First there was Brexit, then came Donald Trump. The Dutch general election is scheduled for March, the French presidential election in late April and early May. In September, the German establishment faces its voters. Expect more of the same. A politics of meaning is upstaging the politics of interests.
Analysts will sift through voting data – including the exit polls that showed that 52 per cent of Catholics voted for Trump – to explain his stunning victory. Many already fix on the economic distress caused by globalisation. Others speak about turnout among voters who are working class (to use that increasingly archaic and ill-suited term).
These and other ways of thinking about Trump’s victory are legitimate. But they miss the larger trend. Voters feel vulnerable and abandoned. “I want my country back,” they say. Pundits claim this reflects a nostalgic desire for factory jobs and white, male supremacy. Wrong. It’s a plaintive, metaphysical cry for something solid and enduring, something that commands our devotion, and in so doing ennobles our lives.
As I observed last month in these pages, our culture is now dominated by a disenchantment both endorsed and advanced by Western elites. In the Anglosphere – which after 1989 became globally dominant – progressives and conservatives alike interpret almost everything in terms of the politics of interests, even the fundaments of public life. Patriotism? A mask for ethnocentrism. Marriage? A patriarchal institution serving male interests. Vocations? Doctors offer services to customers; teachers cater to educational consumers. Even the natural difference between men and women has been reinterpreted as an instrument by which some (the “cisgendered”, ie those not transgender) exercise power over others. Our political imaginations wilt in the metaphysical desert of a simplified Foucault and debased Hayek.
We should have known that men would not tolerate this poverty forever. Populism is sweeping through the West. It defies traditional categories of left and right, if by those terms we mean the interests of labour as against those of capital. It is, however, always described as “right wing”. This is because populism seeks a consolidation of the collective will to break the power of the status quo.
This stands in contrast to contemporary progressives, both left and right. Today, the left is the party of “diversity” and “inclusion”. The right advocates market freedom and “innovation”. Both aim at a cosmopolitan, post-political utopia of ever-expanding opportunities, for self-invention on the one hand and economic growth on the other. This requires the weakening of collective loyalties, common loves and other strong consolidating, unifying forces in society.
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