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’ve recruited a panel of political thinkers with varying perspectives to put Davies’s argument to the test: 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 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’ feedback. We welcome you to join the discussion.

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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.

Coming Up

Discussion through the end of the month.

Related at Cato

Cato Unbound: “An Appreciation of Partisanship,” February 2009

Policy Forum: “Populism and Nationalism in the Trump Era,” January 2017

Conference: “Trump’s Attack on the Trade Regime: A Search for Solutions,” October 2018

Policy Forum: “The Return of Great Power Competition,” January 2019 (upcoming)