An Old Conflict in New Form

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 I wonder now how new this split is. Read more

For the Future of the Democratic Party, Look to California

Street view in San Francisco, California, April 7, 2010
Street view in San Francisco, California, April 7, 2010 (Jerome Vial)

Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira argue that California’s Democrats are leading the way in developing a progressive vision for the twenty-first century:

The New California Democrats understand that a healthy society needs a strong government that’s well funded, and they don’t shy from raising public funds through progressive taxation. But the New California Democrats appreciate the market and the capabilities of entrepreneurial business. They are tech-savvy and understand the transformative power of new technologies and the vibrancy of an economy built around them. They understand that to solve our many twenty-first-century challenges, we need business to come up with solutions that scale and that grow the economy for all.

If the twentieth-century progressive model was the welfare state, the twenty-first century’s could be what Leyden and Teixeira call the “opportunity state.” Read more

Republicans Broke American Politics in These Three Ways

View of the United States Capitol from the Washington Monument in Washington DC, March 18, 2011
View of the United States Capitol from the Washington Monument in Washington DC, March 18, 2011 (MudflapDC)

Political scientists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein argue in The New York Times that the Democratic and Republican Parties don’t share the blame for the sorry state American politics are in.

Republicans are the ones who broke American politics, they write, in three ways:

  1. By demonizing government: Republicans have for decades attacked and dismantled institutions and flouted the norms of lawmaking, undermining the public’s trust in government.
  2. By opposing Barack Obama every step of the way: Even when he proposed policies Republicans once supported, like an individual health-insurance mandate. This radicalized conservative voters, who were told Republicans could bring the president to his knees if only they won a majority in Congress. The Obama effect had an ominous twist: an undercurrent of racism that was embodied in the “birther” movement led by Donald Trump.
  3. By creating a conservative echo chamber: From the rise of talk radio in the 1980s, Fox News in the 90s, right-wing blogs in the early 2000s and social media in our time, conservatives have created a media ecosystem in which “alternative facts” thrive and hostility to the “establishment”, immigrations and Democrats boosts ratings. Read more

The Trends That Gave Us Trump — And What to Do About Them

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2016
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2016 (Gage Skidmore)

Shocking though Donald Trump’s victory was, looking back we can see how his presidency is the culmination of trends, some of which have been decades in the making:

  • Polarization: The sorting of American voters into two ideologically homogenous parties.
  • Urban-rural split: The Electoral College and Senate give more power to the conservative countryside at the expense of liberal cities.
  • Imperial presidency: The executive has accumulated power at the expense of other branches of government, raising the stakes in presidential elections.
  • Politicization of the courts: Presidential appointments of federal and Supreme Court judges undermine the perceived impartiality of the courts, which in turn weakens the rule of law.
  • Overreliance on the military: Foreign policy is now run by generals, not diplomats. The military has its own hospitals. It plays a crucial role in disaster relief. It may not be long before the Army Corps of Engineers is asked to fix America’s broken infrastructure. Read more

It’s Not the Economy, Stupid!

A Donald Trump yard sign in Taylorville, Illinois, June 18, 2016
A Donald Trump yard sign in Taylorville, Illinois, June 18, 2016 (Jason Matthews)

The votes for Brexit, European populism and Donald Trump weren’t working-class revolts.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Adam Serwer have argued that mostly-white elites are drawn to the “economic anxiety” thesis because it absolves them of responsibility for more intractable problems, like racism, xenophobia and self-delusions about both.

If nativists are motivated by stagnating wages, then there are policy solutions for bringing them back into the mainstream.

But what if their grievances aren’t so concrete? Read more

The American Culture Wars Are Officially a Strategic Threat

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2016
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2016 (Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump campaign people are going to jail.

This isn’t quite the fall of the Trumpian house of cards. Paul Manafort’s indictment is very specific to him and his work in Ukraine. More information must come out before we can be certain this will lead to the White House. While the revelations of George Papadopoulos create the strongest link yet, they have not produced an indictment to date.

Yet there is an essential tale here: for the first time in modern American history, a foreign power has substantially interfered with a political campaign. It’s not that others haven’t tried. The Soviet Union tried several times to back favored candidates, especially in the turbulent 1960s and 70s. But in those Cold War cases, American candidates refused the help.

This is the first time it looks like someone said yes.

What changed? Read more

Merkel’s Answer to Populist Challenge: Shift to the Left

German chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a news conference in Brussels, March 15, 2016
German chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a news conference in Brussels, March 15, 2016 (Bundesregierung/Guido Bergmann)

Angela Merkel’s answer to the defection of right-wing voters is — counterintuitively — to shift further to the left.

Der Spiegel reports that the German chancellor recently told members of her Christian Democratic party (CDU) they need to do better on pay, pensions and housing.

They were expecting a harder line on immigration, which is the issue that galvanized the Alternative for Germany’s voters.

This new far-right party placed third in last month’s election with nearly 13 percent support.

Merkel’s Christian Democrats still won, but with only 33 percent support — their lowest vote share in over half a century. Read more