authoritarian and neo-national trend that held the West by the throat. Then Macron was elected President of France in the spring of 2017, the snap election in the UK saw the Brexit movement lose a significant amount of steam and result in a minority government, and in June 2017, Macron’s LREM party won a significant parliamentary majority. The ‘Macron moment’ has been hailed as the end of the alt-right’s political momentum, and has raised hopes that Merkel might be reelected in Germany.

But Macron is no different than the alt-right’s most significant victories in Brexit and Trump, or the ousting of Dilma Rousseff, or even the resurgent Labour Party in the U.K.

Regardless of where he falls on the political spectrum, something about Macron resonated with French voters. Rather than a representative from the liberal order (as Hillary Clinton most certainly was), Macron created a new political party and up-ended the French political landscape in under a year. That upheaval speaks to a dissatisfaction with the both the Left and the Right in France, just as there was a dissatisfaction with the ‘Stay campaign’ in Brexit, just as the same workers who elected Rousseff’s predecessor stood by as she was impeached, there was a dissatisfaction with an established status quo. The narrative is one of insecurity, of distrust of the political establishment for promising security and change. In such times, people need leaders that they can believe in. Obama himself ran on such a doctrine; the 2008 campaign was an emotional and political backlash to the errors of the Bush Administration, promising change and a naïve confidence in the slogan “yes we can.”

The American economy has recovered on a macro scale, but millions of people around the globe are still suffering the lacerations from the 2008/2009 recession that has permeated the globalized economy. Macron was not expected to win the French presidential election. The far-right nationalist party, Le Front National (National Front, or FN), under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, was seen as a favorite in a head-to-head contest with the conservative candidate Francois Fillon. But Macron offered a counter-vision to Le Pen. While Le Pen peddled a xenophobic narrative – not dissimilar to that of Trump – and an anti-EU stance, Macron offered a new alternative to the traditional Left-Right divide, capitalizing on his status a political outsider who would make France great again, not through retrenchment, but through a bold engagement of the world. Indeed, it is this mistrust of the establishment that seems to be resonating in the hearts of the people. As Macron put it, “the French appear to be suffering, because they feel they no longer control their own destiny, and that our democratic system is closed to them.” The same sentiment is what drew so many Democratic voters to Bernie Sanders instead of Clinton in the Democratic Primary in the U.S…and what drew so many people to Trump.

Perhaps the young French president will deliver on his promises. But if there is one thing Macron’s election should make clear, the ‘populist’ sentiment is not gone in the world. It may feel like it, since Macron gained the support of much of the post-Cold War political infrastructure outside of France, but LREM was started as a grass-roots movement, Macron came from outside the political ladder as a young candidate with only a year of administrative experience, and he won. Then LREM won a majority in the parliamentary elections. But just because Macron talks familiar liberalism doesn’t mean he isn’t a ‘populist’ – by today’s definitions, at least.

Macron’s policies are just as contra status quo as Marine Le Pen’s could have been, albeit in a very different vein. Macron appeals to the same instincts as Bernie, Corbyn, Trump, and Le Pen do (i.e. the frustration with the status quo). The difference is, while he comes at politics from a more familiar angle, he built a political party to fundamentally change France on a vision of ‘French Exceptionalism’ with a Pan-European vision not seen since de Gaulle, upending the French political order that has existed since WWII in little over a year. That vision centers on a fiscal union to dampen German domination of the EU and to turn France into a ‘startup nation’ (presumably the Silicon Valley of Europe to the Germany’s Pennsylvanian manufacturing) in order to secure French economic sovereignty – and more broadly, European sovereignty – in a world where the EU has to compete with behemoths like China.

A populist appeals to the population as a whole, usually in a time of domestic unrest, turmoil, or crisis, promising to fix the problems that the ‘establishment’ or the ‘system’ has engendered, restoring the ‘common people’ to their rightful place in society. In the case of France, Macron appealed to the same emotions that Le Pen did, but instead of a narrative of national decline, he offered a narrative of national rejuvenation located within Pan-Europeanism.

Globalization has rented traditional social matrices across the globe, paradoxically bringing wealth to many and impoverishing just as many (more, on a global scale). But it is not in the so-called global south that ‘populist’ movements are being seen; the Western nations, those who have profited most from globalization, are where these movements are arising. If the victory of Macron proves anything, it is that the perceived issue many people see is with the political establishment and elites. While the root of people’s anger is grounded in the globalized economy, it is manifested in a backlash against the status quo elites.


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