Some populist movements might be faltering. But what will take their place?
Whither populism? On that question rests the future of the West. If populism becomes ascendant on both sides of the Atlantic, it will kill the vision of “the West” that Americans and Europeans have promoted since 1945 as a community of nations based on free trade, rule of law, mutual defense, democracy, and human rights. That vision has delivered the longest stretch of peace and prosperity that the West has ever known, yet today it is under assault from both the far left and the far right, with the two extremes often sounding interchangeable in their contempt for “globalism” and free trade, their repudiation of international institutions, and their admiration for the strongman model propagated by the likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
Populism suffered its most stunning success with Donald Trump’s election last fall. But his nonstop stumbles in office, his failure to pass any significant legislation, and his record low approval ratings (55.7 percent disapproval vs. 38.4 percent approval in a compendium of polls) all suggest sharp limitations on populism’s current appeal in the United States. Wednesday’s election results from Virginia, with establishment candidates of both the Republican and Democratic parties holding off populist challengers to win their parties’ nominations for governor (albeit very narrowly in the case of Republican Ed Gillespie), further reinforce this message.
In Europe, too, populism has been receding—at least on the Continent. Far-right challengers failed to win in Austrian, Dutch, and French leadership elections held since the U.S. presidential election, with Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight arguing that part of the explanation is European revulsion against Trumpism.
In France, not only did the centrist Emmanuel Macron hold off challenges from both the hard-left (Marine Le Pen) and hard-right (Jean-Luc Melenchon), but his nascent political party, La Republique En Marche (The Republic on the Move), has now scored a smashing victory in parliamentary elections. He could wind up controlling as many as 440 seats out of 577 in the lower house of parliament—a landslide with few precedents in French history. Marine Le Pen’s National Front, by contrast, will be lucky to win a handful of seats.
At the same time that Macron’s party was winning in France, the populist Five Star movement was losing ground in local elections in Italy. As Reuters notes, “Five-Star candidates failed to qualify for run-off ballots in the 25 largest cities up for grabs on Sunday, including the northern port city of Genoa, home to the movement’s founder, comedian Beppe Grillo.” That does not bode well for Five Star’s chances of seizing national power. And a good thing, too, because of what Five Star promises to do if it wins—“it could pull the country out of NATO and would boycott free-trade deals like TTIP and CETA, challenge European Union austerity rules, drop sanctions against Russia, recognize Palestinian statehood and insist on the removal of all U.S. nuclear weapons from its territory.”
The most powerful country in Europe, Germany, is also avoiding the populist contagion, with the center-right Christian Democratic Union winning a recent state election that is seen as a bellwether for the national election later this year. The appeal that the far-right Alternative for Germany is seeing is fading in opinion polls. The CDU’s leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a favorite for reelection.
Last week’s British election, too, could be interpreted, on one level, as a defeat for populism and a pullback from the Euro-skepticism which led the Brexit referendum to a narrow victory a year ago. The UK Independence Party, which had led opposition to the European Union, was wiped out, winning 1.8% of the vote and no seats in Parliament. The Conservative Party, which had embraced a “hard” exit from the EU at least in part to steal UKIP’s thunder, lost 13 seats, falling just short of a majority. Prime Minister Theresa May was seen as having been hurt by her embrace of Trump—the two walked hand-in-hand during a meeting—just as Le Pen was hurt by Trump’s expression of support for her.
In order to form a government, May is in the process of making a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. While the DUP is to May’s right on social issues (for example, it opposes gay marriage), it will actually be a force for moderation in the Brexit debate because it doesn’t want a “hard” border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU. (Having just driven from southern to northern Ireland, I discovered there was no way to tell when you were crossing the border other than the change of cell-phone providers.)
The most problematic aspect of the British election is not that the Conservatives lost ground—it is that they lost ground to a Labor Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is an unrepentant man of the far left who has been a cheerleader for terrorist groups such as the IRA, Hamas, and Hezbollah and for “revolutionary” regimes such as those in Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, while reviling the United States and Israel. Corbyn has no use for either NATO or the European Union; while he tepidly campaigned for the Remain side in the Brexit election, his heart was never in it. In short, Corbyn is a populist not of the far-right but of the far-left—a distinction with little practical difference.
And therein lies the problem: While it’s possible, based on recent trends on both sides of the Atlantic, to suggest that far-right populism is losing ground, we face the disquieting possibility that Britain will not be the only place where the far-left steps into the vacuum. Indeed, there is real cause for concern in the United States that, with the GOP swinging far to the populist right under Trump, the Democrats will swing to the populist left under a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. The New York Times reports, for example, that Democrats are increasingly shifting in favor of a single-payer health-care system—i.e., state-run medical care—a system far more radical than the one enacted by President Obama.
What the U.S. lacks, and could use, is a charismatic candidate who can mobilize the center of the political spectrum as Macron has done in France. Until such a figure comes along, we will remain in danger of whipsawing from far-left to far-right with no stops in between.
Must-Reads from Magazine
He just can't help it
On Thursday, the president released a statement—where else?—on Twitter.
“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings,” the president asserted.
The carefully worded statement, complete with subordinate clauses and series commas, was probably not crafted like most of Trump’s tweets are: on a whim. The impulsive tweet that compelled the president to legally indemnify himself was, however, a perfectly characteristic Trump tweet. It was a missive that was also indicative of the president’s penchant to bluff himself into dangerous corners.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press,” Trump tweeted on May 12. The tweet, seemingly composed for no discernable reason, is now believed to have been a response to a May 11 New York Times story. That dispatch cited conversations the former FBI director had with the president, as related to reporters by Comey’s associates, in which he described Trump’s demanding “loyalty.” If Comey had not directly leaked those conversations to reporters, he got right to work covering his hide immediately after Trump issued this threatening tweet.
In testimony before Congress, Comey said that he revealed the existence of memos he took regarding his conversations with Trump explicitly because of the “tapes” tweet. Moreover, Comey said he did so in order to compel Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel to overtake the Bureau’s investigations into the Trump campaign. Some have speculated that, based on Trump’s shifting explanations for Comey’s dismissal, the FBI director was relieved of duty because he would not publicly state that Trump was not personally under investigation, which he wasn’t. Because of the president’s paranoid, self-defeating behavior on Twitter, however, he is now personally under investigation.
This tale of self-destruction is not unfamiliar. It’s reasonably similar to the sequence of events that was set in motion as a result of a fit of presidential pique on social media involving the allegation that Barack Obama’s administration “had my ‘wires tapped.’”
That March 4 tweet compelled House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to jump out in front of the scandalous revelations and provide the president some political cover. Seventeen days later, Nunes traveled to the White House to meet with an administration source at a secure location to review intelligence involving the “unmasking” of Trump administration associates swept up incidentally in foreign surveillance. Nunes spent the next few weeks vaguely insinuating that Trump’s tweet was accurate, leading the president to agree that he had been “vindicated” by the House chairman.
Two days later, Nunes reversed himself and the source of his information became a scandal. Just over one month after Trump’s original tweet, Nunes was compelled as a result of ethics complaints to join Attorney General Jeff Sessions in recusing himself from any investigation into the Trump campaign. Thus, only as a result of his own imprudence and urge to seek self-gratification, Donald Trump purged himself of one of his closest and most powerful allies in the House.
Republicans in Congress already have ample reason to keep their distance from the president. His determination to keep the Senate’s health-care bill at arm’s length and allow the congressional GOP to absorb all the criticism until he’s sure it’s not politically toxic should communicate to Congress that they are on their own. It is, however, Trump’s habit of setting himself on fire in moments of paranoid agitation that should give Republicans pause.
The president is not predictable, and he has a habit of making his allies fall on grenades. For now, the president has plenty of troops to call on, but he’s going to run out.
Maybe it's not everyone else's problem.
For months, Democrats have resisted the notion that they were the problem. Despite a series of historic losses resulting in the party’s worst position in nearly a century, Democrats convinced themselves that their philosophy was shared by a majority of the country. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, after all. The left dominates popular culture. An electorate made up of minorities and single women and the Democratic dominance it will yield is just over the horizon. These myths sustained Democrats through the darkest early days of the Trump era, but they’ve since lost their luster. The party’s failure in Georgia on Tuesday has had a dramatic psychological effect. Democrats have been humbled. Now, finally, the party’s notables are starting to realize that it is them—not the country nor its voters—who have to change.
“Our brand is worse than Trump,” Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan told the New York Times. This contrarian Democrat from a Trump district mounted a quixotic effort to remove Nancy Pelosi from leadership late last year, but his crusade is receiving new converts. “I think you’d have to be an idiot to think we could win the House with Pelosi at the top,” said Texas Democrat Rep. Filemon Vela, on the record, despite having supported Pelosi against Ryan. “Nancy Pelosi has been an effective bogeyman for Republicans for decades, and it just seems like it’s time for her to go,” an unnamed Hillary Clinton staffer told the New York Post. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics chief Larry Sabato told the Post he had heard from at least two “senior Democrats” telling him they want Pelosi out.
Democrats who cannot convince themselves to turn on the party’s House leader are, however, persuaded that they need to make some adjustments. New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes both told the Times that Democrats need a comprehensive and specific agenda for creating jobs. After spending the last 18 months claiming, not inaccurately, that the American economy had finally recovered from the 2008 recession and with the national unemployment rate at just 4.3 percent, this will prove a discordant message. Still, it’s clear that Democrats are resolved now to do something, even if they’re not quite sure what that something is.
Even the liberal intelligentsia is coming around. Writing in The Atlantic, the liberal columnist Peter Beinart admirably conceded that a demonstrably false notion once seduced him and his fellow liberals: the idea Republicans grew more partisan over the Obama years while Democrats did not. Focusing specifically on immigration, he demonstrated how Democrats lost touch with the country on the issue, began to resent the pressures on immigrants to assimilate as a form of chauvinism, and lost touch with the American public.
Other liberals have criticized the modern left for elevating identity politics to almost religious significance. Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla called for a post-identity liberalism last November only to be attacked by the faithful for “whitesplaining” and “making white supremacy respectable again.” Republicans were genuinely nervous when the Democratic Party put former Tennessee Governor Steve Beshear—a white, Southern septuagenarian with a drawl—up against Donald Trump following the president’s February address to Congress. Talking communitarianism before a handful of virtually monochromatic Americans in a greasy spoon diner represented a real threat to the GOP in the age of Trump, but not more so than it did to the identity-obsessed left. Liberal elites on the coasts laughed Beshear out of the room, and the GOP dodged a bullet.
It is revealing that this process of reflection was inspired by a novice candidate’s loss in an overhyped special election in a GOP district. The commitment to self-delusion Democrats displayed over the eight months between the 2016 election and Georgia’s 6th District House race is a marvel that cannot be overstated. Normally, when a party loses a presidential race to a supremely unqualified and unpopular alternative, they’d engage in some soul searching. But they didn’t. Perhaps because to do so would be to examine how Barack Obama causally presided over the utter devastation of their party at almost every level.
Obama entered office with his party in control of 62 of 99 state legislative chambers. When he left office in January 2017, Republicans controlled over two-thirds of America’s legislative chambers. The GOP has veto-proof majorities in 17 states compared to the Democrats’ 3. In 2009, Democrats had 31 governorships. Today, the GOP has 33. In 25 states, Republicans have total control of every lever of government, and, in three more states, the GOP can override the Democratic governor’s veto. At the federal level, Democrats lost a net total of 61 seats in the House of Representatives over the course of eight years and ten seats in the Senate. The Obama years saw a generation of up and coming Democratic lawmakers wiped out.
These facts need restating because Democrats have been so loath to internalize them. Perhaps because Obama remained popular with the public or because he was such a towering cultural figure, Democrats perceived liberalism to be the nation’s governing ethos even standing amid the rubble of the president’s legacy.
Maybe the introspective left will turn a critical eye toward Obama amid this long-delayed display of humility. It is remarkable that it took a party as thoroughly routed as Democrats this long to even entertain the possibility that it isn’t everyone else’s problem. After all, that’s the first step toward recovery.
From the July/August COMMENTARY symposium.
The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:
When Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.
Podcast: Seven theories about Jon Ossoff's loss.
We’re podcasting a day early here at COMMENTARY in order to take the measure of the result in the Georgia special House election. Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I posit seven possible theories to explain what happened—and then we attack the theories! It’s positively Talmudic. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:
The real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.