Opinion, Top Story

America Needs a de Gaulle

Joe Biden must restore the left’s faith in America and the right’s trust in democracy.

Charles de Gaulle
French president Charles de Gaulle gives a speech in Montréal, Canada, July 24, 1967 (Archives de Montréal)

Charles de Gaulle’s great achievement, to paraphrase his British biographer, Julian Jackson, was that he reconciled the French left to patriotism and the French right to democracy.

The history of France since 1789 has been a consistent struggle between a universalist left and the conservative right; between republic and monarchy; the Enlightenment and Catholicism; labor and capital; Paris and La France profonde.

History hasn’t ended. Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen embody opposite visions of France today. But de Gaulle narrowed the divide and helped Frenchmen and -women think of each other as opponents rather than enemies.

That America could use a whiff of Gaullism isn’t my idea. Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist of The New York Times, called for an American de Gaulle two years ago.

I suspect he envisaged an authority figure on the right. Instead we have Joe Biden. Can he play the same role?

Gaullist agenda

De Gaulle returned to power in 1958, after leading Free France during the Second World War, when the French military, supported by the far right, attempted a coup d’état to prevent the independence of Algeria. De Gaulle established a presidential republic, giving France a system similar to the United States (it had been a European-style parliamentary democracy) and ruled until 1969, a year before his death.

De Gaulle adopted the left’s statism and sold it to the right as French exceptionalism. A repeat of the Paris Commune was avoided in 1968 by giving generous concessions to the labor unions, bringing them, and what would become the Socialist Party, into the Gaullist fold. The Communists, who had been one of the two major political parties in postwar France, were marginalized. So were the Vichyites and Pieds-Noirs (Algerian-born French) on the far right. When their heirs came close to power in 2002 and 2017, the center-left and center-right formed “republican” fronts to keep them out. Millions of socialists voted for a conservative or liberal candidate.

Biden has broadened the Democratic coalition in the United States by bringing in disaffected former Republicans. He must now take the best ideas from the left and the right to forge a new American consensus: raise the minimum wage and liberalize occupational licensing requirements; improve America’s market-based health care system, rather than replace it with a government monopoly; support renters as well as buyers; decarbonize the economy and revitalize manufacturing; use trade deals to open up markets and protect the environment and promote labor rights.

Economic growth and stable industrial relations made it easier for French conservatives, who were wary of statism, and French socialists, who were wary of de Gaulle, to go along with his program. A convincing plan for American prosperity could similarly allow the left to set aside its doubts about Biden’s bipartisan instincts and the right to overcome its suspicion that the 78 year-old Democrat will be beholden to woke extremists.

Like de Gaulle, Biden has a “certain idea of America”, one that takes the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence seriously, rather than tosses them out as the hypocritical words of dead white men.

He must resist the divisive priorities of the woke left — banning books, canceling opponents, defunding the police, diversity trainings that don’t work, toppling statues — in favor of material improvements for those who have been left behind: affordable child care and housing, pragmatic police reforms, making historically black and brown colleges tuition-free. There is a debate to be had about how much of the disparity between black and white Americans is due to racism, but the country doesn’t need a consensus about the causes before it can start to address some of its effects.

Consensus

Power is about more than politics. For a new American consensus to emerge, left and right will have to find each other in other spaces.

I’m mildly optimistic about the news media. Much like the French center-left accepted de Gaulle as the alternative to the far right, the American liberal media has rehabilitated the anti-Trump center-right. Former officials of the George W. Bush Administration appear frequently on the left-wing MSNBC. Douthat writes for The New York Times. The Bulwark, The Dispatch and right-wing bloggers on Substack, including Erick Erickson, Andrew Sullivan and Bari Weiss, have flourished in the Trump era.

Editors and journalists must resist the left-wing pull toward ideological homogenization if America is to dismantle the right-wing misinformation complex that gave it Trump and inspired the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Sensible, center-right Americans shouldn’t have to choose between being looked down on by the legacy media and being lied to by the conservative media.

Universities have injected deeply unpopular notions of political correctness and cancel culture into American society. So long as conservatives and conservatism aren’t welcome at the academy, Republicans are likely to mistrust universities and science generally. There is not much Biden can do about this immediately, but making higher education more affordable could see more students from conservative backgrounds find their way into elite institutions and over time move those institutions closer to the center.

Trump’s ban from Facebook and Twitter, and Amazon’s and Google’s removal of Parler, a right-wing Twitter clone, underscore that Silicon Valley is a Democratic bulwark.

So increasingly is big business in general. Companies are keen to associate themselves with Black Lives Matter but have pulled donations from Republican members of Congress who refused to certify Biden’s Electoral College victory.

I think that’s only fair: don’t give money to people who try to overturn an election. But it could give Americans on the right the impression that yet another institution — business — is turning against them.

Trade associations and lobby groups, like the Chamber of Commerce, can play a role by supporting moderate Republicans, and advertising such support loudly. They should sponsor causes that seek to move the Republican Party beyond Trump and shun those who would continue his antidemocratic and polarizing style of politics.

Mythmaking

There can be no second chances for those high officials who enabled Trump’s destructive presidency and autogolpe. But Democrats would be wise to overlook the unenthusiastic collaboration of lesser Republicans, especially when they have a razor-thin majority in Congress and must deal with a majority-conservative Supreme Court. Detrumpification must not become a national witch hunt. Trump’s trial in the Senate, for inciting the January 6 putsch, doesn’t have to become the first of many.

That will be unsatisfying to those of us who sounded the alarm about Trump from the start, but history cautions against collective punishment.

When the Allies harshly punished Germany for instigating World War I, it gave rise to the Nazis and World War II. Postwar Germany didn’t start to seriously grapple with its Nazi legacy until the 1960s, when there was no longer a chance of a far-right resurgence. Spain didn’t properly investigate the crimes of the Franco era until recently for the same reason. De Gaulle celebrated the Resistance and downplayed collaboration, which had been far more common.

Gaullism, in Douthat’s words, involved a deliberate submerging of many important controversies; a mythmaking about national “grandeur” that dodged as many questions as it answered. It was the only way to move France forward.

Biden’s task is now similar. I hope he’s up to it.

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