The Two-Hundred-Year Era of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Is Over
The political categories we've inherited are obsolete, but we don’t have anything to replace them with yet.
U.S. democracy may be government of the people, by the people, for the people. But who are “We the people”?
In the United States, every couple of years, one finds out. Elections reveal how the identity of the people — the sovereign person — has changed in body, will, and soul. As with human beings, certain moments in the life of the sovereign being are revealing of its true personality. Donald Trump’s victory was one such moment.
Before the primaries, it was possible to dismiss the electoral relevance of white working-class America, and those left behind by globalization more broadly, and many did: Look no further than the desiccated Washington-consensus platitudes regurgitated by Hillary Clinton and most of the Republican primary candidates.
Despite Trump and Bernie Sanders’s unexpected success in the primary campaigns, before Nov. 8, denial — most often heard in the form of a “surely Hillary can’t lose to Trump” plea — remained rife. But truth, whether electoral or existential, cannot be repressed forever. Now that the American sovereign being has made its biennial apparition for all to see, nobody can deny the fundamental changes in its personality.
Of course, this new political reality is not confined to the United States. We saw it with Brexit, we see it in populist movements across Europe, and we will see it again in the French and German elections next year.
Brexit and Trump were not anomalies, accidents of political history that can be explained away to maintain the integrity of the inherited notion that “normal” politics involves competition between a center-left party and a center-right party. Rather, in my view, they are symptomatic of a paradigm shift in the configuration of Western political life, one which has only just started.
Consider the familiar political category of left and right, which since 1945 has provided the basic organizing category of political differentiation in Western democracies across the vast majority of issues. Although the language of left and right dates to the French Revolution, the category started to take substantial political meaning in the late 19th century, and was forged over the following decades on the anvil of intense political fights over industrialization in the West, and all the changes in economic, social, and political relations that came in its wake.
The crucial point is that left and right are symbiotic, because they represent both sides of the argument over the problem of industrialization, over which there are good arguments to be made on either side. It is the interaction of these arguments set up by the mediation of the left-right categorization that produced sensible compromises across a whole range of issues.
Thus, the near-universal acceptance of the left and right categorization as a basic political normality after 1945 allowed for a long period of relative domestic stability in the West. Political argument between center-left and center-right parties was ordinarily contained to questions of distributive justice, that is, the allocation of goods within an established political framework.
2016 tells us that this world is now gone. Civil arguments about distributive justice seem quaint, as identity politics — the demon that the post-1945 world sought to contain — once again rears its ugly head.
2016 has made plain that the political categorization of left and right inherited from the industrial era is ill-suited to organize political discussion and competition over the actual problems faced by postindustrial societies. The fundamental issue the West faces today is how to handle globalization. That should be the fundamental organizing principle of political difference.
After all, it was the globalization of the 1990s, inspired by the neoliberal economics of the 1980s, that pushed the West into a postindustrial phase in the first place, as manufacturing jobs moved to emerging markets. That was great for western shareholders; not so great for western factory workers. The left and right model of political normality started to come apart; 30 years later, we have Brexit, President Trump, and the prospect of Président Le Pen.
There are good arguments to be made on both sides of the globalization debate — neither unrestricted globalization nor hard protectionism are appealing. Thus, for Western political life to normalize again, a basic category of political difference must develop that actually maps onto the lived experience of the present day, rather than shoehorning the problems of the 21st century into a political model inherited from the 20th. This category should evolve such that one side is broadly against globalization, and the other broadly for it.
If political discourse operated within this framework, the legitimate arguments that exist on both sides of the divide could produce sensible compromises that would move Western politics back into the realm of distributive argument, and away from the dangers of identity politics.
As things stand, issues that arise are treated through the default left-right categorization, which no longer makes sense. The left, for example, tends to be more internationalist on social issues like multiculturalism and immigration, but more nationalistic on economic issues like trade, outsourcing, and tax regulation. The opposite is true of the right.
As a result, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, the people who are winning referenda and elections are those appealing across traditional left-right divides through policy choices that would in the last century would have been seen as eclectic, to say the least.
In the United States, Trump has promised mass infrastructure investment to create jobs, normally associated with left-wing big government and Keynesian economics, but also deep tax cuts, normally associated with right-wing small-government and Chicago School economics.
In the U.K., Theresa May’s government speaks of having a “proper industrial strategy,” sounding like a Labour Party government from the 1970s, but simultaneously talks a big game on new trade deals with India and China, which if achieved, would presumably wipe out the U.K. low-skilled manufacturing jobs that her industrial strategy presumably aims to protect.
In short, to actually build an electoral base sufficiently large to acquire political power in the West today, one has to more or less ignore the conventional twentieth century positions associated with left and right.
Plainly, however, this approach carries serious risks.
The first is that as the traditional left-right framework of distributive justice type arguments is broken up, there is little to stop identity politics from infecting political discussion. This is exactly what we have seen in Brexit and Trump’s victory, and what we will undoubtedly see in the French and German elections in 2017.
The second risk is that politicians end up promising all things to all people, but end up pleasing nobody, fueling political frustration. We’ll see in four years if Trump can bring home low-skilled jobs through protectionist tariffs and boost the U.S. economy at the same time. That assumes Trump is even serious about protectionism. If it turns out to have been a bait and switch move, stand by for rust belt rage in four years’ time.
Likewise, we’ll see if Theresa May can manage to keep foreign companies in the U.K. if the country prioritizes immigration controls over access to Europe’s single market. The people who will lose out most, should foreign companies relocate to the continent, are the working-class voters who were told Brexit would boost the economy.
In sum, 2016 has diagnosed the political malady the West faces, but has not revealed its remedy: Populists have gained power by identifying grievances to which liberals were blind because they couldn’t see past the populists’ vulgar froth; but the populists have no better idea of how to resolve those grievances. This does not a recipe for political stability make.
On a positive note, however, the populist victories in the U.K. and the United States may reset politics in the West in a way that confronts the problem of globalization head-on, rather than trying to explain it away to preserve the left-right account of politics. This is long overdue.
Left and right is no longer an adequate categorization of political difference: it is a trophy of political stability handed over from the industrial age, where it made sense, to the postindustrial age, where it doesn’t. It is no accident that political movements which defy this categorization are winning. A paradigm shift has started.
But it has not ended: We are just in the turbulent transitional phase. Until the West organizes itself around a new political categorization that treats globalization as the fundamental factor of political life — as industrialization was in the last century — we will have a hotchpotch of left and right policy mixed together by all parties, with little to differentiate themselves except identity.
Yet in transition lies danger; the barge can capsize in the storm. The foundational principle of civic equality in liberal democracies is that no citizen has greater rights than another to define the state. The moment “We the people” becomes a slogan of political division, not political unity, is the moment this ideal has been jettisoned – the moment the virus of identity politics has infected the American body politic. Let us hope it does not corrupt its noble soul.
Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
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