In popular forms of government, politics tends to coalesce around a set of issues that are debated in the public and in front of the public. There’s a framework within which these topics are debated and the political factions represent the positions on those topics. This framework is the consensus. A range of answers has been deemed acceptable and anything the lies outside that range is considered fringe or heretical. This is the natural response to the challenges faced by democratic political systems.
In the West, the political parties tended to coalesce around economic schools, like communists, various flavors of socialism and flavors of market socialism. These were in the range of the political consensus. Libertarianism has always been fringe in Europe and in America, communism was always a fringe position. The result is the main points of contention in political fights were over economic policy. So much so that social policy and foreign policy have often been framed in economic terms.
Globalism, which the political elites have long saw as a way to sew up political divides, not just within countries, but between countries, has actually fractured the political consensus in the West. Once the factions within the elite settled on an agreed upon economic policy, they needed something else to decorate their respective flags in order to distinguish one faction from the other. After all, if everyone in the political class agrees on the main topics, there’s no need for parties. Politics becomes a beauty pageant.
This reality appears to be something the political elites in the West never bothered to contemplate. When the Cold War ended, the raison d’être for the political fight over economics ended with it. Globalism, with financialization, credit money, open borders and privatized trade policy, became the narrow political consensus within the political class. In Europe this meant post-national continental integration. In the US, this quickly curdled into invade the world/invite the world. In the West, it is rule by rootless cosmopolitan now.
The trouble is, the public has not signed off on that consensus and we still maintain the customs of popular government. In order to have elections, you need conflict and debate. That means issues to distinguish one faction from the other. The first effort to keep the plates spinning was lots of shouting and hair splitting. Politics has turned nasty mostly because name calling is all they have. When two candidates agree on all the big stuff and most of the small stuff, they have to create drama out of the small differences.
This eventually transitions to a new phase, where the public, after a few rounds of elections in which nothing changes, figures out they need new issues. If there’s no longer going to be a debate over the economic arrangements, then maybe we should talk about these Bantu spear-men who suddenly appeared in town. Perhaps it is time to talk about the fact the ringing of church bells has been replaced by the call to prayer. Of course, there is the fact that swarthy sons of Allah keep exploding in pizza parlors.
Outsider issues inevitably result in outsider parties getting traction with the public. The good thinkers who refuse to discuss immigration or the reality of Muslim culture get pushed aside by those coarse barbarians from the fringe who are willing to talk about the taboo subjects. The result is the legitimate parties begin to move closer together in response to the threat from the fringe. We’re seeing that in Europe as the main parties rally to thwart the challenge from the patriotic right. This is the crisis phase.
As we saw with Greece, this is a transition phase. The Greek “middle” collapsed and was replaced by a far left party. At some point, as the crisis continues, an organized and effective far right party will emerge as the challenger. The result will be increasing polarization in politics and eventually society. If some resolution to the problems plaguing Greece are not found, that political divide becomes irreconcilable. That either results in civil war or it results in one faction permanently sidelining the other faction.
A similar process may be unfolding in France. The political elite in France has always been highly chauvinistic, but generally in favor of the post-national, global socialism of Europe. They just blindly accepted the sterilizing effects of globalization, without much thought as to how that would play out in their domestic politics. They just assumed that Europe was a done deal, so elections really did not matter anymore. That’s not how things are unfolding and the French political consensus is beginning to crack.
There’s no much chance for Le Pen to win, but the recent attacks by Muslims could churn that silent majority that exists in every western country. The fact that the communists are wildly over performing is the big news, as it suggests the disgust with the status quo is widespread. Voting for Le Pen is a protest by outsiders. A vote for Melenchon is a protest by insiders, the people who see themselves as part of the elite. The middle of French politics is losing its purchase on the voters.
Something similar is happening in America. Donald Trump is not an ideologue. He is a reactionary who sees the political consensus in Washington as an unworkable jumble of policies cooked up by academics. His vote, however, was symbolically and tactically a rejection of the prevailing consensus. Voters wanted to hear about migrants and trade, not tax cuts and flag waving. He was the coarse, crude man from outside willing to talk about the things the people want discussed.
The Left is experiencing something similar with Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser degree Tulsi Gabbard. Democrats think inviting Team Sanders in to put an outsider face on their ruling class politics will prevent a revolt from the fringe. Gabbard is getting attention from the fringe because she talks about issues like the endless warmongering and economic equality. Hers is a decidedly non-white take on these issues, but the fact that she is willing to forthrightly discuss these taboo subjects is another crack in the consensus.
Those prone to unrealistic bouts of optimism should look at these developments as a good sign that maybe the tide is turning. The whole point of consensus is for the insiders to control the debate by pushing uncomfortable truths into the void, making them off-limits in political debates. As these issues seep back into the public debate, the debate has to change. For the alt-right and economic populists, having an fight over these topics is 90% of the battle. They cannot win the argument unless there is an actual argument.
The West is heading for a very big argument.