The Sources of Populist Rage — And What To Do About It

Reactionary populism is less a coherent policy platform than a cry for attention.

Yellow Vests protest in Avignon, France, December 1
Yellow Vests protest in Avignon, France, December 1 (Sébastien Huette)

Add France to populism’s list of victims.

A year ago, Emmanuel Macron’s election victory was hailed as a setback for the transatlantic reactionary movement that began with Brexit and has since led to Donald Trump in America, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and an anti-EU government in Italy.

The outbreak of nationwide anti-tax protests, which quickly morphed into an anti-government movement, makes clear the same forces that gave us Brexit and Trump live in France.

The consequences could be calamitous.

In the United Kingdom, Brexiteers are willing to shrink their economy and deny a younger generation the opportunity to study, live and work in Europe for the sake of regaining “control”.

In the United States, democracy itself is at stake. Republicans only won an election in Georgia by making it impossible for hundreds of thousands of African Americans to vote. In three of the states where they did lose the midterm election, they are trying to nullify the outcome. Their leader broke campaign finance laws and was willing to accept help from Russia to get elected (and has since tried to cover up his crimes in broad daylight); lies on an almost daily basis and disparages every institution that does not bend over backwards for him.

How did we get here? And, more importantly, how do we get out?

“The people”

Simon Kuper, who lives in Paris, reports for the Financial Times that a climate march drew more people to the French capital, yet the Yellow Vests get all the attention. Partly that’s because they threaten or use violence. Partly, he believes, it’s because the media are afraid to miss the next Brexit or Trump.

Kuper takes issue with the elite-versus-the-people narrative. Brexiteers, Trump voters and Yellow Vests tend to be older, rural, male, lesser educated and white, but they are not necessarily “left behind”.

Dalibor Rohac similarly argues in The American Interest that the dichotomy between “an out-of-touch, establishment president” — Macron — “and the righteously angry ordinary people” is too simple.

There are Frenchmen and -women who are struggling: middle-aged factory workers in towns where the factory closed years ago; university-educated millennials who can only find temp jobs but no affordable housing in the city.

But they are not the ones breaking windows in Paris, nor have many of them taken to the streets in peaceful demonstrations across France. The Yellow Vests are more likely to be members of the petite bourgeoisie or what Jonathan Haidt calls status-quo conservatives.

Haidt warned that this normally quiet group can be drawn into an alliance with the disruptive, authoritarian right when it believes progressives have subverted the nation’s identity and traditions so badly that only dramatic political action can stop them anymore.

A middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for millions of Americans. Years of low growth have depressed peripheral Europe. But it is not (just) a sense of having been left behind economically that motivates people; it is a sense of having been left behind in a cultural sense.

Ronald Brownstein writes for CNN that Trump’s base isn’t white voters per se but white evangelical voters, whose values and beliefs are losing ground. Small-town Brexiteers look to Brussels and London with equal suspicion. La France profonde felt wronged when a Socialist government legalized gay marriage in 2013.

Cry for attention

Reactionary populism is less a coherent policy platform than a cry for attention.

How else could Americans supposedly angered by diminished economic prospects vote for a shameless robber baron from Queens? How can the Yellow Vests demand lower taxes and better public services at the same time? How can Brexiteers justify voting against an EU that has inarguably made Britain richer?

Far from ignoring the left behind, Macron has undertaken reforms at an un-French pace — including liberalizing labor law and intercity transport — that have pushed job creation up and youth unemployment down.

It are the Yellow Vests, Rohac argues, who want to preserve a fundamentally broken and unsustainable status quo; Macron knows this may be France’s last chance to reform itself.

But small-town France doesn’t care what Macron does. They despise him for who he is.

With Trump, it’s the other way around. Nothing he has done has helped the American heartland. His trade wars have hurt farmers and manufacturing industries. His drug policy is making the opioid epidemic in Appalachia and the Rust Belt worse, not better. The man who promised to “drain the swamp” is using the presidency to enrich himself and his family. His administration is the most corrupt in living memory. Yet nine in ten Republicans support him.

What is to be done?

Brexit will probably happen — because the EU has run out of patience and because, as Matthew d’Ancona puts it in The Guardian, “Brexiteers treat the referendum result as though it were a cross between a sequel to Magna Carta and the most sacred pinky-promise in the history of the world.”

But it’s not too late for America and France.

The American electoral system gives disproportionate power to sparsely populated areas, but it is only a matter of time before the popular majority finds a way to reassert itself. That is why forward-looking conservatives like Kevin Williamson exhort the right to pay closer attention to the cities.

The Yellow Vests in France riot because they can’t win at the ballot box. The majority of them supported the far left or the far right in 2016. Macron beat their candidates easily. His popularity has fallen, but few voters in the middle would prefer Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Marine Le Pen.

Liberal democracy is about more than winning half the votes plus one, though. It’s not enough to defeat the reactionaries; the responsible center must find ways to appease them as well. If only because there are many more people who are struggling to get by and who are not rioting. They, too, deserve a better deal.

1. A new deal

One idea is to couple serious deregulation with a universal basic income to encourage growth in emerging sectors — artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, renewables — while providing a strong and generous safety net in a less predictable economy.

2. Affordable housing

Local governments ought to repeal onerous zoning laws that block affordable housing and stifle social mobility. Lower-middle-class families need to be able to move into safer neighborhoods with better schools.

3. Fix immigration

We can’t satisfy all nativists, but sensible immigration and integration policies could help avoid people feeling like strangers in their own land. As András Tóth-Czifra argued here the other day, if mainstream politicians are unable to fix a broken system, they will cede the issue to the far right. Learn from Canada.

4. Discourage polarization

Give people only two options and you encourage polarization. That is why the two-party democracies of the United Kingdom and the United States have it worst — and mixed-system France is not far behind. In the multiparty democracies of Northern European, coalition- and consensus-building is baked into the system.

Americans could introduce multi-candidate congressional districts or runoffs. Macron already represents a third way in France.

5. Lower the stakes

Not every election can be “the most important in our lifetime”. A centralization of power and, in the United States, a judicialization of politics have turned elections into do-or-die events. This needs to stop.

Macron has proposed to decentralize education, which would be a good first step. He should consider giving more power to France’s regions.

In the United States, Congress needs to reclaim its rightful role as the first branch of government. The presidency has become too powerful and too many decisions are left to the courts.

6. Empathy

Finally, we must examine the beliefs that leave so many feeling left out. Recent columns by David Brooks and Ross Douthat in The New York Times touch on this subject. They argue that self-styled meritocratic elites are blind to the institutional advantages they have built for themselves and fail to teach their children the self-restraint and noblesse oblige of the previous aristocracy.

Cosmopolitan Europeans only see the benefits of the EU. Wealthy Americans seldom experience system failures in education, health care and welfare firsthand. A little empathy would go a long way.