Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Ross Douthat Ponders the Political Future

In both Europe and the US we are seeing a political rebellion against the boring center and a rise of populists on both the left and the right. Many people are saying that this means the center is dead and the future will either be socialist or hard-line nationalist. The thing is, says Ross Douthat, it is not clear that either the right or the left can generate a majority:
The common thread in all of these Western stories is that if you put together all the voters who have given up on the old centrist parties (in Europe) or the old party establishments (in America), you would have the kind of majority upon which political realignments can be made. But because the people rejecting the establishments don’t begin to agree on why or what they want instead, because some of them are voting for Greens or Communists and others for reformed Fascists (or some for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein and others for Trump), the establishment forces can find a way to hang on to power.
Thus in America Trump won the election but old-style Republicans still dominate in Congress and even, if certain op-eds are to be believed, within the White House as well. Among Democrats, Barack Obama is still far and away the most popular leader.
The center is hated, but whether overtly or covertly it finds some ways to hold.
So maybe we will have a long-term shift to either the right or the left, as seems to have happened in eastern Europe with the rise of nationalist parties. But maybe we are just in for more stasis. One version of that status quo might look like this:
There are plenty of historical precedents for a situation in which a system stalemates or stagnates for generations, where revolts and reform programs founder again and again, where a disliked or despised elite holds on to power for a long time against divided and chaotic forms of populism.

In a recent essay for American Affairs, Michael Lind describes a version of this scenario for our era — a possible Western future in which the presently besieged establishment, “with its near-monopoly of wealth, political power, expertise and media influence, completely and successfully represses the numerically greater but politically weaker working-class majority. If that is the case, the future North America and Europe may look a lot like Brazil and Mexico, with nepotistic oligarchies clustered in a few fashionable metropolitan areas but surrounded by a derelict, depopulated, and despised ‘hinterland.’”
I know some of my friends are thinking in that direction: if the people can't be trusted not to vote for buffoonish ideologues, then they need to be marginalized so the elite can get on with running things in a sensible way.

I don't think, though, that such a scenario could unfold in America, at least not any more so than it did over the first half of my life. The American elite is very strongly divided against itself, and the temptation to go demagogue and rally the masses against the other side is too powerful to resist.

I also expect stagnation in American politics rather than some radical shift to the right or the left, but I don't see anything so dramatic as Lind imagines. Just more of the same.


G. Verloren said...

The determinant will likely be economics.

If the middle class keeps disappearing, if healthcare remains expensive or unavailable to most of the country, if the lower half of the job spectrum keeps getting worse and worse despite the overall economy appearing healthy, et cetera, people are eventually going to get fed up and take drastic action.

Centrism works well when the country works well. But as the Baby Boomers die off and the depressed and overworked Millenials step up to take their place, the political mood is going to swing very strongly if people don't get back to a place where the status quo is tolerable again.

Unknown said...

One of the merits of Douthat's essay is that of taking what the populist left and the populist right say they stand for seriously. Too often pundits try to explain away the real differences between left and right by analyses about a common desire for change.

One reason why left and right populism are mutually incompatible is the element of ethnic identity that is today a crucial element on both sides. Another is that each side is defined in significant part by its hostility to the other--that is, a major factor uniting those on the right is that they don't like the left, and vice versa.