Populism only wins when a citizenry becomes complacent

President Emmanuel Macron won such a decisive second victory over Marine Le Pen because France refused to be complacent in the face of populism. Many French moderates of all persuasions also discarded their loyalties in foresight of the consequences of inaction. France refused to lean into its Brexit or Trump moment, in favour of Europe and liberalism over abstract ideals of a dramatic uproot of the establishment writes Andrew Dunne.

It is worth noting that in order to increase her vote share in 2022, Marine Le Pen became more like the French public, rather than France drifting to the far-right. Le Pen toned down her islamophobia behind a thin veil of concern for the wellbeing of the French people. She backtracked on her previous core stance that France’s place was outside of the European Union and Western institutions. She then refocused her political brand on battling the cost-of-living crisis which is sweeping global economies. None of it worked. Her vote share increased only 7.5% despite putting aside many elements of National Rally’s platform and running against an incumbent President, often a disadvantage compared to other Western democracies. Macron is the first incumbent to win re-election in over 20 years with a vote share of 58.6%.

Macron, for many people, was not the perfect candidate, his approval rating pre-election stood at 43%. But the people of France had the good sense to see the danger of allowing an illiberal nativist to seize power through complacency. They avoided the terrible mistake American progressives and moderates made in 2016. Thinking that because a candidate isn’t terribly inspiring, that there’s ‘no point in voting’, the contagious attitude of ‘they’re all the same anyway’. Or even worse, ‘what has the system ever done for us anyway’.  

This was the same fallacy of the Brexit and Trump votes, rooted in populism. An attitude of ‘why not take a roll of the dice’. People swallowed the simplistic rhetoric of control, patriotism and sovereignty without ever truly endeavouring to understand what that meant.  Both votes have delivered states of disaster far outlasting 2016. Brexit has made the British people poorer, the Union weaker and their diplomacy ineffective. Currently only 39% of British people think they were right to leave the European Union. Trump’s Presidency was so disastrous that it continues to threaten American democracy itself. It was a lesson the French heeded.

Everyone was waiting for Trump to become Presidential post-victory and in the early days of his administration. We all watched on and thought there was no way that he could continue to act the way he did on the campaign trail. I openly admit I naively swallowed this line for few months, as young as I was at the time, I should have known better.

There’s a sense of intoxicating unreality that comes attached to far-right populism. Any fair-minded left winger to conservative can scarcely believe that these candidates can sincerely hold these absurd views and act in these extraordinary ways. A key lesson from this ‘post-truth’ period must be; when a politician shows you who they are through their words and deeds, you must believe them.

If Americans had listened to Trump telling them who he is through his past actions and taken it seriously, I strongly believe he would not have come close to victory. 

I often think if Conservatives in Britain had taken 20 minutes out of their day to carefully examine Boris Johnson’s past misdeeds, both before and during his political career, they would have understood who he is and picked another leader. His record closely mirrors his current web of lies which threatens to sink his premiership. People became complacent because it was easy to accept Johnson’s rhetoric over record, in a time of great political strife he seemingly had all the solutions and all the people to blame. But the world doesn’t work that way. Politics is an extraordinarily difficult and thankless business. Most of the time there is no good solution to a problem involving an entire nation or even multiple. 

Complacency is the fuel which fires populism. It is bred through the gaps which form in a nation with poor media-literacy, artificial polarisation and an absence of critical thought. We live in an age so rich in poor information that we can scarcely afford to raise generations of children in the West who do not understand how to navigate a ‘post-truth’ world. Media literacy and civics has got to become a top priority in our education.

I put ‘post-truth’ in inverted commas because, while there has been a decay in our ability to differentiate between junk and high-quality information, I genuinely believe that people in our democratic societies are searching for truth. I also believe that, as with the often falsely prophesised elections of far-right demagogues, nothing is inevitable. We are not doomed to become suspended in a state of absurd unreality as information technology advances at breakneck speed.

Perhaps we should ponder the fact that the healthiest democracies are the ones which exercise the truth through accountability, transparency and sincerity. Truth, strong society and democracy are so heavily intertwined that we should conclude that there is an innate human nobility in telling the truth and supporting mechanisms of truth, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Those uncomfortable and inconvenient truths are the antidotes to populism and the vanguards against complacency in the face of illiberal decay. They do not come from the mouths of politicians. They come when we accept that things that sound nice often fail to confront the challenges of the world we live in. That sometimes what we want to believe is outweighed by what is objectively true. They come when we collectively understand what high-quality information looks like. 

Making America Great Again sounds fantastic until you understand the implicit unpatriotic undertones to such a slogan. Taking back control is a nice idea until you are confronted with the reality of upending trade relationships with 27 other nations. Banning immigration seems a natural response to a world where globalisation has decimated traditional industry and associated jobs in many Western nations. These ideas appeal to our basic tribal nature over our rational minds, they make people feel comfortable despite the inevitable discomfort they will cause. We have to reject that eternally tempting complacency and false comfort which enables populism.

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