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The Populist Right is Less Popular Than You Think

They might have good ideas but to win they need to stop denying the obvious.
italy election

It never ceases to amaze me how the populist Right, or what speaks in its name, overestimates its strength both here and in Western Europe. One needn’t be an enemy of these activists to recognize the exaggerated nature of their claims.

Those in the media who now demand a border wall insist that the “people” want this goal achieved immediately if not sooner. In fact, according to Ann Coulter, Trump “scammed the American people” by not giving them the wall they’re clamoring for. But according a nationwide poll by The Hill, 51 percent of American voters oppose Trump’s project, while only 49 percent endorse it. Other poll results indicate even more widespread resistance to Trump’s border wall. Meanwhile, as many as 80 percent of those polled wish to legalize DACA residents, and presumably they aren’t making their stand contingent on building the wall, as Trump is.

Equally misleading is the happy talk coming from French and German populists who seem to believe they can give the “people” a real voice by holding referenda. One devotee of the Rassemblement National (the new name for France’s Front National) wishes to follow Switzerland and Croatia, which hold referenda on important political and economic questions. The problem with referenda is that they’re not much of a check on regular party politics. They only work, as the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt observed in the 1920s, if they provide popular input for something like a presidential dictatorship. In a party system with a powerful judiciary, which seems to be the present arrangement in Western countries, referenda are regularly crushed through the political-judicial process, often immediately after they’re passed. This happened, for example, with California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, which called for an end to state funding for social services for illegal residents. A federal court prevented its implementation, just as California’s Proposition 8 referendum result against legalizing gay marriage in 2008 also fell to a federal judge, who struck it down as unconstitutional.

But there’s another even more basic problem with populists’ call for referenda: not everyone who votes a certain way in a referendum is indicating an ideological or political preference. California remains a politically left-wing state, which regularly elects left-wing politicians, who then appoint left-wing judges. The fact that blacks and Hispanics in California voted in a referendum in accordance with their social views to ban gay marriage tells us little about their politics more broadly. In fact, those same groups then turned around and voted for liberal Democrats who pushed the state further to the Left on all social questions.

Referenda are thus useless unless they indicate a consistent political orientation or interest. Another example of a successful referendum was Proposition 13, which passed in California in 1978 and kept reassessments of real estate taxes at their 1976 levels. That might have been interpreted as a conservative result, but it also could have been viewed as socially just because it prevented the tax burden of older homeowners from becoming more onerous. In any case, the California electorate in the 1970s, which elevated Ronald Reagan to a two-term governorship starting in 1967, was far more conservative than it presently is.

In France followers of the patriotic Right are exhilarated that the Rassemblement National, according to the latest Ipsos poll, has surged to 24 percent popular support, while the equally conservative Debout La France, under the leadership of Nicolas Dupont Aignon, is now holding steady at 8 percent. Meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron is stuck somewhere in the low 20s. And the most attractive leftist party, les Verts (the Greens), weighs in at only 8.5 percent, resonating far less with the public during this time of protest against high gas taxes than the right-wing RN.

Supposedly these numbers suggest that the (real) Right is on the verge of taking over. But again, let’s not rush to judgment! Dupont Aignon refuses to collaborate with the RN and may be contending with it for leadership of the Right. Moreover, as in other Western European countries, France’s Left and Center have invariably closed ranks against candidates of the Right. This doomed the chances of the Front National in the last two presidential races, as it has in most other electoral contests in France. Unless the RN and its allies can win a majority of the electorate, which is not likely, they won’t be entering any ruling coalition in the foreseeable future.

That means referenda are unlikely to improve the fortunes of the French Right any more than they will the American Right, unless a majority of the voters switch sides. And if that happens, there won’t be any need to imitate the Swiss or Croatians in order to represent the “people.” 

As a longtime well-wisher, it would please me if the Right stopped denying the obvious. As matters now stand, they don’t speak for most of the people, and the surging masses whom they do give a voice to are far less numerous than they wish us to believe.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.



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