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Title:Cato Unbound
Description:Monthly topical discussions between libertarian and non-libertarian scholars selected by the Cato Institute for participation.
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About December 2018
Democratic politics sometimes changes dramatically in a short space of time. We may be living in one of those times. In his provocative lead essay, Stephen Davies argues that the forces of nationalism and populism are on the march in Britain, the Untied States, France, Germany, and many other countries. The sudden salience of the conflict between populism and continued globalization indicates that we are indeed experiencing a political realignment. Old causes and issues may fade in importance; new ones may take their place or even be settled definitively.
But is this really the case? Characterizing political trends across the democratic world is a complex business, full of exceptions, ambiguities, and mistaken identities. We #8217;ve recruited a panel of political thinkers with varying perspectives to put Davies #8217;s argument to the test:聽Francis H. Buckley is a Foundation Professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University. Jacob T. Levy is the the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory聽at McGill University. And Henry Farrell is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science and Elliott School of International Affairs of the George Washington University. Each will have a chance to respond to Davies, and all will discuss through the end of the month. Comments are also open for the month for readers鈥 feedback. We welcome you to join the discussion.
Welcome Back, American Nationalism
Francis H. Buckley
Response Essays
December 12, 2018
Francis H. Buckley argues that American nationalism is nothing like the European variety. American nationalists stand for liberty under law, not an ethnic state. Libertarians, however, cannot easily be nationalists, because nationalism implies solidarity with citizens while denying it to others. On the whole, however, American nationalism is benign, and we should welcome its return to our politics, which began with the 2016 election.
An English friend of mine once asked me what Francis Fukuyama was like, knowing that I knew him. 鈥淲ell, he鈥檚 simply an American,鈥 I answered. My English friend smiled at me as if to say, 鈥淗ow silly.鈥 Because Fukuyama was of Japanese origin, you see.
They don鈥檛 really understand us, the Europeans. And Stephen Davies is no exception. His essay might, for all I know, be an accurate summary of modern European politics, but he simply doesn鈥檛 understand the 2016 American election. How could he, when he tries to compare the Trump movement to right wing movements in Europe? Whatever is happening in Germany, Italy, and Hungary has nothing whatever to do with America.
Between the nationalists of the continent and America there鈥檚 a gulf as deep as the Atlantic Ocean.
That鈥檚 because the American variant is a liberal nationalism based on the sacred texts of our founding. The focal point for nationalist and patriotic sentiments in America is the sense that we have a special mission to promote liberty, as promised by the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. These have assumed the status of what historian Pauline Maier called 鈥淎merican Scripture.鈥
Our constitutional liberties are the icon of American nationhood and constitutive of our identities as Americans. For Americans, as Americans, illiberalism is self-defeating, and if some Americans (including Trump) have been illiberal, in time they鈥檝e been seen to be un-American.
Left-wingers and Europeans are quick to detect the whiff of fascism in American nationalism. It doesn鈥檛 take a history degree to recognize how hysterical this is, but if historical perspective were needed, Jean-Fran莽ois Revel provided it when he observed that, while the dark night of fascism is always said to be descending in America, somehow it lands only in Europe.
Libertarian readers of this journal cannot be nationalists, of course. Like religion, nationalism carries with it too much baggage. Nationalism promotes solidarity, the sense of attachment to and sympathy with others that is one of the most basic of human goods. It will pull one leftward on economics, since it asks one to support social welfare programs for fellow-citizens. Not aliens, mind you. The nationalist will distinguish between aliens and citizens, but what he鈥檇 deny the former must be paid for by what he鈥檇 give the latter. Otherwise the pose of nationalism is a pious fraud. That鈥檚 why a libertarian who objects to social welfare nets cannot be a nationalist.
Nationalism has too often been dismissed as retrograde, by a New Class largely indifferent to both natives and aliens. But if we thought that nationalism provided the single touchstone of political morality, we鈥檇 make a like mistake. If you鈥檙e a jusqu鈥檃u bout nationalist, here are some things you鈥檙e not fond of: humanity, the West, Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. Nationalism is not enough.
The final error in Davies #8217;s paper is his failure to understand the economic reasons for the Trump victory. People on the left and too many libertarians assume that it represents a rejection of traditional free market Republican principles. Indeed, Trump explicitly rejected the green eye-shade Republicanism that objected to the 1962 Kennedy tax cuts, as well as the hostility to welfare programs. At the same time, however, he identified the barriers to free markets that made us an immobile class society.
In 2012 Americans told pollsters they no longer thought that their children would have it as good as they did. That was the American Dream, but it had died, or else had fled to more mobile countries such as Denmark and Canada. The Republican virtuecrat blamed the Oxycontin snorting spawn of unwed mothers. The libertarian said it was a consequence of a worldwide move to an information economy鈥攚ithout explaining how the Denmarks and Canadas had somehow avoided this. The liberals told us it could all be fixed by educating the coal miners to become software engineers.
They hadn鈥檛 a clue.
What had made us immobile were all the things which the libertarian rightly rejects. The most obvious of these is a broken educational system. Our Third World K-12 public schools perform poorly relative to the rest of the First World. As for our universities, they鈥檙e great fun for the kids, but many students emerge on graduation no better educated than when they first walked in the classroom door. What should be an elevator to the upper class is stalled on the ground floor. Part of the fault for this may be laid at the feet of the system鈥檚 entrenched interests: the teachers鈥 unions and the professoriate of higher education. Our schools and universities are like the old Soviet department stores whose mission was to serve the interests of the sales clerks and not the customers. Why the sales clerks should want to keep things that way is perfectly understandable. The question, however, is why this is permitted to continue, why reform efforts meet with such opposition, especially from America鈥檚 elites. The answer is that aristocracy is America鈥檚 default position. For our elites, the New Class that stands at America鈥檚 commanding heights, social and income mobility is precisely what must be opposed, and a broken educational system wonderfully serves the purpose.
America prides itself on being the country of immigrants. There鈥檚 a bit of puffery in this, since there鈥檚 a higher percent of foreign-born residents in Australia and Canada, and America ranks only a little ahead of Great Britain and France. Still, the country historically has been the principal haven for waves of immigrants (not to mention the 15 percent of people whose ancestors were already here as Native Americans or who were brought here as slaves). Before the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, the new arrivals added immeasurably to the country鈥檚 economy and well-being. Since then, however, the quality of the America鈥檚 immigrant intake has declined, and we鈥檝e imported immobility. We鈥檙e still admitting the stellar scientists of years gone by, but on average immigrants are less educated than they were in the past, or even than Americans are today (not the highest of bars). We鈥檙e also incurring the opportunity cost of a broken immigration system, in the high quality immigrants we don鈥檛 admit, and who either stay home or move to more immigrant-friendly countries. That burdens the country, but it鈥檚 very Heaven for an American aristocracy, which can hire cheap household labor without worrying about competition from high-skilled immigrants.
For those who seek to rise like the hero of a Horatio Alger novel, nothing is more important than the rule of law, the security of property rights, and sanctity of contract provided by a mature and efficient legal system. The alternative, contract law in the state of nature, is the old boy network composed of America鈥檚 aristocrats. They know each other, and their personal bonds supply the trust that is needed before deals can be done and promises can be relied on. We鈥檙e all made worse off when the rule of law is weak, when promises meant to be legally binding are imperfectly enforced by the courts, when a regulatory morass burdens entrepreneurs, but then the costs of this are borne disproportionately by those who begin without the benefit of an old boy network.
If we鈥檝e become an aristocracy, then, it鈥檚 because of the artificial and unjust rules and institutions that keep people from rising, such as the broken schools and regulatory barriers that the New Class supports. They tell us that these can鈥檛 be changed, but that鈥檚 nothing more than a self-serving mythology. We had thought that magical thinking had been expelled by Max Weber鈥檚 disenchantment鈥攅ntzauberung鈥攂ut it鈥檚 still with us. So we are told to accept that which must never be accepted.
The narrative of a necessary and natural aristocracy was precisely what Trump rejected when he said we could make America great again. We could remove the barriers to mobility and in doing so America would thrive as never before. We could fix our schools, reform our immigration laws, drain a regulatory swamp, and return America to the country where we can believe that our children will have it better than we did.
That was the 2016 election, and since then we鈥檝e begun the slow process of restoring the American Dream.
The Great Realignment: Understanding Politics Today
Stephen Davies
Lead Essay
December 10, 2018
Stephen Davies argues that political realignments are regular features of modern democratic politics. In them, some longstanding issues lose their salience, while others rise to the top of the heap. Because the world is increasingly networked, our realignments are likewise increasingly taking place in concert, Davies argues; he goes on to suggest that nearly the entire industrialized democratic world is currently confronting a realignment that turns it toward questions of populism versus globalization.
For many it seems as though we are living through a time of political breakdown and chaos. In many democracies, established parties are losing votes and declining as political forces. This particularly affects the social democratic center-left but has started to affect the mainstream center-right as well. Everywhere there is success for new insurgent forces and parties, usually described as 鈥減opulist.鈥 Most of these, such as the Rassemblement national in France (RN; formerly the Front national), the Alternative f眉r Deutschland in Germany (AfD), or the Sweden Democrats (to give just three of many examples) are described as 鈥渞adical right,鈥 but there are also insurgencies from the radical left such as Podemos in Spain. In the UK there was the 2016 Brexit vote, seen everywhere as a popular revolt against the establishment, while the United States has seen the election of Donald Trump and the rise of a radical left in the Democratic Party.
Most observers see all of this as both unexpected and new or unprecedented. There has already been a significant literature describing it and trying to make sense of it. Most of this tries to explain the political upheavals in terms of something called populism. This is broadly defined as a kind of politics that sees society as divided between a homogeneous and pure 鈥減eople鈥 and a corrupt and even malevolent 鈥渆lite.鈥 The implication of much of this is that things such as the election of Trump or Brexit or the rise of parties like the AfD and RN are a kind of emotional reaction by disaffected voters, one that will dissipate once the cause of their disaffection (about which there is disagreement) has been dealt with.
All of this misconceives what is actually going on. What most developed democracies are experiencing is a realignment of politics. This is a process in which the one or two major issues that define political identities and divisions change. As a result, old alliances and voting patterns break down and new ones emerge. People who were once opponents become allies and vice versa. This reflects changes in the substantive divisions of interest and sentiment in society, shifts in the balance of power among social classes and within the class of political investors and donors, and changes in what primarily concerns both voters and the politically influential. Realignments of this kind occur regularly in most democracies, typically on a generational basis鈥攅very 40 years or so鈥攁nd thus this kind of upheaval is not unprecedented or novel. While it is true that many of the new parties and politicians have a populist rhetoric and style this is not a core feature of the phenomenon of realignment itself; rather it reflects the nature of the emerging division in politics and the current situation. As such it will not persist, but neither will it fade away. Rather we will see a move to a new and stable political alignment in which the ideas associated with populism now will become one of the two major poles of political debate while the populist style diminishes.
What though is a political alignment? At any time there are many issues that divide people, over which there is debate and argument. There are many different ways in which positions on these questions can be combined. So one person might for example be opposed to abortion, also hostile to the death penalty, and a supporter of free markets, while someone else could be a supporter of free markets, in favor of the death penalty, and relaxed about abortion. There are potentially almost as many combinations of positions on the range of issues as there are voters. However, actual politics always has a binary quality with two broadly defined sides or camps. In countries with a first past the post electoral system these will be two large parties while in a proportional representation system there will be many parties, but these will be grouped into two broad coalitions. There is no system where voters elect individual representatives who then form shifting coalitions on an issue by issue basis.
This reflects two fundamental realities. The first is that stable and effective government requires stable and coherent bodies of politicians and voters who remain together long term. The second is that the fundamental division in politics is that between being in power and out of power, which is always a binary one. How though is the binary division achieved? The answer is that while there are many disagreements and divisions there are always just one or two that are particularly salient: that is, they are important to large numbers of people and matter to political investors. These are the aligning issues, and people tend to align themselves with or against others on the basis of the views they take on those aligning questions.
This means that broad coalitions often disagree internally on minor issues but their members discount those disagreements because they share a position on the main, aligning issues. It also means that with time their views on the other issues tend to align, even when there is no logical reason why they should鈥攆or example, there is no reason why support for free markets should necessarily go along with enthusiasm for capital punishment, but in many times and places this has been the case. Typically there are just two aligning issues, with one of those two the primary issue and the other secondary (sometimes there are as many as three, but this is exceptional). This leads to a quadrant with four broad groups of votes reflecting the four possible combinations of views on the two aligning issues.
However, political alignments (or 鈥渄ispensations鈥 as some call them) do not last forever. Eventually one or both of the aligning issues loses its salience and ceases to matter as much as it did. This can be because of a decisive victory for one side, or because people simply stop caring about it in large enough numbers. So in mid-Victorian Britain relations between Church and State and the position of the established church was one of the two principal aligning issues but this was no longer the case by the 1890s. At this point a new aligning issue arises, reflecting the actual divisions of power, interest, and sentiment in society. This will often cut across previous divisions, and so all kinds of political alliances and voting patterns are disrupted. This is a realignment, which typically lasts for anything from four to fifteen or sixteen years. Once it ends a new and stable alignment has formed, which then lasts for another thirty to forty years. Historically realignments in many countries involve party splits and recombinations, or the appearance and rise of new parties and the replacement of old ones. We can clearly see this in early realignments in the United States, such as the one between 1852 and 1860, or the earlier one between 1820 and 1828. Sometimes, however, a realignment takes the form of an abrupt transformation of a political party so that although it has the same name and even many of the same personnel, the ideology it stands for and its voting coalition undergo a radical change. This is particularly true of realignments in modern first-past-the-post systems that make the rise of new parties difficult.
In most developed democracies including the UK and United States, the last realignment took place in the 1970s. The primary aligning issue was that of the degree to which the government should intervene in the economy and support egalitarian redistribution while the secondary one was over how far the government should use its power and the criminal law to uphold a particular set of moral norms and rules. This produced four broad blocs of voters, of which two were dominant and the 鈥減oles鈥 of that alignment. One pole combined support for egalitarianism and state intervention in the economy with support for social liberalism (an assertion of private judgment and independence in the area of morals and conduct), while the other pole combined support for a free market approach in economics with social conservatism and a role for the government in enforcing moral rules. We may describe these two groups as liberals and conservatives in the U.S. lexicon and as social democrats and free market conservatives everywhere else. The two 鈥渉omeless鈥 blocs were, firstly, consistent libertarians (opposed to active government in both areas) and, secondly, consistent authoritarians, who favored government authority in both. For various reasons the second group of 鈥渉omeless鈥 voters were not competed for but ignored and taken for granted, while the first group were the crucial swing voters. The result was a gradual move towards the moderately anti-government position on both issues.
This division, which could be found in most democracies (there are exceptions such as Japan), has now broken down. We are now seeing the emergence of a new aligning issue. What though is it, and what is driving its emergence? The question of the economic role of government retains its salience, and in fact we are seeing a revival of argument around that topic and a clear movement away from the free market pole of that axis. However, the second issue has been transformed. The question now is not so much that of social conservatism versus social liberalism. Instead the key issue is that of identity, and in particular the tension between globalism and cosmopolitanism on the one hand and nationalism and ethnic or cultural particularism on the other. This is often described as a polarity between 鈥渙penness鈥 and 鈥渃losedness鈥 and has been noticed in most contemporary democracies (Spain and Portugal are the major exceptions). Increasingly this new aligning issue is becoming the primary one and is supplanting the economic division (which as said persists) as the big political division.
This new alignment again produces four blocs of voters. One, which has already clearly emerged in most countries, may be described as 鈥渘ational collectivists.鈥 They are nationalist and patriotic, anti-cosmopolitan and anti-globalism; they are economic nationalists and support an active economic role for government and a large and generous but strictly national welfare state; they are cultural traditionalists and (often) social conservatives, and they support traditional ideas of identity, particularly masculinity and femininity. Alongside them are the free market conservatives who we may describe as national liberals鈥攖heir philosophy could be described as 鈥渃apitalism in one country.鈥 This is an increasingly unstable position politically, and this group is facing a squeeze from several directions.
The other two blocs are currently in a race to see which emerges as the main alternative to the 鈥渘ational collectivists.鈥 The first and in most countries the largest group may be described as 鈥渃osmopolitan liberals.鈥 They are broadly free market, strongly cosmopolitan and globalist, socially liberal, and egalitarian. The second are the radical left. They are strongly in favor of an interventionist economic policy, also strongly globalist and cosmopolitan, but also committed to a kind of radical identity politics. All of these four blocs have shared sociological features and are often geographically separate as well, which makes their political significance greater. The 鈥渘ational collectivists鈥 are typically older, white, often working class, and people who have not attended university, while the radical left and liberal cosmopolitans are typically younger, university educated, and more affluent or professional. The national collectivists are disproportionately found in rural areas, small towns, and ex-industrial areas while the 鈥渃osmopolitan liberals鈥 and radical left live in major metropolitan areas. University education in this case is a proxy for a related division, which is position in the meritocratic labor market and the degree to which people work in sectors that are globally competitive and traded.
From this perspective current upheavals make sense. Social democratic parties everywhere are in trouble because they have two quite different kinds of voter that are very difficult to combine into a voting coalition. Center right parties face increasing challenges because they are losing voters to both national collectivists and emerging groups of liberal cosmopolitans; this can be seen very clearly in France for example. What we are seeing everywhere except Ireland, Spain, and Portugal, is the emergence and increasing success of national collectivist parties. These often start off with a 鈥渃apitalism/free market in one country鈥 program, but the usual pattern is for a sharp move towards a more statist and dirigiste one. At the moment these parties have a populist style or rhetoric. This however is not essential to their identity: instead it reflects the position arrived at by the end of the last alignment and the nature of the division alluded to above. By the 2000s there was a true consensus among the political and media classes around a kind of politics that emphasized cosmopolitan ideas about culture and identity, so a politics that questions that will be seen as hostile to the elite because it has little elite support at the moment. The way that educational attainment is now connected to economic position via the meritocratic labor market means that the division between the 鈥渆ducated elite鈥 and the rest has acquired much greater salience than in the past, and this also gives politics a currently populist cast.
Right now things are in turmoil, but we will soon see the emergence of a stable division. In most countries this will be between national collectivists and liberal cosmopolitans, but in some cases it will be between national collectivists and radical leftists. In some countries this realignment has already happened. Thus in Poland the basic split is between Social Forum (cosmopolitan liberal) and Law and Justice (national collectivist), while in France it is between En Marche (cosmopolitan liberal) and the RN (national collectivist).
What is causing this? The default explanation of many commentators is that this must derive from economic concerns and anxieties. The emerging national collectivist politics is seen as the response of angry left behind voters who have not benefitted from globalization. This suggests that their discontent can be assuaged, and the genie put back in its bottle, by appropriate economic policy. Deeper research shows that this is not the case. The work of people such as Eric Kaufmann in his book Whiteshift: Population, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities and John Judis in The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt against Globalization, suggests that the real underlying factor is a set of deep concerns and anxieties about identity and a feeling that the world is changing or has changed in a way that is disruptive and too rapid. Sentiments of this kind are much more difficult to address and may require much more difficult shifts in policy that will be (rightly) unacceptable to many. That means that the emerging division is likely to persist and will probably become the new primary aligning issue.
What of the United States? Here the realignment is well under way and will probably be complete in another four years. As has been the case since the 1860s the realignment will see the transformation of one or both of the major parties and large shifts in voting patterns. The Republican Party is clearly becoming an American nationalist (national collectivist) party, combining economic nationalism and government intervention to favor certain business interests, nativism, and foreign policy unilateralism. The Democratic Party will probably emerge as the cosmopolitan liberal party, supporting free trade and (broadly) free markets together with egalitarianism, foreign policy globalism, and support for immigration. This however will probably involve several splits and serious ructions. Interesting times.
Coming Up
Essays by Jacob T. Levy, and聽Henry Farrell.聽Discussion through the end of the month.
Related at Cato
Cato Unbound: 鈥淎n Appreciation of Partisanship,鈥 February 2009
Policy Forum: 鈥淧opulism and Nationalism in the Trump Era,鈥 January 2017
Conference: 鈥淭rump #8217;s Attack on the Trade Regime: A Search for Solutions,鈥 October 2018
Policy Forum: 鈥淭he Return of Great Power Competition,鈥 January 2019 (upcoming)
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