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Last Sunday in the French election, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen progressed to the second round. Le Pen has caused an international stir since the beginning of her candidacy, charged with espousing the same brand of xenophobia as America’s Donald Trump or Britain’s Brexiteers. Le Pen, thus, is depicted as just one leader in a line-up that aims to move the world against the flow of globalization in a wave of angry nationalism.
It is a profoundly odd situation we find ourselves in, when the leaders who are supposed to stand “for the people” seem so atypical of the nationals they represent or the values those nationals once held high. Trump perhaps represents this in the most overt way: the new American president was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and owns a golden tower in the middle of New York. Yet he has stood at the podium like Lenin promising jobs and dignity for the working class.
In France, Le Pen may or may not win. But her anti-immigrant rhetoric, demonization of Islam, and promise to focus on France first rather than be part of an international community echo among a large part of the population. In this way, her brand is similar to Trump and Brexit supporters. And we—the so-called liberal, international elite—have ourselves to blame.
It is easy to tarnish and ignore something that we do not agree with: we brand those who voted for Brexit as anti-Muslim and backward, and explain that Trump supporters are driven by fear rather than brains. But by dismissing these political movements as racist and ignorant, we do a great disservice to our neighbors and our politics. Unable to pause to distinguish rhetoric from its underlying anxieties, we fail to listen to the legitimate concerns of others.
For example, neglect of rural and poor communities featured in both Brexit and Trump’s election. Rural communities in the U.K. were much more likely to vote for Brexit than urban areas, seeking “revenge” for the lack of investment, infrastructure and economic development they so desperately needed. Similarly, Trump’s Mexican border wall might not be so much about racism as it is about people who feel detached from social and economic opportunity.
The great mistake of people on the Left has been failing to put ourselves in the shoes of supporters of campaigns like Brexit and Trump. By failing to address with the concerns underlying their sensationalist narratives, we have failed to see the depth of their frustration; we have dismissed what we should have engaged.
There is, without a doubt, a rotten streak of racial supremacy and bigotry in these campaigns and their supporters. But by only addressing these elements, we fail to see the bigger picture. Globalization has left swathes of the population in the U.K. and U.S. feeling excluded, disenfranchised and marginalized. Many of these communities are white, and there is a growing sense of unease about moving from part of the majority to the minority. What are lofty ideals of international community (the EU) or support for liberal intelligentsia, not to mention potential feminism (Hillary Clinton), when you work manual labor and feel financially impoverished?
Moving forward, we need to ask ourselves how and why Brexit, Trump and Le Pen can appeal to so many people concerned about their jobs, families and futures. Then we need to address those issues directly.
This is not to say that racism is ever justifiable; we must also address and actively fight against intolerance. But when we paint others in broad and simplistic brushstrokes, we shut down our ability to engage. We inhibit our ability to understand each other, widening the gap between “us” and “them”—a gap that, as we’ve seen before, enables those like Marine Le Pen to win.