Published February 22, 2019
British media and political elites are chattering about a possible new, centrist party forming after 12 members of Parliament defected from the Labour and Conservative parties. Such speculation from elites is understandable, as the defectors’ anti-Brexit stance largely mirrors their own. But, once again, they are missing the forest for the trees. Globally, the prevailing trend is rising support for anti-immigrant, nationalist populist parties — not a resurgence of the center.
That trend is easy to see almost anywhere you look. Estonia holds national elections in a week, and polls show the big winner is likely to be the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, which is set to more than double its share of the vote, becoming the third-largest party in the country. Spain’s Socialist president, Pedro Sánchez, recently called for a snap election after his government failed to pass a budget, but again, polls show an anti-immigrant, nationalist party called Vox will likely gain the most.
Vox has skyrocketed in support from less than 1 percent in 2016 to an average of around 11 percent in recent polls. A three-party, center-right coalition including Vox shocked the country by winning the state elections last December in the longtime Socialist bastion of Andalusia. It now looks like that coalition will govern Spain, too.
Rising support for nationalist populists is evident elsewhere. Italy’s Lega is led by the notorious anti-immigrant and social conservative Matteo Salvini, who has garnered international attention with his opposition to admitting refugees from Muslim Northern Africa. Lega’s support has doubled within a year, from 17 percent in last March’s election to more than 35 percent today, easily making the brash populist the most popular political figure in Italy.
Anti-immigrant populism is so popular in some countries that center-left parties have decided to switch rather than fight. Denmark is headed to the polls this spring, and the Social Democrats have broken their decades-long alliance with the Social Liberals by backing anti-Muslim immigrant policies sponsored by the nationalist Danish People’s Party. The populists have long supported Denmark’s traditional center-right parties in government, but the Social Democrats’ posturing suggests they might switch sides and form a left-populist alliance after the vote.
That’s the coalition that currently governs New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, known for her environmental policies and deft use of social media, governs in coalition with the anti-immigrant and nationalist New Zealand First party. Their coalition agreement is opaque on the matter, but annual net migration has declined nearly 30 percent since the coalition took power in 2017.
Even Canada, which has long had high levels of immigration without engendering a populist reaction, is getting into the act. Quebec elected a center-right government for the first time in decades last year, partially on its promise to reduce immigration to the province by 20 percent. A new political party, the People’s Party of Canada, formed last year with a platform of free-market economic reforms and reducing immigration. It is already receiving more than 2 percent in the polls, and could easily gain more support ahead of this fall’s national election.
These trends surely help explain why President Trump’s support remains relatively high despite withering media criticism. Elite opinion was sure Trump’s government shutdown and stance in favor of the border wall would damage his standing. But poll averages show that he has regained all of the support he lost during the height of the shutdown. Indeed, should his job approval increase by just another point, he will be at his highest position since March 2017.
This is not the message establishment centrists want to hear. They desperately want to believe that the public finds nationalism and suspicion of mass immigration every bit as odious as they do. Indeed, the Niskanen Center is hosting a conference Monday to spur interest in radical centrism as an alternative to what they label as the extremism of left and right. The conference features a keynote address by the Duke of Davos internationalism himself, former British prime minister Tony Blair, and is sure to attract outsize attention from the media elite.
The American people, on the other hand, seem quite satisfied with the dueling extremes. It is true that Hillary Clinton and Trump were the most unpopular pair of major-party nominees in modern history. But lost in that observation is that nearly 80 percent of Americans liked one of the two candidates. Only 18 percent disliked both, according to an exit poll. The political constituency of the elite center is actually quite small — much smaller than that for the party of Trump.
Smart elite leaders see this and are trying to adapt by co-opting populist policies. Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is the example par excellence of this approach. His center-right Austrian People’s Party was languishing at third place in the polls before he took over, trailing the nationalist, populist Freedom Party by up to 10 points in most polls. That quickly changed when Kurz, known for his criticism of mass Islamic immigration, took over the party. He now runs a coalition government with the Freedom Party, giving Austria a stable center-right government that represents nearly 60 percent of the electorate.
It’s understandable that centrist elites don’t want to change. But that’s why we have elections: When a country’s ruling elite doesn’t want to, or can’t, adapt to new challenges, the people change who’s in charge. A wise center would try to adapt and bend rather than resist and break.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.