“Can We Agree on This?”

Political scientists and media commentators have devoted innumerable articles to analyzing popular perceptions of government as expressed through the past year’s voting and polling. An article by Harold James on June 8, 2017 in Financial Times portrayed the transformation:

“In the second half of the twentieth century, a stable pattern  emerged in most developed countries, with power alternating between centre-right and centre-left parties. The parties may have looked like bitter rivals, but they resembled each other in that they did not appeal to extremes, but fought for the political centre.”

In the 1990s the impact of globalization and fear of job losses left voters dissatisfied with responses offered by leading political parties. The perception is that Western democracies’ established parties have failed to improve lives. The ensuing vacuum was the opportunity for populist parties to present themselves as liberators from their countries’ problems.

The June 2016 Brexit vote, followed in November by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, looked a lot like precedents for the triumph of populism in the West. Attention focused on the subsequent series of European elections. Voters in Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany rejected populist party leaders, but the elections did see populist candidates increase their numbers in national parliaments.

In an April 2017 article titled “Young Centrists Strike Back,” originally published in Australian Financial Review, Herve Lemahieu wrote:

“As the Dutch general elections illustrated in March, voter fatigue with old left-right party politics need not take on populist expression. Instead, an electoral shellacking of the traditional parties was achieved by younger centrist parties…. Europeans have seen how Brexit has isolated Britain and do not want the same fate. Their dislike of President Trump’s policies is turning them off anti-immigration platforms more broadly.”

Andres Velasco is a former Finance Minister of Chile, and now a fellow of the Center for International Development at Harvard University. In an article titled “Seizing the Center” appearing online at Project Syndicate, Velasco characterized the new President of France, Emmanuel Macron, as a “centrist,” but not in the sense that Macron combines ideas from the right and left. The right claims to stand for freedom, by which Velasco interprets them to mean “freedom from government coercion, excessive regulation, or punitive taxes.” Velasco’s centrist “believes that government policy should secure basic opportunities in order to render citizens truly free.” Velasco examines the claim of the left to stand for equality. But “what kind of equality” is not agreed, leading government to “expand with no limits – or to focus on means instead of ends.” His centrist advocates for government that guarantees “education that is good enough to deliver the skills that allow citizens to interact as democratic equals.”

A ten page report in the September 30, 2017 issue of The Economist expands on the centrist theme. Emmanuel Macron attributed France’s lethargy to internal disagreements within political parties “on all the pressing issues – inequality, globalization, the environment, Europe.” His idea was “to force a new alignment along a different fault line: between those sympathetic to an open society and those tempted by nationalism, Euroscepticisim and identity politics.” Identifying as neither right nor left, Macron attracted voters with varying political histories, relying on local committees and grassroots support, and a “movement” rather than a political party. In that September 30 issue, The Economist’s Charlemagne” column describes Macron’s vision “of a Europe that defangs populists by protecting its citizens from the rougher edges of globalization.”

Macron identified internal disagreement with France’s political parties. Similarly, the “Bagehot” column in the same issue of The Economist finds moderate wings of both the Conservative and Labour parties have more in common with each other than with the more extreme elements of their own parties. The current stagnation in the U.S. Congress displays some of the same characteristics, where both the Republican and Democrat parties are pulled by their extreme members.

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