Imagine you are a pilot. Your plane should experience a serious midair incident at most once every 20 years. Out of your past 10 flights, there has been some major malfunction on five occasions. After you manage to make an emergency landing—the plane is safely on the ground, nobody has been hurt—you ring up headquarters. “This is really serious,” you say. “If we keep going like this, we’ll be sure to crash eventually.”
But headquarters will hear none of it. “After all these incidents in the last weeks,” they tell you, “some people said you were sure to crash this time around. But look! You’re on the ground! You’re safe! Let’s have a round of Champagne!”
This is pretty much exactly the response the international commentariat has had to Emmanuel Macron’s election to the French presidency. Lots of people thought that Marine Le Pen would win, they say. But look—she didn’t! The populist threat is retreating! Let’s celebrate #PeakPopulism!
Their relief is understandable. After the nasty surprises of 2016, just about anything seemed possible in 2017. If Donald Trump could become president of the United States, it seemed unwise to exclude the possibility that Le Pen might become president of France. Against that background, the fact that Macron, whom very few people even saw as a possible contender for the Élysée Palace a year ago, emerged as the unlikely savior of France’s political center really is a reason to breath a deep sigh of relief.
But while it’s only natural to be relieved, this is no time to get complacent. On the contrary, there are four reasons why the triumphalist narrative that is already taking hold in the aftermath of the French elections is understating the populist threat to liberal democracy.
First, there is the obvious yet widely overlooked fact that Sunday’s election is the biggest electoral success in the long history of the French far-right. When Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, faced Jacques Chirac in the second round of the presidential elections 15 years ago, he only got 18 percent of the vote. Marine Le Pen roughly doubled that result. And unlike in the United States, where Trump’s strongest support came from older voters, Le Pen was strongest among the young, winning 44 percent among French voters below the age of 25.
Past results, as they say in finance, are no guarantee of future performance. The fact that the Front National has grown its vote share so rapidly over the past years does not mean that it is sure to keep rising in the polls over the next years. But it is worth noting that the trend line of the far-right in France—and many other European countries—looks as terrifying now as it did a few months ago.
Second, this election once again shows that the stability of liberal democracy will depend on the ability of moderate parties on both the left and the right to put forth compelling candidates. In France, the major party of the center-left has basically made itself electorally irrelevant by nominating an uncharismatic, inexperienced hardliner whom most voters saw as too radical. Meanwhile, the major party of the center-right nominated a candidate who turned out to have channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pockets of his own family. It took a deus ex machina in the form of Macron to ensure that Le Pen could not fill the gaping political hole left by the dismal failure of establishment parties.
Third, the leak of Macron’s campaign documents did little damage because it was ill-timed: By releasing the documents hours before candidates came under legal obligation to stop campaigning and media outlets had to obey strict neutrality laws, the hackers had hoped to make it impossible for Macron to respond to accusations of wrongdoing. Instead, their timing ensured that the hack could not dominate the news in the way discussion of a much smaller leak had done in the run-up to the American elections. Clearly, the forces who are trying to undermine liberal democracy in the West still have a way to go in honing their understanding of its political dynamics.
But learn they will—and then the damage they can inflict will likely be even bigger than it was in the United States. After all, one of the striking features of the leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign is that the hackers did not doctor documents to insert made-up scandals alongside authentic material. According to initial reports, this may now have changed, with some of the documents that have been leaked from Macron’s campaign featuring deliberate falsehoods. The damage that this kind of misinformation could do to political campaigns in the future is immense.
Finally, and most important, a lot of the commentary on the rise of populism is treating the success of candidates such as Trump as though they were the result of a mysterious virus that might subside just as quickly as it spread. But to make this argument is to close our eyes to the fact that the current challenge to the political system has been steadily growing over time—which suggests that it has deep, structural causes.
There continues to be real debate as to just what these causes are. But there are some obvious candidates: Over the past decades, the living standards for most ordinary citizens have stagnated in both North America and Western Europe. Countries on both sides of the Atlantic have had to deal with high levels of immigration while overcoming deeply entrenched racial hierarchies that privileged whites over everybody else. At the same time, they have seen a growing chasm between affluent urban centers and a stagnant periphery, which feels increasingly neglected. To halt the rise of populism, moderate politicians will have to find answers to these immense challenges.
This year has brought a lot of good news. In France and the Netherlands, the partisans of liberal democracy have won important battles. There’s good reason to think that we will win yet another battle in Germany this fall. By all means, let’s celebrate these much-needed pieces of good news. But make no mistake: It is far, far too early to declare victory against populism. We still stand at the very beginning of a long and difficult war against the enemies of liberal democracy.