Ever since the Brexit referendum and victory of Donald Trump in 2016, many political commentators have struggled to make sense of the shifting political paradigm. With the rise of anti-system parties right across Europe, the breakdown of the center-ground politics seemed inevitable.
In response to this, the mainstream politicians have either ignored the problem in hope it will go away or they have tried to desperately imitate the emerging extremes. Unsurprisingly, neither of these strategies has managed to turn the tide of populism.
And yet, the antidote to it is simple: it requires principled politics, trustworthy politicians and a comprehensive language. The recoil of these virtues from our public life has made way for alternative politicians, who are often mistakenly regarded as the cause of politics going bad even though the reality is quite the opposite; populism is not the cause of bad politics, it is the symptom of it.
The question that deserves answering is, therefore, not why populism has triumphed but why mainstream politics has failed. And while mainstream politics is not a virtue in itself, and certainly not an unchangeable one at that, it does encapsulate the essence of our liberal democracy and is hence worth saving.
Politics Has Become Incomprehensible
To that end, one has to understand that the old battles between mainstream politics on the one hand and the political extremes on the other have ceased to exist. Instead, the real distinction is now drawn between politicians who have a clear message to sell and those who do not.
It is no coincidence that the middle-of-the-road, yes-but-no ambivalent politics has been challenged election after election by a firm, albeit often populist, alternative.
In the muddle of complex ideological propositions put forth by irresolute politicians, the electorate choose the more digestible simplicity. Be it Donald Trump, the Brexit party or Bernie Sanders, the public longs for clarity, even if it comes in the shape of half-truths and utopias.
The mainstream politics has become far too incomprehensible for the public. That is because politics has been systematically hollowed out and in an attempt not to offend parts of the electorate, the center-ground parties have lost their identity. Their careful attempts to assemble a coalition of policy positions that pander to all at all times will certainly not exclude anyone, but it will not deliver the desired change either.
What Next For the Centrist Politics?
And it is change that is most in demand in thisw fast-paced world of technological, social and economic pressures. The anti-system and populist parties have been quicker to move ground and capitalize on these developments than their mainstream counterparts.
Yet, in recent years there have been examples of mainstream candidates and parties who seem to have understood the value of clarity. In Spain the PM Pedro Sánchez has recently led his Socialist party to victory in both the national and European elections. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats, taking advantage of both the Labour’s ambiguousness and the Conservatives’ ineptitude to deliver Brexit, came second in the last EU elections.
In the meantime, the largely conservative Slovakia has elected its first liberal president, Zuzana Čaputová, who has a strong pro-EU and NATO stance and who has managed to offer a clear and authentic vision underlined by her principles and a non-confrontational style.
It would be all too easy and a mistake to pretend that liberal democracies are predestined to populism. Populism is a direct consequence of the mainstream politicians’ failure to offer a convincing, clear and inspiring set of solutions to the current challenges.
Hollowed out ideologically, perceived as opportunist and arrogant, the centrist politics has turned into an empty shell of failed promises. And for as long as the mainstream politicians fail to learn the lessons, the void left behind them will continue to be filled by those who offer simple, and indeed simplistic alternatives that often come at the expense of the truth.