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The West Is Up for Grabs

Photo: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

The sudden confluence of the British and French elections gives us, it seems to me, a front-row seat to the future of Western politics. In some ways, the campaigns reflect the last, turbulent American one. The choice in both countries is between versions of a Sanders, a Clinton, a Cruz, and a Trump. In France, old-school socialism has surged back in the candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon; Clinton/Blair-style neoliberalism has found a fresh, young, empty candidate, Emmanuel Macron (whom Obama just called yesterday); the traditional Cruz-style Republican is François Fillon, now rising; and the reactionary populist is, of course, Marine Le Pen, waning a little, but still in the lead. The polls are currently showing a four-way close race in the first round, just like the primaries in the U.S. And the second round, on current polling, would be a Macron-Le Pen showdown on May 7 — an exact echo of Clinton-Trump, except that Macron appears to be charismatic and halfway competent.

In Britain, it’s a little more complicated because the Tory Party has somehow managed to hold together a coalition of mainstream conservatives and neo-reactionaries, but with the neos now in charge, empowered by the Brexit result. The Tories have essentially decided that they might as well go for it. If May waffled on this, her party would implode. And if she’s going to negotiate an exit, and keep the country with her, she’ll need a big majority in Parliament to bargain hard with the Europeans, and to crush any remnants of pro-EU resistance in the Commons and the House of Lords (which has a sizable pro-EU majority and can throw a spanner into the works). The Daily Mail front page the day after the news of an early election was a classic: “Crush the Saboteurs.” The prime minister may have been quietly for Remain, but she’s a hard Brexiteer now. (A good rule of British politics: Never underestimate the Tory Party’s desire for power. They’ll shift positions in a heartbeat if they have to, and their blood is much colder than anyone else’s.) Unlike the Trumpeteers, the Tories have managed to channel populism into reasonably credible government, under a traditional, experienced pol like Theresa May. And that’s why they’re a whopping 20 points ahead of their 20th-century rivals, the Labour Party.

And when you look at Labour, it’s even more dispiriting than the Democrats. The party has essentially fallen apart under a Sanders-style leader, Jeremy Corbyn — a transatlantic warning sign to those who still feel the Bern. It’s hard to overstate Corbyn’s unpopularity outside Britain’s young, progressive left (and old-school socialists among the union bosses). If asked to choose between the two major-party leaders, May or Corbyn, Brits currently prefer May by 53–15 percent. To rub it in, even many Labour members of Parliament agree,…

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