HIKONE, SHIGA PREF. – In the recent presidential election in France, no candidate captured a majority vote in the April 23 first round, forcing a runoff on May 7 between Emmanuel Macron of the “En Marche!” movement, who won 24.01 percent of the ballot and Marine Le Pen of the National Front with 21.30 percent. Francois Fillon, a Republican who had initially been viewed as a favorite, narrowly lost out with 20.01 percent of the votes. The then-governing Socialist Party suffered a major loss as its candidate, Benoit Hamon, gained only 6.36 percent of the votes. In a stark contrast, Jean-Luc Melenchon of the ultra-leftist France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party won support from 19.58 percent of voters. Presumably, many of the Socialist supporters switched allegiance to either middle-of-the-road Macron and radical-left Melenchon.
This year’s election was characterized by big gains made by both the ultra-rightists and the ultra-leftists, and sharp losses sustained by established major parties. In the runoff, Macron scored a resounding victory by winning 66.1 percent of the votes against Le Pen’s 33.9 percent. A majority of those who had supported the Republicans and Socialists are believed to have detested the extreme right and voted for the centrist Macron as they endorsed his call for France to remain in the European Union. It was speculated before the second round that many of those who had voted for Melenchon would side with Le Pen as both shared the common ground of opposing the EU membership and the established parties, but the results suggest that a bulk of Melenchon supporters either abstained or cast blank votes.
It is not just in France that the conventional two-party system, in which a conservative party and a liberal (or social democratic) force compete for power, is collapsing. In the Republican primaries in last year’s presidential race in the United States, Donald Trump won an upset victory despite his anti-immigration, anti-free trade and anti-Muslim agenda, which were diametrically opposed to the Republican Party’s basic principles of conservatism and market fundamentalism.
The decline of the French Socialists was a natural result of the rise of populism. While the term populism has been defined in many different ways, my definition is a political stance that meets the following three conditions: (1) to criticize traditional politics that have been controlled by the elite; (2) to criticize globalism that approves of globalization as well as multiculturalism; and (3) to give “ordinary folks” a chance to vent their dissatisfaction and insecurity.
The policy line pursued by Le Pen’s National Front is referred to as “welfare chauvinism.” It should not be overlooked that the party, despite its position as ultra-rightist, places emphasis on welfare programs to rescue the socially weak. This is because chauvinism is justified as an expedient means of helping the needy. To the “ordinary folks” who have been “left behind,” concrete and easy-to-understand policies denouncing immigration, Muslims and free trade as advocated by populist forces are far more appealing than the ideologies like social democracy and liberalism.
Trump’s campaign placed top priority on erasing the dissatisfaction and insecurity felt by the poor, white population in the Rust Belt regions stretching from the Midwest to the Pacific coast, where the shutdowns of large numbers of manufacturing plants left local industries hollowed out. Japanese and German — and U.S. — automakers have set up assembly plants in Mexico to take advantage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the low wages there. Trump promised to bring back domestic auto industry jobs that he claimed were lost as a result by imposing heavy border taxes on vehicle imports from Mexico. Charging that free trade is the root of all evils, Trump, immediately upon taking office, signed one executive order after another withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact and seeking the renegotiation of NAFTA.
Traditionally, many white blue collar workers in the U.S. have voted for the Democratic Party, which leans to the left and is supported by the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Like labor unions in other industrialized countries, the AFL-CIO has seen its membership decline in recent years and is increasingly unable to play the role of helping the “ordinary folks” who have been left behind.
Helping the socially weak is one of the principal policies of the Democratic Party. But if the party were to remain loyal to its fundamental philosophy of liberalism and democracy, it would have no choice but to oppose anti-immigrant or anti-free trade policies as a means to save those “left behind.” More specifically, denying Muslims entry into the U.S., even ostensibly as an anti-terrorism measure, must be egregious from the standpoint of the Democrats’ principles. Not just the Democratic Party in the U.S. but political parties in general have little or no freedom to pursue policies that run counter to sacred ideals on which they stand.
There comes the chance for populism to play its role. Populist parties distance themselves from all forms of modern ideologies and stick with realism. The populists come up one with prescription after another — all seemingly realistic and easy to understand — to address the unhappiness and uncertainties of white workers in the Rust Belt, the crisis of manufacturing sectors that struggle in the competition with Japanese, Chinese and South Korean rivals, and the threat of terrorism.
Populist forces erode the support base of leftwing political parties. In the Democratic primaries in the U.S. presidential race, Bernie Sanders, who sits farthest to the left within the party, put up a good fight against Hillary Clinton to the very end. That was because Sanders, who called himself a democratic socialist, advocated realistic and easy-to-understand policies to rescue the socially weak. In that sense, some call Sanders a left-leaning populist. But his policy of seeking to help the socially weak is nothing but a concretization of his socialist ideals and, therefore, he is not a populist.
Jeremy Corbyn, who became leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party in 2015, has sought to return the party back to the “old Labour,” as he blamed Labour’s loss to the Conservatives in the general elections in 2010 and in 2015 on the “third way” of “new Labour” laid out by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, which Corbyn said blurred the distinction between the Labour Party’s policies and market fundamentalism advocated by the Conservative Party in the eyes of “ordinary folks.” Indeed, Labour may have no choice but to clarify its leftist stance in order to prevent loss of its support to populist forces.
In all industrialized countries, “ordinary folks” appear to be fed up with the ideological feud between the conservative and liberal (or social democratic) forces. The result is that those people get attracted to the seemingly realistic policies of anti-globalism, anti-immigration and anti-free trade being promulgated by the populist parties. A paradigm shift is taking place in the political landscape in major industrialized countries.
Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.