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(Charly Triballeau/Pool/Reuters; Altaf Hussain/Reuters; Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)

The recent European parliamentary elections offered some optimistic liberals a chance to gloat. “The so-called populist wave, I think it was contained,” declared Martin Selmayr, the influential secretary general of the European Commission. Speaking at a Politico panel on Monday, Selmayr was reacting to a slate of results across the continent that saw the far right eat away at traditional centrist parties, but also get checked back by an increased vote for pro-Europe and environmentalist factions. “The real winner of this election is democracy,” he concluded.

But others didn’t share Selmayr’s enthusiasm. Parties that were once part of an extremist fringe are now settling into the status quo. In Italy and France, far-right parties cannibalized the support of the mainstream right to emerge victors in national polls. “This looks more and more like a consolidated base — a reliable bloc of supporters rather than protest voters looking to lash out” at the establishment, wrote Cole Stangler, a Paris-based journalist.

People once “voted against the establishment in European elections to send a message, but no one really wanted these politicians to try their hand at governing. These parties were not seen as serious about policy; they were just playing politics,” Bulgarian commentator Ivan Krastev observed. “Now, there is no choice but to admit that the populist far right is becoming a permanent feature of European politics.”

The elections also saw a surge in support for the Greens and comebacks for Social Democrats in Spain and the Netherlands. But, contrary to declarations that the “center was holding,” some analysts pointed to how the political terrain was shifting beneath their feet.

“Rather than a victory for democracy, the European elections, and the responses to the results, show how much populism in general, and the populist radical right in particular, has become mainstreamed and normalized,” wrote Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde. “We find it normal that a neo-Nazi party is the third biggest party in a member state … and that the populist radical right is the biggest party in several EU member states.”

Beyond Europe, illiberal nationalists and hard-line right-wing forces are on the march. In India, the world’s biggest democracy, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party swept back to power last week in a landslide, confounding earlier predictions that they would struggle to cobble together a new coalition. In Australia, the ruling conservative party maintained power in a shock election they weren’t expected to win. And in the United States, the odds of President Trump winning reelection in 2020 — once considered improbable, given the cloud of outrage and scandal permanently hovering over Washington — are narrowing.

“Right-wing populism struggles to govern effectively, but it clearly has a durable political appeal,” Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, argued in a piece that pointed to the “global fade of liberalism.”

Of course, there’s plenty that separates nationalist rulers like Trump and Modi, or Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. But it’s possible to pick out shared tendencies coursing through all their politics, Princeton political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller suggests. “The populist art of governance is based on nationalism (often with racist overtones), on hijacking the state for the ends of partisan loyalists and, less obviously, on weaponizing the economy to secure political power: a combination of culture war, patronage and mass clientelism,” he wrote in the London Review of Books.

These phenomena are on view, to varying degrees wherever nationalists or self-proclaimed “populists” now hold sway after elections. Immigrants and minorities get bashed and demonized; meanwhile, the leaders’ supporters get repeatedly told they are the authentic representatives of the nation, often to the exclusion of all others. Their opponents are deemed illegitimate and treacherous, guilty of all sorts of corruption, even as backers of the ruling party engage in their own chicanery and graft.


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks in New Delhi on May 23. (T. Narayan/Bloomberg News)

Not surprisingly, many have wrung their hands over the stresses this sort of politics places on democracies. But Müller contends that it’s a mistake for those opposed to the populist far right to get wrapped up in arguments about the return of 1930s fascism or jackbooted authoritarianism.

“Not everything that populists say about elites is necessarily wrong — the talk of rigged economies resonates for a reason,” he wrote, adding that for liberals and the left, “there has to be more to them than being ‘anti-populist’: they have to start to figure out what they actually stand for.”

There’s a diverse spread of politicians and parties attempting to articulate precisely what that may be — from defending pluralism in their societies to championing environmental activism to fighting global kleptocracy and economic inequality at home. But, at least on an electoral level, this sort of agenda has yet to rival the siren song of right-wing nationalists. That may simply be because of the current potency of politics as a culture war.

“It turns out that, if you want to fight nationalist-populists like Modi, you can’t treat them like regular politicians,” Indian columnist Mihir Sharma wrote in a piece that puzzled over how so many Indian voters seemed to side with Modi’s agenda over their economic self-interest. “Nor can you assume away unpalatable truths about your fellow voters. You can’t change their votes by appealing to their pocketbooks, or by big economic promises, or by excoriating a populist government’s record, because they will always trust such leaders more than they will you. You can’t change how they vote until you change their minds about what sort of country they want to live in.”

In the Indian context, that’s at present a lost battle for liberals. Sharma opens his piece for Bloomberg with a chilling line: “It’s a terrible feeling to discover that your country is full of strangers.”

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