French Socialists and American Populists: Political Polarisation

Last week, the French Socialist Party’s runoff primary elections ushered in a landslide victory for the most left-leaning candidate Benoît Hamon, former Minister of Education. He won with around 58% of the total votes cast – more than 2 million.

Though this result might seem surprising at first sight, especially given that he was running against former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, it seems to be in line with the most recent political occurrences, taking place not only in France, but across the Western world. Indeed, we are witnessing a polarisation of the political debate, that is drifting away from the standard centrism of the last few decades.

Starting from 2012, we saw an exponential increase in the number of votes collected by anti-establishment movements across Europe. On the left, Syriza managed to become the first party in Greece in 2015, with more than 36% of votes, whilst Podemos received an unexpected 20% of votes in the 2016 Spanish elections. Similarly, Corbyn is currently leading the Labour Party in the UK, though fiercely criticised by a large part of his MPs, and, in the democratic primary elections, Bernie Sanders obtained an unprecedented 13 million votes for a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” in the US. Likewise, radical movements are gaining momentum on the right: the AfD has been the first far-right party to receive double-digit percentages in state elections in Germany after WWII. Farage’s UKIP managed to successfully pursue its nationalistic goals and bring the UK out of the European Union. In France, we are observing a stronger than ever National Front, that collected more than 4 million votes in the 2014 European elections, whilst, according to the latest polls, the nationalist Lega Nord is the largest party in the Italian centre-right. Last but not least, Donald Trump’s electoral success in the US presidential elections in 2016 can be considered as the prototype of the populistic tendency that is gaining momentum around the world.

We are witnessing a polarisation of the political debate, that is drifting away from the standard centrism of the last few decades.

From the above, a main question arises: why are traditional politics suddenly unfit to address today’s social discontent, and where does this discontent come from?

A possible answer can be found in the economic dynamics of the last thirty years. Indeed, Western societies have gone through a period of incredibly fast technological innovation, and have undertaken major transformations in their political economies. Above all, starting from the early 80s, the development of today’s economic globalisation has created new challenges that the national governments cannot successfully resolve. This is because national authorities are unfit to regulate the globalised economic environment as they were in the past, and, as a result, we are observing a staggering increase in economic inequality. For example, by looking at US data, what is easily noticeable is that, from the 80s onwards, the real GDP per capita grew significantly quicker than the real median household income. In other words, wealth accrued at the top of the income distribution, whilst the middle classes’ purchasing power has been steadily eroded.

US Household Income Graph

Indeed, the newly impoverished middle class is playing a central role in the election of so-called populist leaders. In fact, whenever Trump refers to the forgotten man, or Marine Le Pen claims that the “native” French should come first, they are actually trying to give an answer to the economic disgrace that the middle classes are going through. Frequently, these anti-establishment, populist messages are extremely appealing and gain a large consensus, in spite of all the liberal values that have inspired Western democracies so far. Undeniably, the sense of being left behind cannot only be circumscribed to the economic environment. Today, middle classes have lost their identity, and their members are often not able to recognise themselves as part of a social aggregate. At the same time, they start to understand that, for the first time in over a century, the next generations are not going to have a better standard of living than today.

The newly impoverished middle class is playing a central role in the election of so-called populist leaders.

Of course, what is clear is that these circumstances are extremely favourable for the rise to power of strong and charismatic personalities, ready to proclaim themselves as the defenders of the “left behind”.

What conclusions can we draw from here? First, Hamon’s triumph in the primary elections is a clear sign that today’s political polarisation is not over, and that the crisis of centrist policies is not going to end soon. Secondly, Hamon is probably not going to be the next French president, because, up to now, he is not responding to the economic and social challenges outlined above – even though he is proposing a universal monthly income for every citizen. Finally, and probably most importantly, what is evident is that we cannot ignore the impoverishment of the middle classes anymore. Indeed, if we want to maintain the personal rights established throughout the history of Western societies, we need to figure out proactive and creative solutions so that everyone will be able to share the economic benefits of globalisation, and, at the same time, feel part of an inclusive society. This is the challenge for the years to come, and it is one of those challenges that we cannot really afford to fail.