To a public looking for a sign in these troubled political times a trio of recent developments must seem like auguries. The first was the slow demise of Angela Merkel’s career. The Guardian writes that despite “clear political principles, exemplified by her brave, open-door migration policy and willingness to stand up to Donald Trump” her career is manifestly over. Voters in Bavaria have rejected her political party.
The end of the Merkel era could have dire implications for the future cohesiveness of Europe and the EU. … Of the two other leading regional powers, Britain, a traditional ally of Berlin, has become a liability, wholly preoccupied with a mutually damaging Brexit process that is setting a worrying EU precedent. In France, meanwhile, the shine has come off Emmanuel Macron only 18 months after his insurrectionary electoral clean sweep. … unemployment is rising again, towards 10%, and economic growth is falling. He has been damaged by high-profile resignations, his mishandling of an Elysée scandal, and his irksome, quasi-Napoleonic arrogance. His personal approval ratings are below 30%.
To the twilight of Merkel must be added the Italian budget revolt. “Europe’s leaders are engaged in a high-stakes standoff with Italy, trying to coerce the populist government to drop its budget-busting spending plan. But how far can they go? Can they risk pushing Italy out of the currency union?” Probably not because unlike Greece ‘Italy is too big to fail yet too big to bail out’.
The third augury comes from Brazil where ‘controversial far-right politician’ Jair Bolsonaro upset ‘left-wing hopeful Fernando Haddad”, only proving as Simon Jenkins of the Guardian glumly observed, that “liberal democracy is proving no match for the lies and hatred spread by social media… one of the world’s most exciting emergent nations … its evolution over 30 years from dictatorship to hesitant democracy seems to have stalled”.
To progressives these events are real head-scratchers. “How a homophobic, misogynist, racist ‘thing’ could be Brazil’s next president” was how Guardian journalist Eliane Brum put it. She was understandably perplexed. Recent events pose an intellectual challenge for those who believed the Arc of History could unfold in only one way. It’s clearly doing something else and not even those inclined to ascribe demonic powers to Trump can attribute all these events to him.
Peter Beinart, writing in the Atlantic, came close to suggesting a larger dynamic when he argued that ‘globalist’ is really a dog whistle for ‘anti-semite’. “The term ‘globalist'”, he wrote, “is … an epithet that is disproportionately directed at a particular minority group. … it becomes a modern-day vessel for an ancient slur: that Jews—whether loyal to international Judaism or international capitalism or international communism or international Zionism—aren’t loyal to the countries in which they live.” Anti-semitism is itself shorthand for a kind of shadowy, malevolent ideology that Beinart suggests has come to torment the world again.
An alternative explanation is that the current upheaval represents the exhaustion of a reinvented social democracy created in the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s defeat of the USSR. Broadly referred to as the Third Way, it is what we refer to as globalism from the period remembered as the ‘End of History’. Blair and Clinton not the Jews were the architects of the global order that is being challenged. As Bill Galston wrote:
The Third Way, the political movement that crested at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, represented the most recent effort to re-imagine the center-left in the face of massive economic and social changes.
At its apogee, when it dominated the politics of United States, the UK, and Germany, it was thought to provide a stable template for governance well into the new century. Confidence ran high that the business cycle had been tamed and that the forces of globalization and technology could be managed for the good of average citizens as well as meritocratic elites.
It was very much a product of its time; it arose in response to the wave that brought conservative governments to power throughout much of the West, beginning with Margaret Thatcher in the UK, followed in quick succession by Ronald Reagan in the United States and Helmut Kohl in what was then West Germany. Politicians and thinkers on the center-Left were forced to reassess the apparent exhaustion of European social democracy and its American cousin, the New Deal. …
The task of reconstructing the center-Left began in the United States. After the Democratic Party had lost its third consecutive presidential election in 1988, a small band of Democratic dissidents (myself included) undertook to modernize their party, succeeding just four years later with the election of ‘New Democrat’ Bill Clinton. This achievement attracted global attention from supporters of the center-Left. As a White House official during Clinton’s first term, I can attest to the fact that representatives of Tony Blair’s New Labour movement were in the building from Day One, taking notes.
It was a grand, glittering vision that hit a snag. China and Russia did not democratize and liberalize as theory held. The September 11 attacks suggested MENA wouldn’t either. The crash of 2008 warned of the danger posed by bad information in the system. By Obama’s second term the Arab Spring, the European migrant crisis, Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine and China’s expansionism should have made it clear the End of History was off course. But Hillary in 2016 somehow managed to miss it even with Brexit staring her staff in the face. Despite its control of conventional wisdom or perhaps because of it, the establishment candidate failed to detect the biggest threat to her candidacy with shocking results.
In retrospect something suggestive was also happening over the same period. The long dominant Google world of centralized servers was running into trouble as the public realized the “globalization” of data was becoming a menace to the world, an instrument of oppression rather than a force for liberation. It now seems possible that the rise decentralized communications infrastructures, cryptomoney and the blockchain was the technical counterpart of the rebellion shaking the political world.
Yet none of these figure in a theory where civilization is simply being mugged by crazies on Twitter. You don’t talk to crazies. A diagnosis that stops with “liberal democracy is proving no match for the lies and hatred spread by social media” has nowhere to go but demand deplatforming and censorware. Beinart’s characterization of the conflict as a contest between “globalism” and “nationalism” at least leaves room for debate, an upgrade from the dismissive analysis of “the only adults in the room versus deplorables”. In Beinart’s formulation the forgotten individual may have gone from being laughed at to being hated but at least it is possible to talk to him. He’s risen enough in the world, through recent developments, to be taken seriously, even if still viewed as a latter day Nazi.
How liberals view the populist insurgency will significantly affect the course of political developments. If they see it as a critique of the Third Way then social democracy may yet evolve into a Fourth Way. The world may learn from its mistakes and find common ground again. But if they continue to regard the opposition as the lunatic ravings of illiterates then it can only lead to a trial of strength which will be intellectually sterile and ultimately destructive.
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Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.
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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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