In the wake of the election of Donald Trump and the British vote for Brexit a lot of pundits fell back on the famous line from Yeats’s “The Second Coming” about how “the centre cannot hold.” Specifically, what they meant by this was the disintegration of the traditional party systems in established democracies. More generally they were expressing a concern over the fate of democracy in our time.
I’m not going to try to predict how all this plays out, mainly because my lack of skill when it comes to political forecasting is a matter of record. I am, however, struck by a couple of things about recent developments.
In the first place, we are clearly seeing a total rejection of the current system. Before Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election he first had to rout an entire field of establishment Republican candidates. You really couldn’t be a bigger political outsider than Trump. In turn, his status as destroyer or wrecking ball was the main reason he was able to defeat Clinton, who was the most establishment candidate imaginable.
This same anti-establishment wave has just washed over France, where the two winning candidates are both fringe figures in terms of mainstream French politics. The candidate with the most votes, Emmanuel Macron, is no outsider, but he is a newcomer to electoral politics who only founded his own party a year ago. His opponent, Marine Le Pen, is usually characterized as “far-right” if not fascist.
I think such a rejection of centrist, establishment politics is, though perhaps dangerous, certainly understandable. Large segments of the electorate now see the mainstream parties as having been unrepresentative, unresponsive, and incompetent during what has been a long downward spiral. And they have some valid reasons for feeling this way.
This leads me to my second observation. What we are seeing as the dust settles on the collapse of the mainstream middle is not political polarization. The new lines being drawn on the political map are between “centrist” politicians, often associated with banking and the financial sector, and the far right. Clinton and Trump. Macron and Le Pen. There is no movement toward the left. Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have all been widely derided, if not pilloried, sometimes even within their own parties, as dangerous cranks and kooks. They were either kneecapped by the process (Sanders), left in the dust (Mélenchon), or been assassinated in the press by fire from all angles (Corbyn). Some of this may have been their own fault, but however you want to see it the point remains that “there is no alternative” on the left. Which, in turn, means that the centre is being pulled ineluctably to the right. In a recent book about the failed Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 the author (a Clinton supporter) admitted that Clinton herself may not have been a true progressive candidate, but she was as close as American politics was going to get. Which, if true, means there is no progressive movement in America today.
In short, the failure of the traditional party system and traditional politics — a politics which has been characterized, I think correctly, as being fundamentally neoliberal in nature — has led not to a rejection of that ideology but rather to a lurch even further down the same road. This is not a move that’s likely to help save a system that is in crisis, but rather one that will only hasten its eventual collapse.