The (new) centre holds
Bad policies and the ‘twilight of democracy’ are not the same thing
When the surge of support for populist parties across the West first registered with the commentariat, the obvious question was whether the centre could hold and keep the anti-establishment onslaught at bay. With the 2016 victory of Donald Trump, a candidate with very few philosophical or moral inhibitions, that concern took on existential proportions. It was not just mainstream centre-left and centre-right political parties that were threatened by populism, but democracy itself.
Today, it should be clear that the centre, in fact, does hold. Voters do not necessarily want to destroy the system. They are simply asking, sometimes very angrily, for a very different rhetorical and policy mix than the one that was long on offer. As the Times columnist and Conservative peer Danny Finkelstein wrote recently, “liberals often confuse the centre ground with their own politics, and they are not the same thing.” In reality, “voters will accept much more ‘left wing’ economic proposals and much more ‘right wing’ social ones than was commonly thought of as the center ground.”
Hungary’s strongman, Viktor Orbán, was among the first to understand the potency of mixing social conservatism and big government. His stunning 2010 victory, on the back of a deep economic crisis and a decade of polarisation driven largely by the failures and corruption of the post-communist left, allowed him to get high on his own supply, interpreting his mandate as a license to turn the country into a personal fiefdom – rewriting the constitution and the electoral law, building a government-friendly media empire, forging corrupt ties with Moscow and Beijing, and reviving nationalist dreams of a Great Hungary.
Do not let aspiring authoritarians capture the socially conservative, big government space
Orbán’s political acumen and his authoritarianism are separable and in fact ought to be studied in isolation. The uneven playing field he created in Hungarian politics explains only in part why the opposition has been divided for so long. The other part of the explanation has to do with the fact that Fidesz’s big-government, anti-immigration, socially conservative platform comfortably occupies the centre ground of Hungary’s politics, forcing left-leaning liberals in the opposition to join forces with former neo-Nazis in order to stand a fighting chance in the 2022 election.
There is a simple lesson for political leaders across the Western world who do not want their countries to become the next Hungary: do not let aspiring authoritarians capture the socially conservative, big government space.
That may come too late for Poland, where the right-wing Law and Justice Party government rode to a comfortable victory in 2019 on the back of its expansion of the country’s social safety nets. Elsewhere, however, the rush of mainstream politicians to fill the new centre is proceeding at full speed, regardless of ideological labels.
As the recent local elections show, Labour is out of its depth trying to compete with Boris Johnson’s highly effective combination of big spending and patriotic messaging. In Denmark, Mette Frederiksen’s Social Democrats are riding high in the polls as the party of the welfare state and restrictive immigration policy. As Emmanuel Macron braces for the 2022 race by confronting France’s version of multiculturalism, “communautarisme,” tantamount in his eyes to Islamic separatism, he is no longer the darling of the woke English-speaking press. And due to Covid-19, he is more likely to end his first term as a big spender rather than the pro-market reformer that he was in 2017.
In all of these instances, the shifts in policy outlooks seem to proceed without much danger to democratic institutions. Needless to say, voters’ cultural and social sensibilities on both sides of the Atlantic are very distant from the “English faculty at Amherst.” And in Europe as well as in the United States, getting “free” stuff from the government remains popular. According to YouGov, only 20 percent of Britons think the government is spending too much on welfare benefits and a mere 5 percent want to spend less on pensions – only 2 percent feel similarly about education. (The only part of the budget that a majority want to see reduced is overseas aid, accounting for less than 2 percent of the UK’s budget and around 0.7 percent of GDP.) In the United States, 54 percent of Americans say that “the government should do more to solve our country’s problems” – the highest proportion since 1992. Perhaps the system does work, in a Menckenian fashion, to deliver to “the common people” what they think they want and “deserve to get good and hard.”
True, there are special cases, such as Poland and Hungary, where this realignment occurred at the hands of forces seeking to rewrite the rules of the political game. America is another special case. Trump’s GOP demolished the Blue Wall in 2016 but delivered only on the front of cultural grievances, social conservatism (“the judges!”), immigration restrictions – and a disrespect for democratic institutions culminating in the embrace of the insurrection on January 6.
In the 2020 election, Joe Biden patched the Democratic coalition back together and seems intent on keeping it alive by a massive growth of government spending and by staying away, as much as possible, from the woke causes du jour. Whether he can succeed in the latter in spite of the country’s cultural elites and become an American Mette Frederiksen of sorts is an open question. It is also unclear how the post-Trump GOP will deal with its self-inflicted insurrectionist stigma. Moreover, can the party be sustained purely on a diet of cultural grievance – or will the tension between the “beer and blue jeans party” distrustful of big corporations on one hand, and the embrace of low taxes and scorching critiques of “left-wing socialist giveaways” on the other stop making sense to prospective voters?
Whatever the future holds for America’s unwieldy system of two big-tent political parties, it is safe to assert that over the past ten years the focus on authoritarian populism – which has had real consequences in some countries without being pervasive across Western democracies – unduly overshadowed the arguably more lasting political shift: the emergence of a new, socially conservative and economically statist, political centre.
One does not have to be in love with the new dispensation, which will likely leave classical liberals and traditional “fusionist” conservatives (as well as woke progressives) as minority factions within political coalitions dominated by others. But there is a world of difference between policies that one does not like and the predicted “twilight of democracy.” And if the former is a price for avoiding the latter, I think that we might have a deal.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe