Can the liberal left rise to the challenge of right-wing populism?
That is the great political question of the moment in the West. And while the odds are they will meet the immediate challenge in the French election this weekend, the larger picture does not inspire optimism. Indeed a victory for Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen may itself herald further deterioration in the liberal left’s position in that country.
It’s not that the liberal left has no policy response to today’s economic or political challenges. Indeed, as the debate between Macron and Le Pen illustrated well, right-wing populists are the ones who are more comfortable with slogans and postures than with policy prescriptions, and that is reason enough for plenty of voters to be nervous about voting for them.
But something deeper than policy is being contested, over and over again, in Britain, in America, and now in France. What’s being contested is the nature of politics itself. And that’s the debate the liberal left is increasingly losing.
In our common liberal understanding of the roots of politics, the government rules with the consent of the governed. Representative systems of government acknowledge that the people cannot rule directly, both because direct democracy is impractically cumbersome and because they lack the expertise necessary to make informed decisions. But the people’s consent is still essential. And for the people to consent, there has to be a people — a political community that sees itself as a community.
A political community does not have to be defined in ethnic terms. The United States is not — and never has been, not even during the darkest era of official white supremacy. For that matter, France is not — historically, it has stood out among European nations for its relatively large foreign-born population, and has prided itself on a culture that people from all over Europe, and even beyond, might want to adopt it. But for a political community to exist, its members must at least acknowledge its existence. And that implies some sense of its boundaries.
This process of self-definition is increasingly anathema to liberal parties. Ostensibly, the reason is fear of being exclusionary — even racist. To define the political community in any way beyond the purely formal — those who happen to live in a particular territory — is to risk implying a preference for one group over another. But this kind of thinking is misguided — and not just because the applause for diversity is frequently selective (a common complaint of religious conservatives). The deeper reason may be more subtly self-interested.
The leadership of center-left and liberal parties is increasingly the product of formally meritocratic institutions: universities, government, banks, and other corporations. And their strongest base of support comes from citizens of a similar background, including the professional classes. Success within the world of these institutions often depends on performance metrics as well as formal qualifications and self-promotion — however imperfectly meritocratic they are, there is some basis to their claims to promote the “best” individuals. They do not, however, depend on evidence of political leadership as democracies have traditionally understood it. They do not depend on a deep investment in or ability to speak to a particular political community. And that shows in the way they do speak, whether it’s Hillary Clinton’s self-directed “I’m With Her” campaign slogan or Emmanuel Macron’s statement that there is no such thing as French culture.
These impolitic slips aren’t accidents. People who rose through these systems and these institutions have a vested interest in defining politics in technocratic terms, in suggesting that the purpose of politics is to find the “best” people to make the “best” policy decisions. If that’s what politics is, then community has little to do with political decision-making. Indeed, democracy itself can come to seem more a problem than a solution — if the people can’t bring themselves to make the right decision, then maybe more and more decisions need to be taken out of their hands. The European Union was arguably designed with that very notion consciously in mind.
But “best” is not an objective attribute of either a person or a policy. Just as an organism can only be “fit” in evolutionary terms with respect to its environment, a policy can only be “best” for achieving a particular set of ends for a particular group of people. To convince that particular group of people to trust that you know what is “best,” you first have to assure them that you know they are a particular group of people. Then you have to convince them that you have heard what they are saying: what set of ends most concern them. In other words, you have to treat them as a political community.
The reactionary populist right is rising fundamentally because the old Thatcherite/Reaganite right failed to achieve the most urgent ends for Western electorates, ends related to control: over their economic future, over their personal security, over their common culture. An older iteration of the liberal left would have had little trouble capitalizing on this failure. But it would have had the luxury of presuming the existence of a common culture, and could readily speak that common language.
As that commonality has become fragile and contested, the liberal left is increasingly tempted to operate as if the idea of political community were itself obsolete, and politics is just about choosing the best person to navigate the future. But by implicitly or explicitly dismissing the importance of a political community, the liberal left, far from defining politics in a way that anoints them the obvious and natural leaders of society, are defining themselves in a way that drives the electorate ever further into the arms of their populist foes.
Unfair though it undoubtedly seems to their own political base, today’s liberal left needs to do much more than demonstrate competence or right-thinking to win back popular trust. Contrary to their deepest impulses, they need to demonstrate that they don’t think they’re any better than anybody else.