America is different from Europe. But what’s currently happening in American politics is quite relevant to European politics – as the recent Brexit vote illustrates – for two reasons: The underlying forces driving it, and the coming political realignment, are the same on both continents, and, in fact, the world over.
The Brexit vote has brought endless comparisons with the rise of both Donald Trump in the U.S. and right-wing populist parties in Europe through appeals to nationalism and nativism. Most observers on both sides of the Atlantic see them as part of a worldwide revolt against cosmopolitan elites, immigrants, and minorities, and a resurgence of the nation-state. In my view, this confuses symptoms with causes.
The causes of the current worldwide anger are two-fold. The first is that the elite broke faith with virtually everyone with the Great Recession. Up until 2008, the great and powerful at least seemed to know what they were doing managing the world economy and did so for the general welfare. The Great Recession revealed that the Emperor had no clothes; its aftermath, that “they’re not that into you.” In the U.S., this took the form of taxpayer bailouts of the very actors who had wreaked all the havoc. In Europe, however, the problem was compounded by austerity policies – which the U.S. largely avoided – that doubly hammered the vulnerable even more, and then triply punished them by proving to be the poorer choice for long-term recovery. As lackadaisical as the American economy may be today, Europe’s is far worse; the electoral anger will be, as well.
But the second – and deeper – reason is that, even without the foregoing, the angry would be living in a different economy, virtually a different world, from not just the elites but also a broader class of “the Ascendant.” Underlying the discontent today is widespread economic dislocation due to the global economy and resultant increases in trade and immigration (and, more to the point, the relocation of many jobs). But even this great dislocation and devaluation of traditional values, traditional economies, and those rooted in them, are driven by deeper phenomena that are the real issue: the distance-shrinking, border-erasing, territory-marginalizing technologies of the new global economy.
In short, we are not witnessing a worldwide return to ascendancy of the nation-state. Rather, we are experiencing the opposite. Brexit already is leading to the likely break-up of the United Kingdom. The impending exit of Scotland from Britain will embolden secessionists everywhere. The retreat to national borders is just the beginning of a larger crack-up, not the end-point.
What does this mean for politics? In the U.S., the parties are realigning into something unrecognizable to those accustomed to the traditional division between a Democratic Party that represents the country’s oppressed and Republicans who represent primarily the rich and big corporations. Democrats have become the party of the newly ascendant – the magnates of the finance, entertainment and, above all, high-tech industries as well as the increasingly diverse, urban and internationalist “citizens” of this New Economy. While socially liberal and economically progressive – supporting government investment in opportunity that also helps these knowledge-based industries, for instance – this party is less inclined to large-scale government programs than Democrats of the past, and is libertarian in its social and foreign policy outlook.
This is bringing Democrats increasingly into conflict with – if not disdain for – the New Dispossessed, who are largely rural, white, and male. Contrast Obama’s infamous comment in 2008, widely perceived as condescending, about such voters “cling[ing] to guns and religion” with Trump’s 2016 declaration, “I love the poorly educated.” Those voters have completed not just the migration to the Republican Party begun under Richard Nixon, but also its takeover. Much to the dismay of both the old-line elite, as well as their conservative ideology-spinners, it turns out that these voters aren’t “conservative” – in the sense of being anti-government – at all: Tea Partiers who rose up against Obamacare because, well, Obama, at the same time railed that the government should keep its hands off their Medicare.
The same holds true in Europe. As Phillip Bobbitt has written, those who voted for Brexit “wanted the constitutional order of the industrial nation-state — the welfare state — and the cohesive cultural communities of their national past. They saw those objectives as threatened by a globalized financial and trading system that had suborned corrupt and incompetent elites who could not be trusted.” Professor Sheri Berman, an expert on the rise of the Far Right in the 1930s, makes largely the same point:
[T]he thing that’s important to note when we make comparisons between the Trump populist phenomena and the kinds of things we are seeing in Europe is that the National Fronts and all those things are not really conservative in any sense of the word, but particularly in the American sense of the word.
The most obvious example is that these are parties that do not want to roll back the state, or more significantly the welfare state. They want to recapture the state and expand social programs, expand all kinds of government activity. They just want to exclude from the benefits of that people they feel are not truly part of the national community.
In short, those who are part of a new global economy will live under, and embrace, a shrinking and more flexible role for the state and a more heterodox system of governance; in the not-distant-future, they will be able to obtain the bespoke government services they want from whatever government – local or distant, “public” or “private” – they choose, not just by voting but also simply by clicking. Those who are left out of this global culture and economy will feel, in Bobbitt’s words, “a reaction of despair, suspicion and violence.” For they are turning to the fading nation-state system they have known, and derided, all their lives to provide newly-appreciated “rights” to economic security and protection against their newly-found feelings of victimhood – and finding that, for them, these are no longer there.