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A New Era of Populism?

By John-Walt Boatright  —

UK Prime Minister David Cameron scheduled a national referendum in June 2016 on British membership with the European Union. This vote was intended to double-down on the country’s support for the EU and the benefits derived from membership, such as trade and fluid borders. It was a foregone conclusion Great Britain would resoundingly approve EU membership. International media did not even provide coverage of the event until the day of the vote. 

And then the British people spoke, prompting a course correction that we continue to witness today. Cameron, stunned by this defeat and diametrically opposed to its direction, opted to resign to allow a new leader to take the reins for such a transition. Theresa May has embraced her mandate and formally initiated the divorce from the UK’s four-decade marriage with the EU.

America observed this strange political happening from an ocean’s length without much concern. It certainly was unexpected, but we were reassured in our own politics. Well, what a shame, we thought. Glad we aren’t in that mess. Americans were already occupied with their own nationalist future with the 2016 presidential primaries. If we had some foresight then, America perhaps would not have been as surprised with our own presidential outcome. Indeed, another shock would reverberate around the world in November 2016, when political novice Donald Trump would upset the most anticipated presidency in American history.

As Trump navigated through the primaries, there were subtle comparisons to the Brexit result, indicating a growing wave of populism worldwide. The people were making their voices heard, no longer slaves to the conventional wisdom imparted on them by media or established political elites. In fact, it was Andrew Jackson, America’s first populist president, who stated, “The people are the government, administering it by their agents; they are the government, the sovereign power.” Jackson’s portrait fittingly occupies a wall space of high visibility in President Trump’s Oval Office.

The next global reaffirmation of this populist trend could manifest itself in the current French presidential elections.  Coverage has been unrelenting in the international media landscape; they don’t want to magnify the credibility issues that already plague their ratings and reveal their biases.

This recent wave in the populist movement has found a friend in National Front Party candidate Marine Le Pen who, like Trump, campaigns on tougher immigration standards and a “Country First” governing philosophy. She is one of two who advanced from a crowded primary to face off on May 7. Centrist Emmanuel Macron has won favor from much of the political establishment in France to block Le Pen’s ascension. Liberal/Socialist candidates lost out in the primary, a clear denunciation of Socialist President Francois Hollande and a reflection of his 6% approval rating. These losers have coalesced around Macron, running scared from the Le Pen’s nationalism.

American political leaders now understand the far-reaching policy implications of populist power. President Trump has tweeted what is perceived to be support for Le Pen’s candidacy, and former President Obama even placed an encouraging call to Macron. And this only shows a limited view of political pressure from one country. The stakes are high from a global perspective.

At the very least, Le Pen’s stronger-than-expected candidacy is a further extension of the world’s populist tendencies. France is paying the price of their leftist leaders’ policies, as has the United States and the United Kingdom before their populist changes.

The world is watching this time around, eager to analyze the results and determine how their own backyards will be affected. Le Pen does not have the surprise factor that Brexit and Trump had; everyone is aware of who she is, where she stands, and the comparisons to similar political phenomena. And she is taking active steps toward combatting the powerful pressures against her candidacy, even stepping down as head of her party on April 24 to have wider voter appeal.

Will France contribute to a new populist revolution or maintain a stagnant status quo? Regardless of your prediction, experience of recent years tell us to not always trust conventional wisdom, especially when “We, the People” are calling the shots.