I wouldn’t be the first to observe that Donald Trump never uses the words “freedom” or “liberty”. In the United States, a Republican presidential candidate who avoids those terms – someone who doesn’t gloss every speech with talk of shining cities on hills – is like a baker who doesn’t use flour.
Trump also rarely talks about “left” and “right” and those movements’ foot soldiers, “liberals” and “conservatives”. Odd, isn’t it? Left and right are the defining concepts of American politics, yet a Republican candidate was able to dominate the primary season without mentioning them at all.
There’s a reason: Western political systems are in the middle of a realignment. The way we think of left and right is a relic of the Cold War. Reality is finally catching up with us, several years late, and doing away with obsolete political movements and parties.
We saw direct evidence of this when, on both sides of the Atlantic, ordinary people finally had a chance to circumvent their nations’ political elites. In the United States, Trump used his wealth and high profile to sidestep party donors, special-interest groups and political correctness.
In the United Kingdom, the referendum on European Union membership vested power temporarily in the British voting public, not Cabinet ministers or party whips.
These unusual circumstances exposed profound but long-hidden fault lines in both countries’ political systems. I knew these fault lines existed, but I was surprised by how quickly they devastated the status quo.
The American conservative movement, for instance, at least as we knew it before Trump’s entry into the presidential race last summer, no longer exists. Whether by accident or design, Trump ignored the reference points of left and right, putting together a coalition of Middle Americans who don’t care about ideological purity. Coming from old-fashioned Democratic and Republican backgrounds, these voters are united by a cultural conservatism that used to be standard in both parties. They care about pragmatic action on a handful of issues, mainly immigration, political correctness, crime and jobs.
Something similar happened in Britain. Outside the London cloister, Labour voters overwhelmingly rejected the metropolitan version of left-wing politics. Along with many shire Tories, they have specific views on sovereignty, independence and immigration. Just as in the US, this broad cultural conservatism used to be a given within each party until cosmopolitanism took its place.
We are heading for a politics in which the divisions are no longer just left and right, at least not in the sense we’ve used those terms for the past few decades. The shift is splitting all current movements into nationalist and internationalist wings – or perhaps populist and establishment, middle class and upper class, or urban and provincial.
This is happening because so many of the traditional features of left and right no longer apply to them. A working-class white person seeking representation used to find it in the left. Now what does he get? A movement telling him to check his “privilege”. A conservative used to be able to count on the right to make the case for cultural assimilation. Now he, too, is told to be quiet and make way for “progress”.
Though there are obvious differences between the major left-wing and right-wing parties, their similarities are too broad and deep for many voters. Mainstream Democratic and Labour leaders support large-scale migration into their countries; mainstream Republicans and Tories do so as well, in practice if not in theory. All mainstream liberals and conservatives support free trade, and all are equally likely to regard sceptics of pure free trade as rather “challenged” individuals.
If “left” traditionally meant state control of the economy, why does today’s left spurn trade regulation? Because the left is internationalist. But the right, at least nowadays, is also internationalist. All bien pensant liberals and conservatives support membership of the European Union. All sides frame foreign policy debates in terms of helping foreigners: taking in refugees, “liberating” other nations and the like. Believing that a country’s foreign policy should primarily benefit that country’s citizens is now akin to revealing some perverted fetish.
Millions of Americans and Britons don’t accept a bipartisan consensus that was formed without their input or permission. Its partisans grew so resistant to reform they treated their own citizens as a kind of plague to be contained in the hinterlands, not as stakeholders with genuine concerns.
How did this mushy consensus come about? That’s a difficult question. One thing’s for certain: The political elite misread the fall of communism. They thought, as the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama did, that history had ended, and that at the climax of this great Hegelian unfolding was a Western liberal democracy that would never die.
This bred arrogant complacency – the belief that you could sit back, relax and think only about small matters like tax rates. Why worry about immigration? After all, history was over. We had won. The little people would soon see how glorious the future would be.
Meanwhile, globalisation had already begun to destroy many traditional communities, jobs and ways of life. And when these forgotten men and women looked to their leaders for help, they found only laughter and scorn. After 25 years of that, what did they expect?
Robert Wargas is the Catholic Herald’s foreign correspondent.
This article first appeared in the July 15 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.