The End of Politics as We Know It
The traditional ideological divides of Left and Right are collapsing. And that raises big questions about the future of liberal democracy.
This year’s U.S. presidential election is pretty extraordinary. Who would have possibly predicted the stunning rise of Donald Trump and the shrewdly calculated provocations of Bernie Sanders?
But the United States isn’t the only place where the politics of liberal democracy have taken an unexpected turn. Just read Pierre Briançon’s sharp take in Politico Europe on the recent collapse of Europe’s traditional left-wing parties. He makes a compelling case that they’ve hit rock bottom. The dismal economic situation, the challenge of terrorism, and the refugee crisis all pose problems to which Europe’s traditional leaders — and, above all, those on the Left — have no coherent answers. As a result, he concludes, “The European Left often looks divided into two camps: One loses elections, the other doesn’t seem interested in winning them.”
True enough. And yet the European Right isn’t doing itself any favors either. As British journalist Freddy Gray points out in the Spectator, traditional conservatives are also in disarray. “Everywhere you look, in country after country, batty nationalists are winning and conservative pragmatists are running scared,” he writes. “The victory on [April 25] of Austria’s Freedom party candidate, Norbert Hofer, who likes to carry a gun, is just the latest in a series of gains for this new right-wing populism.” The new generation — which includes Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage — has knocked establishment conservatives for a loop.
Gray notes that Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party mayor of London, has begun positioning himself as a kind of Trump-in-waiting. Johnson aims to undermine his rival (and, technically, boss — as head of the same party), Prime Minister David Cameron, who is desperately working to stave off a potentially disastrous defeat in next month’s referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. In case you haven’t been following the Brexit controversy, Johnson wants the U.K. to leave, while Cameron wants it to remain. That divide, which appears to be growing increasingly bitter, reaches all the way down through their party. Just like Republicans in the United States, British Conservatives are — to quote Gray — “tearing [themselves] apart.”
Even as political conflict intensifies, there’s a sense that the old ideological divides are breaking down. We still categorize our politicians as “right” or “left,” usually without remarking that this is a distinction that dates back to the French Revolution. Yet the “conservative” Trump, who spent much of his life flirting with Democrats, doesn’t look at all like someone intent on preserving the status quo. He’s an aggressive insurgent, openly waging war on his own party even as he dumps its once-sacrosanct principles of free trade and open borders. (Which perhaps helps to explain why American über-conservative Charles Koch recently hinted that Hillary Clinton might make a better president than The Donald. After all, she started off as a Goldwater Republican, and she has shifted positions so many times since that it’s hard to tell what she really believes.)
For his part, Trump even has admiring words for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin — a weakness he shares with his European counterparts like Farage, Le Pen, and Orban. For 20th-century conservatives, defending freedom was the sine qua non, the indispensable belief. Now it’s an accessory.
Indeed, some of these profoundly un-conservative conservatives openly flirt with authoritarianism and racism in ways that would have appalled their Christian Democrat ancestors who helped build the EU in the decades after World War II. Needless to say, those pro-European conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s were motivated by an all-too-fresh awareness of where such flirtations could lead.
Orban has candidly expressed his preference for “illiberal democracy” of the sort supposedly embodied by Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If Orban were to make good on his statement by rolling back Hungary’s democratic institutions, that would amount to a revolution from the Right, not a conservative defense of the status quo. Meanwhile, amid a refugee crisis that has seen tens of thousands of Muslims transit through Hungary, Orban has boosted his political profile by describing himself as a stalwart defender of Europe’s “Christian values” — at a time when Europeans are more secular than they’ve ever been.
Meanwhile, Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” though neither he nor his fans seem to have a very clear understanding of what the term means. Historically, socialists were the people who believed that the state should own the means of production, or at least control the “commanding heights” of the economy. Sanders’s vague promises of free college education or moves to “break up the banks” are thin gruel by comparison. He may love to rant about Goldman Sachs, but even he’s never proposed nationalizing it.
It’s particularly ironic that Sanders has assumed the socialist mantle just at the moment when his European counterparts, whom he often holds up as models, are abandoning it. As Briançon points out in his article about the malaise of the European Left, “Politicians such as France’s reformist economy minister Emmanuel Macron hardly hide the contempt they have for a bureaucratic party system where the traditional notions of ‘Right’ or ‘Left’ have lost their significance.” Meanwhile, Britain’s Labour Party finds itself embroiled in a controversy over anti-Israel remarks — some of them with clear anti-Semitic overtones — made by leading functionaries. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been forced to OK an independent inquiry into allegations that his party abides intolerance. Surely nothing shows how far the party has drifted away from its original values of internationalism than this.
The Labour scandal is all too indicative of the general confusion in which we now find ourselves. The old ideological poles of Left and Right once reflected an important social reality, the fundamental divide between the industrial and agricultural working class and the people who ordered them around. Western societies are no longer so straightforwardly organized. The number of people who work on assembly lines and farms has diminished sharply and will continue to do so. The trade union movement, once the backbone of left-wing political parties, has faded. Many members of the modern underclass perform services rather than making things. Manufacturing is steadily becoming the province of small and highly trained elites.
Is a Google programmer better represented by the Left or Right? What about a farmer who depends on federal subsidies? Or a super-skilled worker who assembles sophisticated medical equipment? Is someone who works at a peer-to-peer lender a member of the ruling capitalist class?
Class distinctions obviously still exist, but they’re far more complicated than they used to be. Today’s big political challenges — gay marriage, Black Lives Matter, the integration of Muslim immigrants — often turn on culture as much as economics. Over the past few decades, both American Democrats and British Labourites have defined themselves as the defenders of the minorities produced by increasingly multicultural societies — only to discover that their old core constituency, the white working class, has turned away, shifting its loyalties to the Trumps and the Farages. But the intellectual blurriness of those new populists, whose popularity owes more to tribalism and gut feeling than coherent programs, leads one to wonder whether they’ll really manage to come up with better answers.
What we’re seeing right now, throughout the West, is a political system that is lagging dramatically behind these complicated social realities. (“Is the U.S. Ready for Post-Middle-Class Politics?” one recent headline from the New York Times Magazine asked.) I’m not sure what the answer is. But the problem is definitely attracting attention. A conservative think-tanker proposes coming up with a new name for capitalism. (Good luck with that!) An academic calls for the creation of an American social democratic party — a suggestion that, given the stagnation of Europe’s social democrats, feels a lot like a 19th-century response to 21st-century problems. Yet another public intellectual suggests the founding of an entirely new “Innovation Party,” on the assumption that Silicon Valley will find all the answers. The dismal state of civic culture on Facebook and Twitter suggests that we shouldn’t hold our collective breath.
These would-be visionaries could be on the right track, of course. It’s possible that we’re facing some sort of fundamental political realignment, some profound shift in the balance of societal forces, and we just don’t yet see where it’s going to go. But there’s also a more radical possibility: that Western liberal democracy is witnessing nothing less than the end of politics as we know it — to potentially tumultuous effect. Judging by the current convulsions the West’s political system is enduring, I’m not sure that we can entirely rule that out.
Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / Stringer