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Across the Pond, Part I

After the electoral tumult of 2016, it is tempting to think of 2017 as a down year of comparable insignificance. That’s certainly true to an extent in the U.S., which, save for a few special elections and the Virginia governor’s contest, is shifting from election mode to policymaking mode (a mode that is not without its own drama).

However, the rest of the Western world, specifically Western Europe, has much to offer in the way of electoral drama. In fact, a pivotal vote has already been cast, with more on the way.

In the Netherlands, a self-branded “Dutch Donald Trump” named Geert Wilders drew much concern from mainstream political actors domestically and internationally. Leading up to the election on March 15, fears of another domino in a successive wave of populist results – from Brexit to Trump to now the Netherlands – abounded. Wilders campaigned on skepticism toward the European Union, a hard-right/restrictive immigration stance, and promises to defend traditional Western values and culture against, in his view, the existential threat of Islam. He made these proclamations with consistently xenophobic and combative rhetoric.

Like Brexit and Donald Trump, voters found much to admire in these populist positions, and the general attitude of Wilders and his supporters. The economic crisis of 2008 was a total disaster for many people, particularly those who rely on physical labor to earn a living, and total disasters have aftershocks. Not only did many lose their jobs in the ensuing downturn, but they, correctly, began to understand what they had sensed for some time: their livelihoods are going out of style in the 21st century global economy with its demand for highly educated and technically proficient laborers. The reality that these people face is that today’s world doesn’t need them much at all and it would prefer to lecture them about self-improvement while stifling their political views it considers improper.

Furthermore, Europe faced deep crises before the Great Recession. Birth rates have long been below replacement rates in many countries, a reflection of a general ennui and lack of confidence in a brighter future. American-style capitalism, dominant in the 1990s following its knockout blow against Communism, rode high for some time, but struggles now to form an optimistic narrative during long-term periods in which living standards are not dramatically improving.

Throw in a significant terrorist threat and a massive wave of immigration from a region with a vastly different culture, that’s often viewed with suspicion and fear in Europe, and you have ripe conditions for radical politics.

Much to the relief of those in the center-right and center-left Wilders lost by a solid margin. He came far short of winning, with 13.1 percent of vote to the leading center-right party’s 21.3 percent. The makeup of the ruling coalition remains to be seen, but it will most certainly not include Wilders’ party (that would have been the case regardless of the March 15 outcome) and, because of its relatively strong showing, will have solid legitimacy.

So the center won a temporary reprieve in the Netherlands. Congratulations to them I suppose. It’s odd to think of a party “winning” with 21.3 percent of the overall vote. Yes there are so many parties (seven received over five percent of the vote) and yes coalitions are a very reasonable way to govern, in some ways more stable and representative than our winner-take-all two-party system in the U.S. However, often political causes endure not through winning a majority, but rather by gaining a critical mass of followers that are insanely devoted to the cause. A fractured system, such as the Netherlands and many others in Europe, remains vulnerable to zealots and it doesn’t appear the center has a real counter to them. The solution, for now, seems to be to unite against populism and against its vile creeds and false nostalgia, while vaguely appealing to continue the status quo without offering a compelling vision of the future that is fundamentally different in ways better than where we’re at right now. It remains to be seen whether this lukewarm and unimaginative approach will cool or halt the slow boil. The Netherlands has bought time, which is certainly valuable. France and Germany would be lucky to do the same in the coming months. Perhaps things will get better and not long from now we’ll look at this period as a brief scare on an otherwise smooth path of progress. But if populism rears its head once, which it has done, it will do so again. There will always be another economic crisis, there will continue to be massive and disruptive immigrant and refugee migrations, and the populists of tomorrow may yet be smarter and more numerous of today, having learned lessons from their first bout. The biggest lesson of the past year is that the survival of post-Cold War liberalism, once seemingly unstoppable, is far from assured. Especially if feeble, out-of-touch, and corrupt figures (such as Hillary Clinton in the U.S.) remain its standard-bearers.