France is currently being torn apart by massive protests after President Macron raised the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a parliamentary vote (which he surely would have lost.) It goes against the wishes of the majority of French people, and probably of their representatives, too. There is a kind of irony to this, since Macron ran and re-ran as a defender of democracy against the forces of populist authoritarianism. His current situation ought to be a warning to centrist and center-left politicians who profess to do the same.
Populist authoritarians get mass support partially because they advocate a Herrenvolk nationalism that assures people in the “in group” that they will be taken care and the social state will not be pared back. Just think about the United States, where Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election by promising to make the public feel the hard hand of capitalism, and Donald Trump won after defending Social Security and Medicare against that type of Republican. While Trump’s policies involved massive giveaways to the wealthy, his rhetorical uses of Herrenvolk nationalism assured the less affluent parts of his base.
Like other neoliberals, Macron thinks the public needs to take their medicine no matter what. Neoliberals see this as a moral imperative, hence Macron’s monomaniacal push to raise the retirement age when the pension system is not in crisis. I am also reminded of the austerity policies in the UK that left its standard of living hobbled without bringing on any economic benefit. The Tories stick to those policies because they are on a moral crusade to save their people from “dependency.”
Neoliberals even take pride in bucking the popular will, to them giving the public less is not a bad thing, but rather a sign of courage. While they play these games, however, the populist authoritarians proclaim that they will take care of the in-group. Macron’s decision about retirement has probably done more to boost the National Front than anything Marine Le Pen has ever done. Similarly, Hilary Clinton’s tendency to defend neoliberal policies in the 2016 election did great damage to her.
The world’s democracies are on a knife’s edge. From India to Hungary to Israel to Florida we are seeing populist authoritarians gain power then use their positions to prevent their opponents from winning elections. Unfortunately, many opponents of these regimes still recite the old neoliberal creed. As long as they flout the wishes of the people so that they can punish them, these neoliberal centrists will be the second biggest threat to democracy because they enable the biggest threat to claim they are protecting “the people” against “the elites.”