The backlash against President Donald Trump's form of nativist, religiously inflected, populist nationalism has begun. Unluckily for us Americans, it has begun in Europe.
British Prime Minister Theresa May's decision to call a snap election in the hope that she would increase her majority in the House of Commons backfired completely. In Italy, the anti-immigrant, anti-EU 5-Star Party bombed in municipal elections. And, perhaps most importantly, in France, newly inaugurated President Emmanuel Macron's Republic on the Move Party (LRM) appears headed for an overwhelming majority in that country's parliament, potentially nabbing between 390 and 430 seats out of 577 total.
The biggest surprise was in Britain. The Labor Party was shellacked in 2015, and the party elected Jeremy Corbyn in the aftermath. A self-described democratic socialist, Corbyn's election as leader of the party was a clear rebuke of the centrism of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. It was also a rejection of a type of politics epitomized by Blair and Miliband: smooth, coifed, intellectually supple, ever "on message" and with no sharp edges. Corbyn is unpolished and he embraces his radicalism, which extends beyond traditional labor positions on the economy to a not-quite absolute pacifism in foreign affairs. Yet, under Corbyn, Labor increased its share of the vote by 9.6 percent, the biggest such swing towards Labor since 1945. Turns out that in Britain, as in the U.S, for Corbyn as for Sen. Bernie Sanders, authenticity is more important to many people than smoothness, indeed, there is a kind of anti-charisma charisma at work.
May was not as polished as David Cameron, whom she replaced at 10 Downing Street after the Brexit vote forced Cameron from office, but she exudes the sense that she is a career politician who has done one too many courses in media training. But, in this instance, she read the verdict of the Brexit vote, and committed one of the cardinal sins of politics: Instead of ignoring the voters' wishes, she inflated the significance of the result. As Anne Applebaum commented in The Washington Post, "May had a plan — but it was a plan designed for her base. She ignored the 48 percent of the country that did not vote for Brexit, calling them 'citizens of nowhere.' She ignored the anxiety that Brexit has created and the economic consequences that are now just beginning to bite. She ignored younger people, who preferred to stay in the E.U. last year and now prefer the Labour Party to the Tories by a huge margin, 63 percent to 27 percent."
Just as importantly, in the final weeks of the campaign, she ran as the law and order candidate, and her campaign was bereft of hopefulness or optimism, while Corbyn embraced the future with the right balance of British phlegm and Whiggish optimism. E.J. Dionne penned a thoughtful commentary that I hope every Democrat reads, offering "twin caveats to sweeping conclusions on the left: Its more moderate wing needs to acknowledge the mobilizing power of a clear and principled egalitarian politics and the increasingly progressive tilt of younger voters. But fans of Corbyn's approach to politics need to come to terms with the fact that although he outran expectations, he lost the election. Labour still needs a strategy for winning dozens of additional seats." Democrats have won two "moral victories" in special elections for Congress in Kansas and Montana but, like Corbyn, they need to start winning for real.
What is interesting is that while economic populism in Britain overperformed expectations, right-wing populism crashed and burned in Italy and France. The 5-Star loss in Italy is good news but has to be tempered by a recognition that these were local, not national, contests and that the electoral system favors forming coalitions before the voting, which always puts more extreme parties at a disadvantage. But, that's good news also, that the fierce anti-immigrant stance of 5-Star is still viewed as too extreme in a country which has been on the frontlines of the immigration battle in Europe.
The French parliamentary elections are stunning. Macron's LRM party did not exist one year ago. True, much of his vote comes from the collapsing Socialist Party. Seeing as Macron served for a time in the cabinet of his Socialist predecessor at the Elysee, François Hollande, so it is not that much of a stretch for left-of-center voters to support Macron and his new party. Still, the humiliation of the major parties, and the dismal showing by candidates of the fascistic National Front, gives Macron the political power and the mandate to enact that kind of changes in French governance and economic relations that have, heretofore, left too may people unemployed, especially the young. His aggressive pursuit of the political center, combined with his youthful energy, give him firm ground upon which to govern, but he must deliver.
Macron's extremist opponents in the presidential contest, Marine Le Pen on the right and Jean-Luc Melenchon on the left, had pledged to bring their supporters into the streets to protest labor reforms Macron has advocated. With this past Sunday's vote, Le Pen and Melenchon have shown they couldn't even get their people to the polls. There will be protests from some unions, but some unions are giving a yellow light to Macron's call for decentralization of collective bargaining. Catholic social teaching is quite clear on the right to collective bargaining, but if the more decentralized model as used in Germany and Scandinavia is pursued over the current French model, there are no principled grounds to object so long as the right to collectively bargain is upheld.
I hope Macron pursues a similar decentralization strategy on the business side of the economy. Most of the advanced modern economies of the West have forgotten about the value of antitrust policies and their rigorous enforcement. Unless we recapture an appreciation for the value of smaller, competitive firms, we may find ourselves unable to shop anywhere but Amazon, eat any food that wasn't produced on a megafarm, etc.
In any event, it is heartening that the populism of the right has been losing elections while the populism of the left remains potent. I remain a tad wary of all kinds of populism but only a tad. Centrism has too often been a mask for maintaining the rich and powerful in their places. It is Macron's ultimate challenge to devise an aggressive centrism that is more concerned about the people than about the powerful.
The unpopularity of President Trump in Europe may have played some role in the recent elections. I am guessing that as it became obvious to May that she had made a mistake in calling for snap elections, she had to have thought to herself whether it was wise to run off to Washington to make nice to the new president. Macron's hauteur towards Trump at both the NATO and G7 summits obviously did not hurt him any. One week from today, the runoff in Georgia's 6th congressional district will be held. Here's hoping the anti-Trump backlash finally comes to America.
[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]