Populism’s Dangerous Companions

Stephen Davies’s characteristically rich and thoughtful essay suggests that in a two-by-two matrix of broad families of normative ideas about politics in developed democracies, the traditional left-right dimension of greater or lesser state control of the economy retains its salience, but the dimension of social and religious traditionalism or tolerance has given way to a more salient axis around issues of cultural identity, broadly nationalist vs. cosmopolitan (and, I would add, the latter view is domestically multicultural). This ideological transformation in the character of the big four blocs of voters is leading to instability and realignment between the major parties or coalitions that compete for electoral power in democracies.

It’s an interesting and illuminating exercise to single out a shift from debates about cultural moralism to those about nationalism as the important destabilizing influence. It’s certainly true that the culture war fights of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s have lost a great deal of their political force. Laws against consensual adult same-sex sexual activity are gone and indeed same-sex marriage is legal in many liberal democracies. Outside the United States, abortion has all but disappeared as a live political issue; even Ireland is on the verge of legalizing it. Marijuana is now tolerated in many places and legal in some. Women’s participation in the workforce and their professional careers still face obstacles, but they’re simply not objects of political contestation in the way they were forty years ago. With the internet awash in pornography, the fights in the 70s and 80s over Playboy are now almost incomprehensible. And the widespread decline in active membership and belief in organized religions seems to have sapped the energy from new moralistic crusades. Jerry Falwell Jr.’s sycophancy toward a serial adulterer, multiple divorcé, and seeker of sexual favors from nude models and porn actresses is a nice synecdoche for the apparent surrender of the old religious right, even in the United States, on everything except abortion. And Davies’ analysis suggests that the longing for something like cultural traditionalism may have latched onto national identity once public moralism fell away. As generalizations go, this has some plausibility to it, offering us a way to make sense of the United States, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe all together.

But I’m struck by some doubts nonetheless.

I’m not quite as confident as Davies about the role of economic anxiety; it certainly seems to me as if the 2008 financial crisis and the deep recession and slow recovery that followed it catalyzed the new style of politics. But of course it remains true that it’s not the genuinely poor and precarious who have embraced it. The middle and upper classes from regions in relative decline—outside the coasts in the United States, outside long-booming greater London in the United Kingdom—are its engine. That as may be, Davies is probably right that the phenomenon won’t fade away with economic changes to come.

Davies’s dismissal of populism as temporary and epiphenomenal, and the treatment of it as more a style than anything else, seems more dubious to me. There are stylistic differences even now; President Trump’s self-presentation isn’t quite like anyone else’s, and it will not outlast him. But the kind of politics Davies is describing is a fearful one, and always ripe for demagoguery and hysteria. The more terrifying a picture can be painted of aliens and immigrants, foreigners and elites, the better for the electoral prospects of those promoting borders closed to trade and migration. In his desire to present the national collectivists as just another ideological cluster, Davies suggests a gradual normalization of their politics that I see neither on the horizon nor in history. National collectivism has predecessors and ancestors in different political eras in various countries; have they ever stabilized into a calm and mature advocacy of their distinctive political positions? There have been normal parties committed to economic protectionism, but hostility to immigration and immigrants calls forth something else.

This brings me to the two omissions that trouble me from Davies’ picture: authoritarianism and race.

Davies is drawn to grouping Trump in the United States with Brexit in the UK, and there’s obviously something to that. But the Trump presidency is not only part of the cross-national phenomenon of parties of the right turning toward nationalism in developed liberal democracies. It is also part of a different cross-national phenomenon of constitutional deconsolidation, democratic decay, and the rise of authoritarian demagoguery. Here I think the right comparisons are not to the United Kingdom, France, or Germany, but to Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, to a certain extent Poland and Israel, and now probably Brazil. No western European country has yet followed this path, and so it doesn’t strike Davies as being the core trend of interest. But those of us who are concerned about the turn to populist nationalism partly have this other trend in mind: the close affinity between that kind of politics and rising authoritarianism.

The combination of a longing for unity and distrust of elites makes populism congenial to one-man rule. A would-be autocrat can speak in one unified voice, as competing elites cannot. He can offer the many an alliance against the few, marking them as enemies of the true people. If only you give me the power, I’ll rid you of these lawyers, bankers, professors, Jews, globalists, immigrants, senators, judges, media, and so on. Due process, fair partisan competition, judicial independence, academic freedom, and freedom of the press are all vulnerable to that kind of politics; constitutionalism gives ground to a plebiscitary presidentialism. So far only the United States looks vulnerable to this among the wealthy democracies that used to be called “advanced,” “consolidated,” or simply “liberal,” but when we expand our field of vision more recent and more obviously fragile democracies such as Hungary and Turkey, Davies’s vision of gradual normalization after realignment looks more suspect still.

Finally, if we set aside the questions of populist “style” or democratic fragility and focus as Davies suggests on substantive ideological cleavages and alignments, I wonder whether there’s as much discontinuity as he suggests. His case for realignment is not solely a matter of nationalist cultural conservatism replacing religious cultural conservatism. The old bloc of “free market conservatives” is being squeezed out, he says, leaving those with an interest in reducing government intrusion into the economy to migrate to a new home among cosmopolitan liberals. Davies argues that unlike the free market conservatives, the national collectivists “support an active economic role for government and a large and generous but strictly national welfare state.”

But at least in the United States, supposed “free market conservatives” have held that latter position for generations. It was never the redistributionist state as such most of them objected to. Agricultural subsidies, Social Security, the Federal Housing Administration, and the GI Bill amount to a large and generous but mostly white welfare state from the 1930s on. The federal government subsidized housing in ways that entrenched existing patterns of segregation, subsidized higher education at a time when discrimination against black students was widespread, enacted a redistributionist social insurance old age program that favored the long-lived and excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers, and poured money into the hands of farm owners. This represented a massive redistribution of wealth that helped to create the postwar white middle class. And none of this was ever seriously challenged even under Reagan or Gingrich.

It was the additions to the redistributionist state of the 1960s, aimed at urban and minority recipients, that were stigmatized as “welfare” and constrained in the succeeding decades of conservative politics under small-government slogans. These decades saw the partisan realignment of white southerners from the Democratic to the Republican party without much change in their substantive views. Sometimes a free-market conservative politician or wonk would believe their own statements of principle and try to limit, say, Social Security or agricultural subsidies, only to get their fingers badly burned. Which is to say, the broad base of voters electing people Davies calls “free market conservatives” were only very rarely really free market conservatives as Davies imagines that position. And the distance they have traveled thus isn’t as large as he imagines it to be. Race is always one of the dimensions of alignment in the United States, and it exerts a gravitational pull on the others. Sometimes the racial identity politics on the right is more sotto voce; sometimes, as in the era of “very fine people on both sides,” it’s loud and proud. I think Davies may by implication understate the exceptional character of the Trump presidency in terms of its effects on constitutional democracy by treating it as the birth pangs of a new normal partisan alignment. But I think he may by implication overstate its novelty in substantive ideological terms.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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.

Response Essays

  • 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.

  • Jacob T. Levy agrees with Stephen Davies that conservatives have recently moved away from moralism and toward national identity. But Levy sees national collectivism as potentially quite durable, a prospect that he does not welcome. He notes that authoritarianism and racism seem to be everywhere in contemporary populism, and he argues that attention to constitutionalism among conservatives has largely disappeared.

  • Henry Farrell argues that political bitterness across the world arises from a common source: neoliberalism. Domestic politics has been “hollowed out” in that all the real decisions are made by corporations or bureaucrats. Politicians prefer to compete on symbolic, highly contentious issues that are unlikely to be resolved. Liberal cosmopolitanism is “toast,” Farrell writes, because it lacks any significant constituency. As to libertarians, he argues that they should expect even less.