The political spectrum is obsolete. What will come next?
The time has come to eliminate the political spectrum.
Political metaphors help us make sense of the world around us. The metaphor of left, right and center has been doing this for over two centuries now. We should be grateful that the arbitrary arrangement of seats in the National Assembly during the early stages of the French Revolution provided us with such a useful means of ideological orientation for so long. But this is no longer the case. In fact, the metaphor now obscures more than it illuminates. We must move forward.
In 1789, when supporters of King Louis XVI’s authority sat to the right of the assembly in Paris and reformers to the left, no one realized that they were providing the modern world with ideological benchmarks that would remain fixed during the 200 coming years. . Yet that is exactly what happened.
At first, the moderates prevailed. Then the left took power, leading to La Terreur. Eventually, the right gained the upper hand, leading to a restoration of the monarchy. And it spanned much of the 19th century and beyond, with the left, right and center in France fighting for the meaning and legacy of the revolution. Soon after, complex far-left (seeking to expand the original revolution) and far-right (aiming at a counterrevolution to turn the tide of modern history) ideologies emerged to fight against a center Liberal under siege.
The left was defined by its faith in the human ability to remake politics, economy and society from the ground up. He marched under the banner of equality and universalism, viewing norms, practices and beliefs received with suspicion and often with hostility. The right, on the other hand, has insisted that human beings need order and authority in politics, society and religion. Insofar as these had been swept away by revolutionary passions, they had to be restored or, when this proved impossible, reconstructed from scratch by a mass political movement. At their most extreme extremes, the left ended in communism and the right in fascism, with the liberal center privileging institutions designed to moderate extreme passions and encourage meliorism and ideological compromise.
This pattern, like the forms of politics it has come to describe so aptly, emerged in France, but it was quickly adopted around the world to make sense of the universe of modern ideologies. The Russian Revolution was a triumph of the far left. The Axis powers espouse a far-right ideology. The United States and Britain, meanwhile, oscillated between center-right and center-left governments, never straying so far from liberalism.
This same moderation has always made the European specter a little less enlightening in the American context. With communism and harsher forms of socialism generally favored by very few and thus never obtaining much political power, the left came to be defined in the United States by the regulated and redistributive Keynesian welfare state but still mainly market based. The American right, on the other hand, was even more distinctive. With no monarchy or established church to restore or re-enact, American conservatives have mixed a vague desire to return to mainstream morality and sub-political intermediary institutions (such as individual churches and private charities) with a promotion of autonomy and free market capitalism. The left came to be associated with a mixed state economy and the right with libertarian laissez-faire.
The divergence between European and American specters has at times led to amusing and even pernicious confusions – such as when American conservatives insist Hitler was a left figure because he supported or rejected great government. Donald Trump (as many did in the 2016 GOP primaries) on the grounds that his defense of certain elements of the welfare state is a sign that he truly is a liberal. The American left makes a similar mistake when it describes libertarian-minded Republicans as fascists.
But if the specter has sometimes proved unnecessary in the past, today it is downright misleading. The collapse of its usefulness began with the demise of the Soviet Union. The victory of the allies and the defeat of fascism in World War II had already suppressed the anti-liberal right as a living political option; with the fall of communism, the anti-liberal left was deprived of any viable alternative of its own. In this regard, French historian FranÃ§ois Furet was absolutely right to claim that the French Revolution finally ended in 1989, exactly 200 years after it began. The dispute over its meaning and scope, and the clash between ideological forces that it unleashed, have been settled. The liberal center had won.
At least that’s what it seemed for much of the past 30 years. The political ideology that has dominated Western politics in recent decades, which European critics often call neoliberalism, is a function of the shrinking ideological spectrum. When there is no far-right or far-left to speak of, all that’s left is center-right and center-left options that overlap in many ways. Politics are tightening, with debate often boiling down to slight disagreements over minimal political differences. Should taxes be raised slightly or lowered slightly? What’s the best way to encourage the economic growth we all promote? How do you get people to behave a little better, to act a little more rationally, to become a little more productive, to gain a little more purchasing power?
When politics becomes dominated by these kinds of questions, consensus reigns. Politicians may strive to accentuate their differences for the sake of electoral gains, but the reality is that whether one centrist party or another comes out on top in a vote matters very little to most people. . Consensus will persist. The small-caliber political hack will continue, without anything significant changing.
At least until he does.
Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, like the outcome of the Brexit vote that preceded it, was bad in many ways. But it was good and important in one big respect: it showed the Western political world that more radical political change – one that strongly breaks with part of the dominant centrist consensus – is possible. UK center-left and center-right believe staying in the EU is a given, but just over half the country have shown they disagree. Establishment figures in the Republican and Democratic parties are strongly predisposed to favor high rates of immigration and free trade, but enough voters were fed up with the consensus that they were willing to try the restrictive approach. and Trump’s protectionist. (Whether it has been and is too inadequate to implement these policies effectively is another issue.)
Are these developments a victory for the far right? The fact that they are reflected in parallel movements on what is generally considered to be the far left should make us think this way. Center-right and center-left parties are in sharp decline across Europe. Right-wing populist parties are on the rise, but so are left-wing populists – just as Trump’s insurgency within the Republican Party in 2016 was nearly matched by Bernie Sanders’ challenge to Hillary’s center-left candidacy. Clinton for the Democratic nomination the same year. Does it make more sense to view these challenges as independent trends? Or to see them as opposing sides of the same coin – different approaches to challenge a centrist establishment that is still entrenched but already weakening?
If the latter is a more compelling way to understand what is going on in our politics, then perhaps we need to abandon the inherited left-center-right ideological schema altogether. Perhaps the most prominent divide in our politics is the one that separates those who remain broadly happy with the way things are going from those who don’t, those who won from those who lost, those who profit. from those who do not, those who have directed and directed the spectacle of those who have been permanently placed in the role of spectators, assured that those who hold the lion’s share of political, economic and cultural power will earn their privileges by making it ours the best of all possible worlds.
In a world defined by this dispute – a rift separating the top from the bottom far more than the left from the right – there would be room to shape a new center, which would no longer be defined by its proximity or distance from the left-right ideological alternatives of yore fixed. Instead, the middle would be defined by where a new consensus in public opinion emerges, along with any mix of policies and ideal visions of the country’s future that ultimately galvanize that consensus.
Whatever the outcome of this process, and however long it may be, the old way of thinking about alternatives is over. The old center is dying, as well as the old right and the left. Long live the new center, whatever it is.