Populists on the march as 2017 dawns

2016 will be remembered as the year in which across the Western World long hidden political, economic, and social fissures spectacularly erupted into public view.  2017 will go far toward telling us whether the stunning events of the past year were atypical episodes or clear portents of the future.

The most basic fault line in these seismic occurrences is the divide between Elitism and Populism, the former being represented by the more affluent and educated classes, and the latter by those who lack such advantages.  The Elites have prospered in the world as it is, while those whom we label as Populists find the status quo increasingly unacceptable.

 The outlines of this growing conflict were most strikingly revealed by shocking national election results in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Italy.  In all three countries the long dominant assumptions of the Social Contract have been seriously called into question.  In all three countries turmoil and divisiveness regarding immigration has been a major electoral issue along with rising economic inequality and the tone-deaf character of political leadership.

 2017 will see critical national elections in three other countries- Holland, France, and Germany.  In all three reigning political orthodoxies will be severely tested, and it is fair to say that the future viability of the European Union (EU) will hang in the balance.

Of these three the most volatile and consequential will be France where both leading Presidential candidates have expressed strong reservations about the EU as well as serious doubts about continuing the sanctions campaign against Russia.

The likely winners of the first round in France's two stage elections are Marine Le Pen of the far right National Front and the center-right Republican candidate Francois Fillon.  Polls show the Socialist Party of current President Francois Hollande a distant third.

In the past when a truly objectionable candidate -e.g. Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine's father, in 2002 - made it into the run-off the two establishment parties- Republican and Socialist- would combine their votes to insure the defeat of the threatening outsider.

There are many who believe this strategy can again succeed in thwarting the detested Le Pen.  However this strategy depends on ordinary Frenchmen following the dictates of their party leaders, but as we have seen in both the British and American elections the long reliable working class supporters of the left-wing parties are in open revolt.

 Like its counterparts in Britain and America France's Socialist Party is in great disarray.  Francois Hollande whose approval ratings are in single digits has become the first President in the history of the Fifth Republic to drop out rather than seek re-election.

Further complicating the task of getting Socialists to vote against Le Pen is the fact that the Republican candidate Fillon is promising a full bore assault on entitlement programs and public sector unions.  Fillon's prescriptions for France's stagnant economy are much needed but politically they may well prove suicidal.

In Hollande the EU and Angela Merkel had a strong ally.  In Fillon they would have to settle for a very skeptical partner, but he would be infinitely preferable to a President Le Pen who would directly threaten the continuance of the EU, as we know it.

Elite opinion in Europe regards Marine Le Pen as a pariah and her possible election as unthinkable, attitudes very similar to how American Elites viewed Donald Trump.  Current polling suggests the calamity of a Le Pen victory won't happen, but then the pollsters said Brexit and Trump wouldn't happen either.

The real problem facing the Elites is not the candidates and the causes they find so horrifying but rather the angry populace whose very legitimate grievances are fueling this rebellion.  The social, economic, and political dislocations of the last decade represent genuine issues essentially ignored by self-satisfied Elites who long took the acquiescence of their social inferiors for granted.

Today the Elites fear the anger of the Populists and the Populists resent the arrogance of the Elites.  What is missing from this grim societal equation is strong principled leadership that can escape from denial and bring about the constructive changes that can heal our civilizational malaise and unapologetically validate the proposition that the West has not only a glorious past but a promising future as well.

William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.