Thursday, February 22, 2024

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 26-11-2021 22:52

When the centre cannot hold

The old order is in deep trouble. In its way, it has been far too successful, but it has also raised expectations so much that few are able to reach what they think are reasonable goals.

For decades, politics in democratic countries was dominated by parties one could regard as “centrist,” with the leaders of those deriving from left-wing movements insisting they no longer believed in the full-blooded socialist nostrums of former times and their supposedly right-wing rivals stressing they were egalitarians at heart who were determined to “level up” society to ensure that poor people got square deal. Though observers of the political scene continued to use the old geometrical terminology that came into fashion soon after the French Revolution of 1789, whatever differences there were between “left” and “right” became increasingly hard to detect as all big parties did their best to attract “floating voters” by adopting what their strategists assumed to be middle-of-the-road policies. Theorists called this “triangulation.”

But then the resulting consensus, which underpinned the policies followed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, fell apart. In France, the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries, more and more people came to the conclusion that for them it wasn’t working. While the French simply did away with the old parties, replacing them with Marine Le Pen’s National Front – which now calls itself the National Rally – and President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche. North Americans split between Donald Trump, a rambunctious long-time Democrat who took over the Republican Party, and a much-changed Democrat Party heavily influenced by “progressives” obsessed with racial and sexual identities. In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are well on the way to making theirs the party of a working class which is understandably fed up with getting sneered at by comfortably-off lefties ensconced in academe and large sections of the media. It is a modern version of Benjamin Disraeli’s “One-nation Toryism.”

Much the same thing has been happening in Chile where, to widespread surprise, the apparently successful hegemony of by and large centrist parties came to a sudden end in October 2019 when millions of people, evidently unimpressed by their country’s rapid transformation into Latin America’s most dynamic economic and, if the available statistics mean anything, social performer, took to the streets to protest against the status quo. At first, it seemed as though Chile was about to veer hard to the traditional left, but in Sunday’s election, José Antonio Kast – an unapologetic fan of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet – came first and, according to local analysts, has a good chance of winning the run-off in December against the decidedly left-wing Gabriel Boric. 

As for Argentina, the signs are that, as has been the case for a great many years, she could once again be bucking the international trend. The main opposition coalition is notably moderate by international standards and so too are the many Peronists who are beginning to turn against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, if only because they feel she has lost her ability to supply them with the votes they need to stay in business.

However, even if someone like Horacio Rodríguez Larreta does get elected president in 2023 and Peronist pragmatists do manage to rid themselves of the Kirchnerite militants who are excessively fond of the dictatorships ruling Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, this does not mean that Argentina’s “moderates” will be home and dry. The problems facing the country are so appallingly serious that a repeat of the “gradualist” approach Mauricio Macri thought he had to take would be almost certain to fail dismally; as in other parts of the world, this would open the door for politicians willing to take steps that not that long ago would have been considered impossibly extreme. On both ends of the ideological spectrum there are people, such as the fire-breathing libertarian Javier Milei and a gaggle of equally fierce Trotskyites, who say they would be more than willing to do just that.

The old “moderate” consensus was based on the conviction that a judicious synthesis of welfare statism and free-enterprise capitalism would eventually benefit everyone apart from a tiny handful of self-destructive individuals. This proved to be an illusion. Headlong technological progress greatly benefitted a minority but made life more difficult for most of the rest by depriving them of what had been well-remunerated jobs in factories or offices. As a result, throughout the world, many millions of young people who had expected a university education to provide them with useful credentials have found themselves in limbo. Even harder hit have been members of what was once called the proletariat; large numbers have been abandoned to their fate. Telling them to study computation or move somewhere else where jobs are more plentiful is anything but helpful.

Trump got to where he is because, unlike his country’s “progressives,” he took proper note of the despair sweeping huge tracts of the US as manufacturing jobs got exported to China and a growing influx of immigrants, many of them illegal, from underdeveloped countries brought down wages for unskilled or semiskilled workers, He also realised that bashing patriotism, as so many leading lights of the cultural elite enjoy doing, greatly offended those for whom flag-waving national pride was an essential part of their identity, hence his trademark slogan: “Make America Great Again.”

In Europe, hardly anyone has a good word to say about “the Donald” but this does not mean that all are against nationalism or are willing to allow technological progress plus globalism to deprive them of what they consider to be their birthright. On the contrary, in most countries nationalism is an increasingly powerful force, which is bad news for would-be immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, as is the reaction against economic trends, or measures justified by allusions to climate change and even the Covid pandemic, that harm much of the population.

The old order is in deep trouble. In its way, it has been far too successful, having made possible the creation of once unimaginable wealth and a series of scientific and technological revolutions, but it has also raised expectations so much that few are able to reach what they think are reasonable goals. Unless democratic politicians, whether left-of-centre or slightly to the right, come up with persuasive answers to the questions being raised by the many who suspect that their own future is likely to be far grimmer than the one that, until quite recently, they had taken for granted, they will be shouldered aside by others who have little time for moderation.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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