An Old Conflict in New Form

Today’s political crises may simply be the latest battles in the war between the Enlightenment and Romanticism.

Opening of the French Estates General at Versailles, May 5, 1789
Opening of the French Estates General at Versailles, May 5, 1789 (Auguste Couder)

I used to think that rise of far-right populism, the crisis of social democracy and growing divides along class and educational lines were creating a new political reality in the West.

In a 2016 report for the consultancy Wikistrat, I argued that the political spectrum was shifting from left-right to cosmopolitan-nationalist.

Others made similar observations:

  • Andrew Sullivan argued in 2014 that America’s blue-red culture war had come to Europe: “Blue Europe is internationalist, globalized, metrosexual, secular, modern, multicultural. Red Europe is noninterventionist, patriotic, more traditional, more sympathetic to faith, more comfortable in a homogeneous society.”
  • Stephan Shakespeare, a British pollsters, observed a year later that people were either “drawbridge up” or “drawbridge down”.
  • The Economist characterized the divide as between open and closed: “Welcome immigrants or keep them out? Open up to foreign trade or protect domestic industries? Embrace cultural change or resist it?”
  • David Goodhart divided people into “anywheres” — mobile and open-minded — and “somewheres” — attached to country, community, family.

I still think this is broadly correct, but now I wonder how new this split really is.

Long-running struggle

Michael Cotey Morgan argues in The American Interest that the conflict between Europhiles and Euroskeptics, between the political mainstream and populists, is simply the latest chapter in the continent’s long-running struggle between Enlightenment universalism and Romantic nationalism:

The European Union’s proponents may believe that they — and the partisans of the Enlightenment — won this fight long ago. Yet the conflict between [Immanuel] Kant and [Johann Gottlieb] Fichte, [Adam] Smith and [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau continues to rage.

We’re debating different policies, but the underlying tension — between liberty and community, between opportunity and equality, between city and country — hasn’t changed.

Changing coalitions

What is changing are party coalitions.

For much of the postwar period, business-friendly, middle-class liberals grouped with small-town and rural conservatives. Now they find they have more in common with the center-left.

Suburban, college-educated Americans, who for decades voted Republican, are becoming more Democratic.

Emmanuel Macron created a whole new party in France in order to lure these kind of voters away from the center-right.

Simultaneously, blue-collar workers are abandoning the progressive left for parties that promise to shelter them from a fast-changing world. This brings them into an alliance with conservatives, as happened during the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and in the case of long-time Democrats in industrial states voting for Donald Trump.

What do we do?

If the political trends of our time aren’t new phenomena, but rather contemporary manifestations of a tension that has always been with us, perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for solutions but rather ways to manage this tension.

There are at least three things we can do.

1. Discourage polarization

Forcing people to take sides only makes things worse.

The Pew Research Center has found that there are four types of Democrats and four types of Republicans with a ninth group of swing voters in between.

The alliances behind Brexit, Trump and European populism include authoritarians, who prefer order over diversity, and conservatives, who favor the status quo over change.

Give people only two options and you encourage tribalism. That is why two-party democracies have it worst (and referendums are ill-advised). When there are multiple parties, and no single party is ever in the majority, coalition- and consensus-building gets baked into the system.

The United States are unlikely to switch to a multiparty system, but introducing multi-candidate congressional districts or runoffs could help.

2. Lower the stakes

Not every election can be “the most important in our lifetime”. A centralization of power and judicialization of politics have turned elections into do-or-die events. This needs to stop.

In Europe, this means no more EU integration for integration’s sake. When people start to see the EU as an elite project that does not respond to their needs, they will lose faith in it.

In the United States, it means Congress needs to reclaim its rightful role as the first branch of government. The presidency has become too powerful and too many decisions are left to the courts.

3. Change our mentality

Stop putting people in boxes. Assume good faith. Don’t confirm stereotypes. Don’t disparage your opponent’s motives. Don’t demand total fealty to your cause. If somebody agrees with you 75 percent of the time, they are an ally, not your enemy.

Change cannot only come from the top down. It needs to be bottom-up as well. David Blankenhorn has several tips for how to avoid polarization in our daily lives.