Regime Change or Stalemate?

On Sunday the Sweden Democrats, a right-wing party with roots in fascism, scored their highest share yet of the Swedish parliamentary vote — and the mandarins of Europe breathed a sigh of relief, because that higher-than-ever share was only 17.6 percent, and there had been fears that the cleaned-up fascists would reach 25 percent instead.

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Ross Douthat
, New York Times

On Sunday the Sweden Democrats, a right-wing party with roots in fascism, scored their highest share yet of the Swedish parliamentary vote — and the mandarins of Europe breathed a sigh of relief, because that higher-than-ever share was only 17.6 percent, and there had been fears that the cleaned-up fascists would reach 25 percent instead.

That such an outcome, in progressive Sweden of all places, came as a relief rather than a shock is a reminder of just how far populism has come, how much the fringes matter in Western politics and how weak the center has become.

But the fact remains that the populists’ performance was a disappointment: Not a majority, not a plurality, not even a plurality of the combined right and center-right vote. The Sweden Democrats won enough votes to rattle an already rattled continental elite, and enough to confirm their country’s rightward turn on immigration, but their ascent is not yet the stuff of which a populist-led governing coalition might be made.

Instead, the biggest story in the Swedish election, as in so many other Western elections lately, was fragmentation and its daughter stalemate — with declining or discredited parties of the center facing off against forces on the right and left that create majorities or near-majorities of opposition, but not of governance.

That is the scene in Germany and France, where Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are isolated between restive rights and left. (Macron, the great centrist hope, has worse approval ratings than Donald Trump.) It is basically the scene in Britain, where an ineffectual center-right prime minister, Theresa May, is trying to manage the populism of the right, while a populist of the left, Jeremy Corbyn, is locked in combat with a weakened center-left establishment.

In a somewhat different way, allowing for our presidentialism and durable two-party system, it is the scene in the United States. A right-wing populist insurgency appeared to take over the Republican Party under Trump, but it turned out to be ill-equipped to run anything larger than Breitbart News. So the Trump administration has mostly been run, ineffectually, by the discredited establishment that Trump defeated.

Meanwhile the left is energized as never in my lifetime, while the center-left seems bankrupt, dazed and paranoid. But the thesis that a populist left can win elections consistently, let alone govern a country that has so far responded to a more ideologically liberal Democratic Party by voting more often for Republicans, has been confirmed only in the imaginations of Jacobin subscribers.

The common thread in all of these Western stories is that if you put together all the voters who have given up on the old centrist parties (in Europe) or the old party establishments (in America), you would have the kind of majority upon which political realignments can be made. But because the people rejecting the establishments don’t begin to agree on why or what they want instead, because some of them are voting for Greens or Communists and others for reformed Fascists (or some for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein and others for Trump), the establishment forces can find a way to hang on to power.

Thus you get populist shocks like Brexit and the election of Trump, you get figures like Corbyn or Marine Le Pen or the Sweden Democrats as important political actors … but then Le Pen gets clobbered in the runoff, Brexit ends up supervised by its former critics, and Trump’s own appointees take to the pages of The New York Times to explain how they aren’t really letting him run his own show. The center is hated, but whether overtly or covertly it finds some ways to hold.

The question is how long this situation can last. It might be that the current stalemate is just a transitional phase, a necessary step on the path from one order to another, and that at some point a group of politicians will figure out how to channel populist energy into a program or coalition that can make Western countries governable again.

This argument has been advanced frequently and shrewdly throughout the Trump era by left-wing political theorist Corey Robin, who compares our age to the crackup of New Deal-Great Society liberalism in the 1970s, and argues that a lot of the angst over a supposed “crisis of democracy” is really just anxiety over the end of a particular consensus, a particular center — neoliberal-neoconservative, Reaganite-Clintonite-Blairite — that held for a couple of generations but can’t hold anymore.

“And as that happens,” he writes, “what we see is the founding of a new regime and the creation of new norms.”

Robin fervently hopes that this regime will be socialist, and it might be — but it might equally well turn out to be some new right-wing form, of the kind suggested by the nationalists of Eastern Europe, the populist grand alliance uneasily ruling Italy (the one Western European country where the extremes have teamed up against the center), and the campaign but not the presidency of Donald Trump.

Or, for that matter, the new political regime might turn out to be more socialist in an increasingly multicultural America and more right-wing-nationalist in a mass-migration-troubled Europe, with the continents drifting apart ideologically instead of imitating each other.

But all this speculation assumes that the stalemate will end relatively quickly, that with a discredited establishment harassed by not-quite-ready populisms, something has to give. No iron law of history requires that to happen, and all kinds of structural factors in Western societies — our aging populations, our costly and complicated welfare states, our hysterical media environment, the veto points of the U.S. Constitution and the dysfunctional pseudo-federalism of the European Union — converge to make reform and realignment more difficult than in the past.

Moreover there are plenty of historical precedents for a situation in which a system stalemates or stagnates for generations, where revolts and reform programs founder again and again, where a disliked or despised elite holds on to power for a long time against divided and chaotic forms of populism.

In a recent essay for American Affairs, Michael Lind describes a version of this scenario for our era — a possible Western future in which the presently besieged establishment, “with its near-monopoly of wealth, political power, expertise and media influence, completely and successfully represses the numerically greater but politically weaker working-class majority. If that is the case, the future North America and Europe may look a lot like Brazil and Mexico, with nepotistic oligarchies clustered in a few fashionable metropolitan areas but surrounded by a derelict, depopulated and despised ‘hinterland.'”

I am not sure that Lind’s dystopia is more plausible than Robin’s prediction of a reformation and a reinvigorated politics. I do know that both are worth considering: Our present stalemate could well be a prelude to dramatic change, but just because it seems like Western politics can’t go on like this doesn’t mean we won’t.

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