Much of the world breathed a sigh of heavy relief on the morning of May 8th, 2017, when news rang out that Emmanuel Macron had defeated Marine Le Pen in France’s Presidential elections. The victory was to some a clear signal that the current mainstream populist platforms of anti-immigration and protectionism were a fad, a trend that could not be supported if a real alternative was presented. Others saw Macron as a type of populist himself – the “anti-populist populist”, whose effectiveness lay in mobilizing middle-class workers into the same frenzy that Marine Le Pen used to mobilize blue-collar groups. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle – while 24% of voters did support the candidate because of his politics and personality, 43% did so simply in opposition to his far-right rival. His policies in the election run-up were described as neo-liberal, centrist, liberal, progressive or even centre-left; much of the difficulty in categorization can stem from the fact that Macron himself claims no allegiance to any portion of the traditional political spectrum, claiming to be a “radical centrist” akin to a pro-business technocrat.
While the photo opportunities for such a title seem endless, Macron’s status in the world is actually supported by stronger substance: the President represents the views of the ‘elite’ class, who believe the left-right divide requires transcending to deal with real problems, care not for ideology, believe people should be supported, and business/ immigration opportunities fostered. He is the closest executive embodiment to ‘Davos Man’; Macron, simply put, is a populist for the elite class. There is no shame in this – Barack Obama was a self-professed populist who ran on a platform of “representing the interests of ordinary people”. The reason modern political populism is resented amongst the elite class is due to its ingrained nativism, anti-elitism and protectionism, three strong themes that do not adhere with the rules-based order on which the world has flourished in the past and which has allowed these elites to flourish as they have.
The key theme of the definition of populism that appears to apply to all politicians is that populists “seek to mobilize their supports against a common cause”, which can either be the self-serving elites or the fear-mongering nativists – a common enemy remains one so long as all sides cynically agree to disagree. But mobilizing a following is the responsibility of any politician seeking to be elected to office, and relying on class-based interest politics has always been a primary tactic. It is no longer enough for one to simply be the “least offensive” candidate – a failure to present new ideas or reforms in an engaging manner will see voters flee to the candidate that does, as has been seen recently in the wave of populist candidates across the globe. These candidates have received more media coverage in national elections than local, but the trend exists here as well – though with an important distinction.
By the year 2030, it is estimated that approximately 60% of the world will live in cities. This may sounds drastic, but the figure was 54% in 2014, indicating that migration will be incremental. The technological advantages and career opportunities in urban areas will become more substantial, and the cities that shine the brightest will be those who adopt the newest technologies most effectively for citizens. In the age of automation, it is widely acknowledged that the definition of effective must expand – cities must now look beyond productivity towards quality of life and equity for citizens. This trend of planning for the future is evidenced in almost every major city in the world currently developing or branding themselves as a “smart city”, most prominently seen in a 2016 AT Kearney Analysis of Global Cities that named the 15 ‘Global Elite’ metropolis’ ranking above all others as hubs of culture, economic activity and politics.
The report theorizes that cities and metro regions play an increasingly important role in geopolitics and macroeconomics, with city strategies increasingly informing the investment decisions of business leaders and national governments. And to be defined as ‘smart’, certain city traits stand out: cities must have large academic institutions and populations of international students allowing for better information exchange. Cities must have global service firms, and the presence of large tech companies. Cities must have a favorable ‘ease of doing business’ rating, and a stable health care and environmental protection system to preserve individual quality of life.
Much of this is driven by these cities choices in local governance: a global economic hub with strong business interests is, by definition, a hub of elites. But governance strays from liberal to conservative, with strong themes of pro-business embedded throughout. In fact, it is in local governance that we see the most tangible priorities of voters consistently emerge: voters want good education for their children, access to healthcare and enough good jobs to go around. Practically every mayoral candidate runs on these three themes, and falls within partisan lines by standing with larger parties on social issues, or by picking a particular policy stance firmly within one section of the ideological spectrum and sticking with it (examples include “We need to cut back government spending” and “our neighborhoods are unsafe because of (insert group name here)”).
Despite party allegiance, mayors firmly understand that voters on the ground care less about what specific ideology they align themselves with and more about how government actually works for them in their lives. Liberal mayors understand the frustration of inequity on the working class, and conservative mayors understand that immigrants are part of the fabric of cities and towns just as much as anyone else. Because of this, cities are breeding grounds for innovative policies and do the work that actually affects voters in their day-to-day lives. Mayors can be populists as well, of course – but the trick doesn’t tend to last as long, since the impacts of policy endeavors are more concretely felt when vague scapegoating loses the ability to be vague.
We are in the age of the populist – Presidents Macron and Obama were wise to run on reformist platforms, but it must come with the acknowledgement that in their systems, any foe running against them presenting an alternative must be operating firmly in the camp of nativism to present a true opposition. The popularity of centrism has dove as voters seek change – change in whatever form that may bring. Perhaps it is time the world began to look to municipal elections to create the change in their communities they seek instead of peering up in idolatry at our Jupiterian Presidents of the modern age.