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"Their world is crumbling,” gloated a senior member of France's far-right National Front on that day last November when President Trump won the U.S. presidential election. “Ours is being built.”

Right-wing populists across the West believed their time had come — and that their election victories would end the post-Cold War orthodoxy of liberalism, multiculturalism and globalization with a thud.

Half a year later, it seems Trump's election was a false dawn for Western ultra-nationalists. Trump himself is mired in a fog of scandal and facing record-low approval ratings. In Europe, far-right parties have suffered major electoral setbacks in France, Austria and the Netherlands. And in Britain, the awkward lurch toward Brexit — a cause Trump championed as his own — has sowed political chaos at home while emboldening Europhiles on the continent.


Labour supporters hold placards in Cambridge, England, on May 31. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The surprise outcome of Britain's election seemed to prove a different point: Nationalism is cheap, but real populism still matters. Defying pundits and polls, leftist Jeremy Corbyn deprived the ruling Conservatives of a parliamentary majority by pushing a simple message: Corbyn was against Tory austerity and in favor of bolstering Britain's social safety net and health services, improving public housing and taxing the ultra-rich. Young Britons voted for his Labour Party in droves.

From being the laughing stock of the British commentariat, Corbyn has become arguably the most important political figure in his country now that Prime Minister Theresa May is slow-walking her way out of a job. Across the pond, meanwhile, it should be no surprise that democratic socialist Bernie Sanders remains one of the most popular politicians in the United States. Both Sanders and Corbyn ground their platforms on an identical theme: Their societies are shaped by widening inequality, and that growing gap between rich and poor is both morally unjust and a danger to democracy.

In a column that you should read in its entirety, Financial Times journalist Edward Luce delved into why, compared to other countries in Europe, the United States and Britain have been more vulnerable to populism. Luce's answer is that “no two western societies have commodified more than the US and the UK,” embracing the dogma of free markets without reckoning with the inherent problems it poses.

“During the Reagan-Thatcher revolution of the early 1980s, the two largest English-speaking democracies rebooted their growth machines and put paid to fears of enduring malaise. Both were right to chafe at the price controls and worker unrest of the 1970s,” wrote Luce. “Yet they over-corrected. Hundreds of thousands of French lawyers and financiers may have moved to London in the last generation. Many more British have been priced out of their own capital city.”

Some conservatives would say that's tough luck, the reality of life in a competitive, capitalist society. But Luce, the author of the new book “The Retreat of Western Liberalism,” begged to differ. He pointed to the continent:

“For all its stagnation, France has done a better job at keeping its left-behinds above water than its Anglo-Saxon rivals. There are more prime-aged French males in jobs than in the US, an unimaginable statistic even 10 years ago,” wrote Luce. “France’s level of income inequality is lower than that of either the US and the UK, both of which are near the top of the Gini coefficient league. Among the OECD club of developed economies, only Chile and Mexico score worse than the US. What applies to France is truer of Germany, which looks set to re-elect a moderate government in September.”

In a New York Times op-ed that went viral last weekend, Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, attacked the myth of meritocracy that surrounds the American upper-middle class, examining instead the extent to which the American political and social system — from the tax code to zoning laws to university admissions processes — is “a class reproduction machine” that “operates with ruthless efficiency.”

Luce concurs: “No two countries have done more to broadcast their meritocracies than the US and the UK. Yet the two rival each other for the worst records of income mobility in the western world.”


Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders attend a rally in Warren, Mich., on Jan. 15. (Rachel Woolf/Getty Images)

Critics on both the left and far right say that inequality has been obscured by centrist, technocratic elites who benefit from the status quo. That also explains the surprise and shock many British pundits felt when Corbyn smashed the Tory majority, suggests Indian public intellectual Pankaj Mishra. “The center-right and center-left intelligentsia also unanimously saw Corbyn and his supporters as deluded cultists and dead-enders,” he wrote.

Mishra offers an interesting explanation for their myopia: “Most commentators today came of age as the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe revealed the criminal inefficiency of central planning, and crisis beset the social-welfare state in Western Europe and America.” That is, in the era of “Reagan-Thatcher revolution” Luce refers to above.

“With much entrusted to the evidently self-regulating mechanism of the global market, and competitive individuals and corporates, politics lost its old conflictual nature,” wrote Mishra. “More and more citizens turned away from political life, as is evident in the falling membership of mainstream parties and poor electoral turnouts.”

Then came the political turmoil of recent years, with centrist parties collapsing across Europe or drifting to extremes, as Republicans have in the United States.

“The age of de-politicization is giving way to an era of intense re-politicization, and mass movements are back on both the right and the left,” Mishra concludes. In other words, history never really ended, as the popular thesis goes. It's here with a vengeance.

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