Democracy is less resilient in the United States than in Europe because Americans forgot it needed to be.
In the hours after Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen emerged as the finalists in France’s presidential election, on April 23, one defeated French politician after another trooped to a microphone to announce that, whatever their differences with Macron, they would support his candidacy in order to defeat a figure they viewed as a threat to France’s cherished republican values. “Extremism can only bring unhappiness and division,” said François Fillon, the nominee for the center-right Les Républicains. Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, and Alain Juppé, who had lost the primary to Fillon, used similar language. Among major candidates, only the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon declined to join the parade.
The “republican front,” as the French called this coalition, succeeded: Macron won a stunning two-thirds of the vote, though 43 percent of Macron voters said they had cast a ballot to defeat Le Pen’s National Front. They were endorsing republicanism, not Macron’s program of liberalization.
This raises an uncomfortable question for Americans: Where was the “liberal front” when Donald Trump stormed through the Republican primaries and then gained the White House? Do Americans simply not care about their professed values as deeply as the French do about theirs?
It needs to be said, first, that the French hardly spoke with one voice. More than one-third of voters either did not vote or submitted a blank ballot, the highest figure in almost half a century. Many supporters of Mélenchon spurned the republican-front appeal, viewing Macron’s liberalism as no less catastrophic than Le Pen’s xenophobia. If Macron falls victim to inertia in office, as his predecessors have, French voters may repudiate both liberalism and republicanism next time around.
Second, Trump had advantages Le Pen lacked. He commandeered one of the two main political parties and thus its electorate. And at a time when voters loathe the guardians of the status quo, he ran against the ultimate symbol of the political establishment, while Le Pen had to face a young man who inspired real hope for change. The stars aligned for him, as they did not for her.
That said, it is just a fact that the French thrill to the organ tones of republicanism more profoundly than Americans do the music of liberalism. A tragic history has taught the French never to take their values for granted. The republican front echoes the “Popular Front” of the 1930s in which parties from across the spectrum of the left formed coalitions in both France and Spain to keep fascist parties out of power. After the Nazi conquest, France was ruled by the homegrown fascists of Vichy. The first republican front was formed in 1955 to stave off a threat from the far-right supporters of Pierre Poujade — mentor to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front — and later revived in the 1990s to describe the forces opposed to the elder Le Pen, both of which stirred memories of Vichy that were not yet entirely dormant. The French know that you cannot trifle with history; Americans have had fewer reasons in modern times to worry about the dark consequences of political choices.
But that’s not the whole story. Donald Trump never disguised his contempt for democratic process, free speech, and the rule of law; his political rallies were exercises in demagoguery and mob incitement. Marine Le Pen, by contrast, is almost refined. Trump posed a more visceral threat to democracy than she did — and yet the French immune system responded more effectively than the American one did.
The reason, at bottom, is that our own system has been deeply compromised by the slow-filtering poisons of political hatred. That hatred began to seep into the political mainstream in the 1980s when Newt Gingrich, first as congressman and then as speaker of the House, capitalized on the rise of the Christian right to promote an apocalyptic politics that could accept nothing less than the destruction of the opposition. Gingrich, like Maximilien Robespierre, fell victim to his own extremism and was ousted by exhausted fellow Republicans, but not before he had charted a new, absolutist path for the right and profoundly undermined the idea that Americans of different views nevertheless shared common values.
It is an irony, and one not much noticed, that America’s delicate liberal fabric began to unravel in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War, when liberalism was thought to have won its definitive victory. This is not the paradox it seems. The national struggle against the Depression, then Nazism, then communism had enforced a sense of common purpose; the absence of an existential foe allowed extremism to flourish. And as that extremism became the default ideology of one of the nation’s two parties, the old idea of a set of principles that stood outside of, and above, the world of partisan politics became increasingly far-fetched.
Perhaps our watershed, or Waterloo, in the abandonment of the idea of shared neutral principle came with the disputed election of 2000, when the Supreme Court, the one remaining institution that most Americans regarded as standing above partisanship, was enlisted by both parties in the desperate fight for mastery, with five justices chosen by Republicans ultimately handing the victory to the Republican candidate. Don’t be naive, we now think, rules of combat went out with World War I flying aces. What is true of institutions is true of the realm of ideas: We now take it for granted that “the news” is not an impartial record of events but an instrument for reinforcing one of several competing and irreconcilable narratives.
Or, rather, one side does: A recent Pew Research Center survey found that while 89 percent of Democrats believe that the media serves a “watchdog” role over those in power, only 42 percent of Republicans do. The numbers switch when Democrats are in power, but the gap between the two sides has never been nearly as great as it is today.
The last public figure to pose a genuine threat to America’s democratic values, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was destroyed by (among other things) a simple question asked in a televised hearing: “Have you no sense of decency?” Whatever their views of communism, Americans thought that a man without decency did not deserve his office. If Donald Trump was never confronted with that question during the Republican primaries, it surely wasn’t because he fell short of McCarthyite standards of indecency but rather because the question had lost its moral and political weight. For today’s Republican Party, nothing is beyond the pale.
Is there some way back to where we were? France is not really a very useful model in that respect. The French have purchased their comity at the cost of a sterile alternance, as they refer to the back-and-forth between two parties, neither of which has taken real risks to break the country out of what has come to feel like paralysis. That, in turn, has led to profound embitterment on both the left and right. One hopes that Macron can help lead France out of the doldrums, but a big fraction of the country is rooting for him to fail.
Nevertheless, the French turned back from the edge, and we didn’t. We seem to have lost not only the path but the sense of a path. We can’t go back to the era of at least minimal comity under George H.W. Bush, if only because the problems Americans face are so much harder to solve now than they were then. But we cannot continue to behave as if America were divided between Sunnis and Shiites. Not long ago, most of us would have said the great threat to liberalism came from the outside. Now we know that it comes from ourselves.
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla / Staff