This political reality is already apparent in polls that show some of the steady gains by right-wing populist parties have stalled or are in reverse, writes Geoff Kitney.
The rise of right-wing populism and its threat to the post-war liberal-democratic order has shaken the foundations of politics across the western world.
But, just as it seemed that this might be an unstoppable and transforming global trend, right-wing populism appears to be fracturing on fundamental issues of credibility, morality and internal conflict over policies and personalities.
This is not to say that the tide has turned back towards more centrist ideas and values or that those tempted by the siren calls of populists are returning in droves to the liberal centre.
Terrorism, fear of Islam and resentment towards recently arrived foreigners will continue to provide those who trade alarmism for votes with sustenance.
But, as bleak as this continues to be, there are some chinks of light for those who are looking for reasons to hope that the liberal values and western democratic order that served the post-war world so well may still yet prevail over the ugly alternatives being promoted by populist political opportunists.
For example, recent headlines about the personal morals of some of the most high-profile figures from the populist right in major Anglosphere nations – Britain, the United States and Australia – have put a grubby smudge over the face of right-wing populist leadership.
In the US, President Trump won the election despite his dubious moral record. But, ongoing revelations – the latest being reports of paying for the silence of a porn star about an affair – further stain the office of President.
In the UK, the scandal involving the personal behavior of the now-departed leader of UKIP, Henry Bolton, has accelerated the decline of the populist party which helped set in motion the events that led to the Brexit referendum result.
And, in Australia Barnaby Joyce, the former deputy prime minister and leader of the right-wing conservative National Party, has been deeply embroiled in a scandal over an illicit relationship with a now-pregnant staff member. He stepped down today.
All these matters are jarringly at odds with one of the basic tenants of these parties’ philosophies – their claims that they stand for and defend traditional family values.
At the very least, these unsavory issues expose these individuals to the charge of rank hypocrisy.
There are some chinks of light for those who are looking for reasons to hope that the liberal values and western democratic order that served the post-war world so well may still yet prevail
Even if these revelations of serious character flaws in the individuals don’t deter their rusted-on supporters, they make it harder for less committed voters to hold their noses and close their eyes and give their support to these insurgent political movements.
This political reality is already apparent in polls that show that some of the steady gains by right-wing populist parties have stalled or are in reverse.
In the US, the Republicans are losing electoral contest after electoral contest. In the United Kingdom UKIP’s electoral support has crumbled. In Australia, the conservative coalition government is deeply unpopular and the Joyce affair is adding to its crisis of confidence with voters.
But this story goes much deeper than issues to do with the character of key right-wing populists. It goes to the question of whether the weaknesses now becoming apparent on the right extend to the policies with which they initially gained traction with voters.
The credibility of populist policies has always been a problem with experts who, from the beginning, warned that promoting isolationism, protectionism, anti-intellectualism, anti-science and anti-political correctness were not only wrong-headed and counter-productive but, in many instances, dangerous to the interests of ordinary people.
But simple slogans and simplistic solutions worked well for populists seeking to gain political traction with people frightened by uncontrolled refugee flows and economic stagnation which, together, seemed like systemic failure.
Blaming “the other” – immigrants taking jobs from native populations, terrorists using lax borders to carry out atrocities, elites ignoring the plight of ordinary people – has throughout history been a winning political formula. That is until events reach the point where the populist slogans fail to turn into policies which solve the problems.
Or, more often than not, actually make the problems worse.
Outside the UK, puzzlement at how British voters appear to have voted for something which appears likely to be self-destructive grows
Brexit may prove to be a historically important validation of this point.
Brexit was a populist cause – based on fear of outsiders, a sense of powerlessness and resentment towards those seen as bringing about the change.
It reduced a highly complex issue to a simple slogan.
Nearly two years later these complexities are becoming ever clearer.
Every day, the potential downside of Britain leaving the European Union – which seemed to a majority of UK voters a good idea at the time of the referendum – is becoming clearer. As it does, a sense of being betrayed and hoodwinked by the Brexit campaign seems certain to grow.
Outside the UK, puzzlement at how British voters appear to have voted for something which appears likely to be self-destructive grows.
Slowly, but surely, it seems that Brexit is giving reason for not just Britons but people throughout the democratic world to be concerned about what the ultimate price could be for embracing populist politics.
A symptom of this appears to be the rise in support in Europe for the EU and for the euro. A critical test of this will be the Italian election next week. Pre-election polls suggest no clear-cut winner. But anti-EU sentiment appears to have abated in Italy as a result of the Brexit shambles, some analysts suggest.
The populist insurgency still appears to have a grip in other parts of the EU – Poland and Hungry most obviously. And, in Germany, the long, problematic process of installing a new coalition government appears to be seeing a further drift of support to the far right AfD (Alternative for Germany). So the picture in Europe is mixed.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the lunacy of the country’s gun-laws – as confirmed by the latest school massacre in Florida – is posing perhaps the most important challenge yet to Trumpism and the extremism it has fostered.
And, in Australia, right-wing infighting over the moral issues related to the sex scandal involving the deputy prime minister and policy clashes between prominent right-wing figures over issues such as immigration and refugees seem to be consolidating support for the centrist alternative – the Labor Party – which sees inspiration in the French presidency of Emmanuel Macron and the Canadian prime ministership of Justin Trudeau. Labor is now in a virtually unassailable position to win government at a general election, which is likely to be held in the second half of this year.
Victory over right-wing populism in the western democratic world may still be some way off. But there are undoubtedly encouraging signs.