- Click here for the article.
U.S. democracy may be government of the people, by the people, for the people. But who are “We the people”?
In the United States, every couple of years, one finds out. Elections reveal how the identity of the people — the sovereign person — has changed in body, will, and soul. As with human beings, certain moments in the life of the sovereign being are revealing of its true personality. Donald Trump’s victory was one such moment.
Before the primaries, it was possible to dismiss the electoral relevance of white working-class America, and those left behind by globalization more broadly, and many did: Look no further than the desiccated Washington-consensus platitudes regurgitated by Hillary Clinton and most of the Republican primary candidates.
Despite Trump and Bernie Sanders’s unexpected success in the primary campaigns, before Nov. 8, denial — most often heard in the form of a “surely Hillary can’t lose to Trump” plea — remained rife. But truth, whether electoral or existential, cannot be repressed forever. Now that the American sovereign being has made its biennial apparition for all to see, nobody can deny the fundamental changes in its personality.
Of course, this new political reality is not confined to the United States. We saw it with Brexit, we see it in populist movements across Europe, and we will see it again in the French and German elections next year.
Brexit and Trump were not anomalies, accidents of political history that can be explained away to maintain the integrity of the inherited notion that “normal” politics involves competition between a center-left party and a center-right party. Rather, in my view, they are symptomatic of a paradigm shift in the configuration of Western political life, one which has only just started.
Consider the familiar political category of left and right, which since 1945 has provided the basic organizing category of political differentiation in Western democracies across the vast majority of issues. Although the language of left and right dates to the French Revolution, the category started to take substantial political meaning in the late 19th century, and was forged over the following decades on the anvil of intense political fights over industrialization in the West, and all the changes in economic, social, and political relations that came in its wake.
The crucial point is that left and right are symbiotic, because they represent both sides of the argument over the problem of industrialization, over which there are good arguments to be made on either side. It is the interaction of these arguments set up by the mediation of the left-right categorization that produced sensible compromises across a whole range of issues.
Thus, the near-universal acceptance of the left and right categorization as a basic political normality after 1945 allowed for a long period of relative domestic stability in the West. Political argument between center-left and center-right parties was ordinarily contained to questions of distributive justice, that is, the allocation of goods within an established political framework.
2016 tells us that this world is now gone. Civil arguments about distributive justice seem quaint, as identity politics — the demon that the post-1945 world sought to contain — once again rears its ugly head.