Neera Tanden is president and chief executive of the Center for American Progress. Matt Browne is a senior fellow at the organization.
The landslide victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election will be met with a sigh of relief among many across the Western democracies who feared the advance of ethno-nationalist populism. Many commentators, trying to discern lessons for the United States or elsewhere, may well focus on the rise of Macron’s new party. Others will likely emphasize how the French media was far more discerning in its handling of emails hacked by a foreign entity than, say, the American media was in 2016, ensuring that it did not impact the election.
Both are important elements of the story, but in an age of anti-establishment politics and reduced trust in politicians, it is perhaps Macron’s vision of political reform, and his pledge to put the French back at the heart of political life, that provides lessons for all Americans, but particularly progressives.
In France, as elsewhere, lack of trust in the political establishment has never been greater. This is in part because the French Parliament has been too slow to act and often produces poor laws that are not easy to understand. But the French Parliament and government have also been unrepresentative of the population at large. Ninety percent of the ministers of the Fifth Republic so far have been men, while 40 percent of deputies in Parliament have served for well over a decade, according to Macron’s campaign.
Macron set out to challenge the status quo in French politics. He has vowed to take steps to get a new generation into politics, on the basis of skill and ability rather than connections, and will make this renewal a condition of future party funding. Similarly, he has promised to gradually eliminate the old practice of French politicians holding more than one office and to keep intact legislation to prevent politicians from serving more than three consecutive terms.
Macron also has a plan to make politicians more accountable. Parliamentarians would be prohibited from hiring members of their families as parliamentary assistants or advisers, a position that drew a sharp contrast with the predicament of the conservative candidate Francois Fillon in the first round of voting. The generous personal allowances made to French parliamentarians would be subject to taxation. And those with serious criminal records would be prevented from running for office.
Finally, Macron has set out a bold agenda for institutional reform. He has pledged to concentrate the government’s energy on key priorities and to limit governmental and parliamentary bureaucracy. He plans to limit the number of months that issues can be debated in Parliament and reduce the number of parliamentarians in each chamber. He also embraces the promise of digital democracy, pledging to introduce an electronic vote to broaden participation, reduce election costs and modernize the image of politics.
In short, his program directly addressed the fact that, in a democratic society, government should be responsive to citizens equally, irrespective of wealth. Macron understood that to challenge the rising tide of ethno-nationalist populism, political leaders must also challenge the status quo. Asking voters to choose between the status quo and nationalist populism leaves supporters of liberal democracy too insecure. Macron provided the French people two visions of change — his and Marine Le Pen’s. And they chose wisely.
For progressives in the United States, this is a critical lesson. In 2016, when Democrats held the presidency, it may have been hard for them to argue against the status quo. But now, shut out of control of the presidency and the two chambers of Congress, Democrats can and should campaign on an agenda that challenges the status-quo politics of Washington. They should campaign to truly drain the swamp. That means offering reforms of our public corruption laws to ensure that we truly end pay-to-play politics, advancing campaign finance reforms that end the practice of dark money flooding elections and closing the revolving door between lobbyists and the government. Real reforms should show progressive leaders on the side of people instead of a political system that seems rigged against them.
Just as in France, an aggressive agenda for political reform in the United States can demonstrate to the public that progressive candidates don’t accept a status-quo politics that isn’t delivering. And it can be a strong rebuttal to ethno-nationalist populism, whose wave may have finally crested in France.