Populists of the World Unite

Former White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon’s starring role at the recent convention of France’s far-right National Front is the latest indication that a transatlantic populist alliance is forming. Can it be stopped?

PARIS – In 1965, Henry Kissinger wrote a book called The Troubled Partnership, in which he examined the tensions affecting the transatlantic alliance during the Cold War. A stable international order, he argued, demanded the leadership of the United States – a powerful model for democracy in the world – supported by strong ties with Europe. Kissinger probably never would have imagined that, less than six decades later, the US would be playing precisely the opposite role, as a new, darker version of the transatlantic alliance emerges.

.. Even Germany has, to some extent, fallen victim to populist forces. To be sure, a new grand coalition government – comprising Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, and the Social Democratic Party – has been formed. But it took more than five months for the parties to agree, and the largest opposition party is now the far-right Alternative for Germany. In a country that seemed to have been vaccinated against populism by its Nazi history, this is a particularly distressing development. Democracy is more fragile than it may seem, and it can never be taken for granted.

.. So how can we stem the populist tide? For starters, political elites on both sides of the Atlantic who still believe in liberal democracy must recognize that it is they who are responsible for populism’s rise, owing to their failure to respond adequately to the concerns of the electorate. They must work tirelessly to find real solutions to the problems, from inequality to migration, that have fueled support for populist forces. Those solutions must address not only technical challenges, but also citizens’ feelings – skillfully tapped by populists – of disenfranchisement and loss of identity.

..  it is Macron – not Le Pen and her rebranded party – who holds the key to the future of democracy in France. If he fails to make the system work for more of the electorate, France could well go the way of the US, setting a dangerous precedent for the rest of Europe.