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Europe's Populist Wave Loses Steam - AdobeStock 323699239

Antiestablishment parties that were gaining momentum pre-pandemic have lost steam in Europe. From France to Germany to Hungary, populist parties have lost electoral support or are facing strong headwinds. (The Wall Street Journal)

NH: Trump’s victory in 2016 and his subsequent presidency came amid the rise of hard-right populist parties around Europe.

France’s National Rally, Italy’s League, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfG), Vox in Spain, the People's Party in Denmark…the list goes on.

Most of these parties gained increasing public support but held only limited power. Some, like Poland’s Law and Justice and Hungary’s Fidesz, reinforced their leadership of the government.

But since the pandemic hit, many of the far-right winners have lost momentum. Hungary PM Viktor Orban is facing a united opposition determined to oust him. The approval rating of Slovenia’s governing party, led by Janez Jansa, has nosedived from 65% last year to 26% today. Meanwhile, most of the insurgent parties in Western Europe are at best holding steady in the polls.

A few, like Germany's AfD, are falling--from a peak of 16% in 2017 to only 11% today. And a few have performed poorly in recent elections, like Marine Le Pen's National Rally.

In previous crises over the past decade, Europe’s populist parties typically gained support by stoking nationalistic sentiment and labeling leaders as out-of-touch elites. What’s different now?

One explanation is that Covid-19 has eclipsed the issues these parties rallied around: immigration, Islam, and crime. Lockdowns and closed borders have made these concerns basically irrelevant.

The parties have also been unable to come up with plausible alternatives to mainstream pandemic responses, aside from stoking anger against official restrictions.

This isn’t to say that mainstream European parties are well liked. As we reported last week, most global assessments of government responses to the pandemic fell sharply in recent months (see “Global Mood Darkens on Covid-19”).

French President Emmanuel Macron’s approval rating is 35%. And in last month's regional elections, he did no better than Le Pen, striking out every one. In their contest for the next presidential election in April of next year, Macron and Le Pen are still the frontrunners, still neck and neck.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity rating, at 54%, is one of Europe's best. But of course German voters can afford to venerate her, since she's about to retire.

Whether her CDU/CSU coalition can hold onto power after the coming general election in September, or succumb to a Green/SPD coalition, is still an open question.

Nor can we say that the populists on the left are doing much better than those on the right. Jean-Luc's Mélenchon's leftist party, La France Insoumise, has recently tanked in the polls. So has Spain's leftist insurgency, Podemos, which five years ago raised a fiery banner of youth radicalism in the face of Spain's economic stagnation.

And, yes, there are exceptions. Maybe the biggest exception--and still a potential flashpoint for EU integrity--is Italy. While approval for Matteo Salvini's League may have sharply fallen, approval for a rival rightwing populist party, Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy, has been just as sharply rising.

So total Italian support for a right-wing populist coalition remains at around 40%. This constitutes a mortal threat to the ruling coalition of technocrats led by Mario Draghi as soon as it is forced to call a new election.

Another exception is Vox, the radical nativist upstart that eclipsed Podemos and has since become Spain's third most popular party.

But the fact remains. During a pandemic emergency in which populists could be expected to surge, they haven't achieved any big breakthroughs. Even where few believe the incumbent government has done a great job, voters are reluctant to take big risks.

Perhaps the most notable achievement of the right-wing populists has been their success in persuading many center and center-right leaders to adopt some of their wedge-issue priorities and talking points. We see this clearly with President Macron in France, Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Netherlands, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and Spain's People's Party head Pablo Casado.

Are antiestablishment forces also losing ground in America? As yet, that's hard to say. At the national level, the government has taken a decidedly centrist turn since Biden took office.

But Biden's approval ratings are only lukewarm: In the US, 52% approval is a good deal less than a rave. At the state level, moreover, multiple Republican statehouses are aggressively pursuing their own agenda: downplaying masks and vaccinations, terminating pandemic benefits early, and trying to stonewall the federal government on social policy.

While antivax sentiment is widespread in Europe, it’s not as closely aligned with political identity as it is in America, so right-wing leaders haven't been able to copy the Americans and turn it into their cause.

Where will this all end up? We don’t know yet.

As they emerge from the pandemic, national electorates are still in a daze. They’re in shock from months of lockdowns and free-flowing stimulus money. It won’t be until policies revert to their pre-pandemic state that we can understand how political opinions have shifted.

Populists thrive when the establishment is weak--but so long as Covid-19 remains the dominant issue and state bureaucrats are offering the only intelligible response, voters aren't yet ready to make big leaps.

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Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.