If today’s democracy teaches any lesson it is don’t underestimate populism. Insult it, deride it, excuse it, no-platform it, but it is a serious force in electoral politics. In France, Marine Le Pen has surged into contention for the presidency.
Earlier this month, Hungary’s authoritarian Viktor Orbán swept the board. In Russia, albeit in vexed circumstances, Vladimir Putin retains a patriotic hold on opinion. In the US, Donald Trump refuses to disappear. These individuals are in no way the same, but they speak the same message.
The message is that party is being supplanted by personality and identity. As relative prosperity rises, voters are taking recourse in prejudice and emotional security. They can distrust outsiders. They can hate globalists, parliamentarians, bureaucrats and liberals, however defined. They want to feel control over their own lives, as Britain’s Boris Johnson ludicrously but successfully offered them in the form of Brexit. They want to like those who purport to lead them.
This populism has torn the left-right spectrum apart. Emmanuel Macron won power five years ago as a radical outsider. He has smashed France’s party system – the two old parties scored under 10% at this election. He has proved a determined, even bold, reformer of France’s archaic political economy, modernising its welfare state and easing labour rigidities where his predecessors failed.
The supposedly rightwing Le Pen has identified herself with the poor, with reckless pledges of cheaper petrol, higher taxes on the rich and lower ones on the poor. She wants to exclude immigrants from welfare and defy the EU. She has depicted Macron as an insider, the embodiment of Parisian insensitivity towards provincial France, a classic elitist patrician.
A defect of presidential constitutions is to promote personality over policy. It puts a premium on the crudities of politics, on likability, naivety and short-termism. As Alexis de Tocqueville said, it promotes the mob over the club. When parties dissolve, so do the disciplines of parliamentary government. Manifestos become meaningless. Competence amounts to no more than getting through the next crisis. Collective responsibility is reduced to loyalty to a leader and an image, witness Johnson’s Britain.
Romantics can find in all this a glimmer of a new politics, one more responsive to popular opinion. It is sometimes summed up as the “global village of the internet”, the democracy of the unmoderated platform. In many ways Brexit was its most glaring manifestation, a cry of protest against Europe’s most centralist governing elite. No other EU state has since dared hold such a referendum and even Le Pen has backed off one. As with Trump in the US, give voters an opportunity to speak naked truth to power and they may use it.
It is six years since the World Values Survey recorded a plummeting faith in democracy. Less than half of under-50s “believed it was essential to live in a country governed democratically”. In Germany, the US and Japan, between 20% and 40% would opt for a “strong leader who does not have to bother with parliaments and elections”. Conventional politics must confront these truths or die. Group identity must be somehow respected or worldwide immigration will become a torment. Federalism must be installed or separatism will destabilise states everywhere. Parliaments and parties must reform their processes or become irrelevant.
The odds are still on France saving itself in two weeks’ time, but its lessons are clear for all to see.