Now Macron has been humbled by the “yellow vest” street protests. He was forced to backtrack on some of his reforms and adopt new budget-busting subsidies in an attempt to mollify the mob. And there is the mess in Britain as it keeps trying (and failing) to Brexit; Italy’s budgetary woes; and the embrace of illiberal democracy in Hungary and Poland. It all adds up to a depressing picture of Europe and the West.
But are things really so gloomy? As Politico’s Matthew Karnitschnig points out, support for the E.U. is at its highest level in decades. And on closer examination, while the forces of populism continue to surge in some places, the story of the past few months has mostly been one of pushback. Consider Poland and Hungary, in many ways the poster children for the populist-nationalist movement. In Poland, efforts to reshape the country’s Supreme Court ignited massive national protests, and Europe’s high court ordered that the move be reversed. On Monday, Warsaw complied.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s latest authoritarian steps — changing labor law and judicial authority — have also triggered widespread protests, uniting the nation’s opposition forces as never before. The street rebellion has the feel of a generalized opposition to the ruling party, which has predictably used tear gas on the mostly peaceful protesters, decried them as anti-Christian and accused George Soros of organizing the whole affair.
In France, news of Macron’s demise is premature. Yes, his poll numbers are way down, but voters still prefer him to the far-right Marine Le Pen by a wide margin. He has a five-year term, his party controls the legislature, and most analysts agree that his reforms are inevitable if France is to compete for investment and generate growth. He may end up a one-term president, but he will still have spearheaded the most important changes in France in a generation.
In Italy, the new coalition government had introduced a populist budget that promised a universal basic income and early retirement, only to meet the steely opposition of the E.U. And it was the populists who blinked. This week, Rome retreated from those measures and announced a budget conforming to the guidelines set by Brussels. It feels like a flashback to 2015, when Greek populists were compelled to enact the very program they campaigned against.
Britain remains more complicated, but the basic story is that every time the country comes close to actual Brexit, it pulls back, appalled by the costs. Prime Minister Theresa May has tried to do a soft Brexit, and while the compromise has earned her the scorn of the hard-line Brexiteers, they cannot topple her. Perhaps they don’t want to because then they would be saddled with May’s impossible task. Proponents of Brexit sold the country a fantasy that it could get the benefits of access to the European Union’s market without the costs of having to obey its rules. As time passes, more and more Britons are coming to realize that they cannot have their cake and eat it, too.
And finally, look at the United States, where a president who proudly embraces populism and nationalism reigns. In November, the Democratic Party had its strongest gains in the House of Representatives since the Watergate wave of 1974. President Trump has faced additional resignations from important members of his administration — some under ethical clouds, others tired of the chaos. Most significant, there are now 17 separate investigations into Trump and his associates, some of which have already produced indictments. And that does not include the series of congressional inquiries certain to begin once the Democrats take control of key committees in the House. For two years, Republicans have ruled Washington, giving them control over all information from government sources and all powers of subpoena and oversight. That ends Jan. 3.
I don’t mean to minimize the populist wave that is still coursing through the West and other parts of the world. But concern should not give way to despair. There are many people in every country who oppose the politics of anger and identity. They are also strong. They need to run fast but not run scared.