02.18.17: Where in the World Can We Find Hope?

Leaders of European right-wing populist parties like Marine Le Pen of France (center) gathered at a meeting in Germany in 2017.

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

Liberal democracy in the West is on the fritz. The leader of the free world larded his recent news conference with false claims, while British legislators dither over their citizens’ reckless decision to leave the European Union. At the same time, nationalist, xenophobic movements across Europe are on the rise — promising, like Donald J. Trump, to stick it to those out-of-touch elites who don’t understand the common people.

What is a mopey, Trumpatized liberal to do? When I need solace, I head (in my mind, anyway) to two beacons of hope: Denmark and Canada. There, too, democracy needs fixing, and thoughtful people are trying to mend the alienation between policy makers and voters — to persuade the experts and the common people not to give up on one another. They have almost convinced me that they might succeed.

It won’t be easy. Even in Denmark, that progressive utopia, liberal confidence in democracy has frayed. The left-wing Social Democratic Party governed Denmark for much of the 20th century, but now it keeps losing elections. “We’ve lost most on this question of immigration, foreigners,” Kristian Weise, who heads Cevea, a center-left think tank in Copenhagen, told me. “The response in the party has been to move to the right, to match the rhetoric and policies of the xenophobic populist right.”

Mr. Weise lamented the progressive elite’s refusal to double down on liberal principles and plainly communicate those principles to voters. “People growing up after 1989 within the Social Democratic movement became very nonideological, because suddenly there were no longer the big contradictions,” he said. “Politics became both technocratic and also very spin-oriented.”

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Image credit: Michael Probst/AP