Campaigns have become battlegrounds for ideas and all is not quiet on the western front. President Trump was not elected on a policy platform, but on an idea of fear and protectionism. Brexit was not part of a well thought-out strategy, but rather an emotional response to short-term concerns.
The birthplace of existentialism now faces an existential crisis of its own. Once a fringe candidate, France’s Marine Le Pen advanced to the second round of voting and threatens to destabilize the entire continent with her vows to leave the European Union. Le Pen’s National Front party capitalized on pessimism of ‘an unhappy France’ to attract new constituents from across the entire political spectrum, regardless of age, income, and education. A populace that saw no future turned to empty promises of greatness, mistaking style for substance.
Trump and Le Pen perfectly embody this sentiment. Trump promised to take charge, disturb the establishment, and ‘Make America Great Again.’ Le Pen vowed to look after France and protect it from globalization, including immigrants, free trade, and the undue economic and political influence from Brussels. “The European Union will die,” Le Pen charged at one of her campaign rallies. Both leaders thus used vague ideas of bringing back glory days and restoring foregone greatness to generate support among the disgruntled populace.
In fact, ideas trumped policy considerations during the French presidential campaign. The choice at the ballot box came down to the very essence of France. Emmanuel Macron succeeded in large part due to his unorthodox appeal to populism and his focus on openness and future progress. Neither on the right nor the left, he embodied the nebulous middle ground and promised to work with all parties to realize his policies. For her part, Le Pen borrowed from Trump and symbolized a closed-off France that would guarantee security and defend the ordinary people. Neither of the two emphasized concrete policy proposals.
So what then? A look at how democracies function explains the rise of this populist wave and how two anti-establishment candidates triumphed in the first round of voting.
Democracy tempers transformative change, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In the United States, for instance, democratic institutions maintain a level of continuity between different presidential administrations. The level of power that enabled President Franklin Roosevelt to implement his transformative policies and establish himself as a great leader would not be possible today.
Stronger checks and balances and a more empowered civic society would limit any such concentration of authority. The judicial branch has already curbed some of the policies advanced by the Trump administration, namely the executive orders on immigration. The White House has also been forced to scale back Trump’s campaign rhetoric on issues ranging from healthcare to tax reform.
France has also lost some of its mystique of the presidency. Case in point, both Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande failed to guarantee a second consecutive term. In fact, Hollande missed out on his own party’s primaries. His mediocre leadership broke all records and Hollande acquired a new moniker as the least popular president in recent history.
Bland leadership thus emerges as a side effect of democracies. But what happens when the electorate seeks a more assertive leadership style? Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen take the stage. We get style over substance.
In a crisis of hope, policy becomes an afterthought and the electorate turns to a mirage of leadership and security. This explains how Trump persevered through numerous scandals and how Marine Le Pen picked up even more supporters across all socio-economic and demographic groups. That’s how the bland politician with well thought-out policies lost out. Blame democracy.