When you live in the English-speaking world, it’s easy to see the rest of the world through populist-colored glasses. And no wonder: We are absorbed by the daily drama of Brexit and the Trump presidency, both of which feature (to varying degrees) badly behaved men with bad haircuts; attacks on experts and immigrants; and disdain for domestic and international institutions that have kept the peace and promoted prosperity for decades. When we look at other countries, we naturally look for those same phenomena.
For that reason, the elections in the Netherlands, not normally a topic of great interest to the English-speaking world, drew an unusual amount of attention this year. For there, right in the center of the political scene, stood Geert Wilders. A Dutch politician who has actually been around for many years — he was first elected to parliament in 1998, and his party has backed government coalitions before — he recently restyled himself as a badly behaved man with a bad haircut who could pick up the populist torch and carry it to The Hague. A friend of Stephen K. Bannon and Nigel Farage, Wilders turned up at the Republican National Convention last year, cheered Brexit and made visible efforts to align himself with what seemed to be an international trend.
For a brief moment, when he stood high in the polls, it did look as if Wilders’s Party for Freedom might emerge as the largest party in what has long been a fragmented Dutch parliament. But an exceptionally high turnout in Wednesday’s elections produced quite a different result. Wilders’s vote went up slightly, and he will now have 20 seats out of 150. But there was no populist surge. Instead, the center-right prime minister’s party remains the largest in the parliament, and the vast majority of voters preferred parties that want to stay inside the European Union.
Because we were looking at the Netherlands with populist-colored glasses, we missed the bigger story: the implosion of the unified center-left — the Dutch Labor Party — which is a story that really does have pan-European significance, affecting electorates in almost every country. Though temporarily halted in some places by centrists such as Tony Blair, this slow-motion collapse has been going on for two decades, ever since the end of communism removed the dream of the state-run economy and economic change undermined the trade unions, as well as the working-class solidarity they created.
Across the continent, disillusioned ex-left-wingers have often drifted into the arms of xenophobes, particularly since many of them — most notably France’s Marine Le Pen, but also the Austrian Freedom Party and the Polish Law and Justice Party — now advocate what one might call Marxism Lite or, less politely, national socialism: Elements include the re-nationalization of industry, curbs on trade and bigger social-welfare states. But others who have left the Left have taken a different route. Some support liberals such as Emmanuel Macron in France, or Greens such as Alexander Van der Bellen, the president of Austria. In the Dutch elections, support for social and economic liberals, as well as for the Green party, went up dramatically.
In the end, the demise of the Old Left, and the story of what replaces it, may turn out to matter more than the rise of the “New Far Right.” It’s true that this Populist International understood much earlier that the dramatic changes wrought by the Internet, social media and automation, as well as trade and globalization, meant that the democratic West needed new political parties with new philosophies. Its answer was negative, angry and in some cases undemocratic radical nostalgia: rejection of the present in favor of a revolutionary return to some idealized, all-white, fully employed past.
There could be other answers, too. Maybe disillusioned voters can also be mobilized around positive projects. Maybe they will be attracted to new parties, or new leaders, who offer a vision of a better future instead of an unattainable past. Lately, that hasn’t worked so well in the English-speaking world. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen at all.
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