Politics & Policy

Populist Parties Are Rising Because Mainstream Conservatives Have Failed

Front National leader Marine Le Pen at a rally in May. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty)

Political realignments are long in gestation, face huge obstacles to their achievement, and are easy to divert or subvert. All mainstream parties have needed to do is offer some modest concessions to the forces of discontent and they dissipate. Ross Perot’s support evaporated when Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton (in that order) got control of spending and undercut Perot’s signature issue: the runaway budget deficit. Perot shrank faster than the deficit. That little episode explains why American third parties are known as the wasps of political history: They sting and they die.

So why are realignments suddenly galloping to fruition throughout the Western world?

The Economist magazine has no doubts on the matter. (Does it ever?) Anti-immigrant populist parties are exploiting fear, mostly about the current surge of migrants into Europe, to rise in the polls. The British magazine brings together Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban on a sinister sepia-tinted cover to illustrate the dark threat of “populism.” The Economist has finally found a moral panic it likes.

Alas, the magazine’s explanation is too simple by half.

For the political trends that are now overturning two-party systems and over-crowding multi-party systems in France, Sweden, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Italy (and previously in Canada, Australia, Denmark, Greece, etc., etc.,) started a quarter-century ago, sprang initially from the political Right of politics, and were provoked into being by a wide range of issues, including such recondite topics as exchange-rate policy and the gradual erosion of democracy.

RELATED: Trump and Sanders Break the Mold for Populist Politicians

If you think this argument is vaguely familiar, that’s because throughout the 1990s and early “Noughties” I was one of a handful of conservative writers who were “banging on” in National Review’s pages about the danger to mainstream conservative parties posed by the rising “fringe” parties to their right. Those parties were small in the 1990s, and their sting wasn’t very painful. The major parties continued to prosper. But the fringe parties didn’t die.

In all the countries listed above — and even in countries of stultifying conformity such as Holland — the outsider parties just kept rolling along, gradually winning a rising share of the vote and a much larger share of the headlines. Thus, from 1992 to 2002 Pim Fortuyn went from being an obscure gay libertarian Dutch sociologist to become the leader of a fringe free-speech party that was on the verge of getting a fifth of the national vote when he was shot by a pro-Muslim animal-rights activist just days before a general election. Fortuyn was gone, but he had permanently changed politics in Holland where a successor “freedom” party now regularly runs third.

Less dramatic versions of that story occurred right across the advanced world. How did this happen? The short answer is that these fringe parties occupied the large empty spaces on the political Right that the mainstream conservative parties had abandoned. British Tories, French Gaullists, Swedish Moderates, and other parties elsewhere increasingly narrowed their appeal to that of superior economic management in a capitalist economy than their countries’ respective Leftist parties. They adopted what Marx called “economism.” They were embarrassed by the patriotism and traditional moral values that had been part of their original identity. They wanted the approval of the metropolitan liberal opinion-formers in which their leaders moved socially. They tailored their electoral messages accordingly.

RELATED: The Case for an Enlightened Republican Populism

That would have been fine if their voters had been treading the same ideological path. But the difficulty was that economic conservatives were (and are) a minority of potential conservative voters. We can estimate the size of that minority by looking at Germany where, since the early Fifties, the conservative vote has been split between the socially conservative Christian Democrats and the economically conservative Free Democrats. While the Christian Democrats repeatedly won around 40 percent of the popular vote whereas the Free Democrats struggled to keep above the 5 percent threshold needed to enter the Bundestag (at present they stuck outside Germany’s federal legislative body). Even so the tail succeeded in wagging the dog.

What made matters worse is that insofar as mainstream conservatives did move into new ideological territory, their movement was towards such policies as adopting mass immigration — and an accompanying multi-culturalism — and surrendering sovereignty to supranational bodies over trade and economic policy. These approaches were even less appealing to many of their supporters than a cold financial “economism” which, after all, had long been only one thread in the larger conservative tapestry.

#share#In short, mainstream conservative parties were tailoring their policies to please a small national constituency while seeming oblivious to the fact that they were alienating or even dissing the moral traditionalists, the patriots, the national-defense conservatives, and the “social fabric” conservatives who together make up the great bulk of their national constituency. (*) Moreover, the longer this continued, the more these constituencies became outraged not only at particular policies but also at the general failure of the center-right parties they usually supported to respond to their concerns.

And to put the top hat on things, two of the most important policies that had the support of these parties — namely, the Euro and the Schengen region of borderless Europe — failed in the most clear-cut manner. They produced chaos, disorder, and distress on a massive scale — 22 percent unemployment in Spain, a million-strong non-military invasion of Europe, moderate governments replaced by oddball Leftist coalitions through southern Europe. Yet mainstream parties continue to insist that the policies are irreversible. It’s called “a perfect storm.”

Altogether the so-called populist threat is a damning verdict on the political competence and democratic decency of the mainstream Right.

And the results are: (a) UKIP takes 14 percent of the English vote, mainly from the Tories, which (as Norman Tebbitt, Lady Thatcher’s right-hand minister, points out in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph) raises serious doubts about the Tory party’s long-term future; (b) France’s Front National came out ahead in the first round of recent regional elections, forcing the mainstream Gaullists to rely on Socialist voters for survival in the second round; and (c) Sweden’s conservatives are hemorrhaging votes to the rough-neck “Swedish Democrats” party which originated on the neo-Nazi right. Altogether the so-called populist threat is a damning verdict on the political competence and democratic decency of the mainstream Right.

Which brings us back to that Economist cover and what it really tells us. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is a national conservative whose government has kept a large broad-based coalition in good repair (and an extreme-right party down) by treating popular concerns on immigration, democratic sovereignty, and multiculturalism seriously. He has won two elections by landslide margins and is on course for a third. Orban is not a “populist” (assuming that word means something more than “I don’t like him”) but a successful conservative alternative to populism.

Marine Le Pen is the populist marriage of two alienated constituencies: the French blue-collar voters whose welfare has been abandoned by progressive constituencies in the Socialist Party and middle-class voters angered at the general erosion of France and French identity under the conflicting pressures of Euro-integration and ethnic conflict. She probably won’t win the presidency and if she does, her government will still be subject to a National Assembly where her party is a minority. But Le Pen is already pulling the other parties in her direction — a halfway house to an eventual realignment.

RELATED: The GOP Needs an Enlightened Populism

As for Donald Trump, he has realized that there is a great opportunity for a political entrepreneur in a two-party system when one party systematically betrays its supporters as the GOP establishment has done on the issue of immigration. Others may have had the same realization but lacked the means to do anything about it. Trump has the money and the bombast to fight. He has gained within the GOP the mass support of alienated conservatives that has clustered around insurgent parties in other countries.

Making concessions to Trump in order to undercut him would therefore seem to be the order of the day. Instead the House Republican majority negotiated with President Obama on a budget package that was seemingly designed to outrage Republicans outside Washington — everything from sanctuary cities to the quadrupling of temporary work visas.

All that was omitted was funding for assisted suicide. Like their conservative counterparts abroad, however, maybe Republicans reckon that when it comes to suicide, no assistance is necessary.

— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large at National Review.

P.S. I don’t think that “social fabric conservatives” is quite the right term for those voters who are most anxious about the destabilizing effects of crime, rioting, illegal immigration, corruption, state acceptance of lawless activity, and much else on the social order. But I haven’t been able to think of a better. Any suggestions would be gratefully received.

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