The political system we have known since 1945 is coming to an end. The parties that seemed so permanent in the late 20th century are crumbling almost everywhere. The reason we don’t see it in the United States is because of the primaries system, which forces the existing parties to absorb new currents rather than be washed away by them.
But both the protectionist Republicans and the identitarian Democrats are, for all intents and purposes, different parties now.
As I write, I am waiting for the results of the European election, which the U.K. held on Thursday. (Most of Europe, having no Protestant hang-ups about the Sabbath, votes on Sunday, so Britain isn’t allowed to count its ballots until then.) Still, I don’t need to see the figures to write, with certainty, that this will be the worst result for Labour in a century and the worst result for the Conservatives in that party’s 185-year history.
True, these are special circumstances. The U.K. is in the absurd position of holding an election to the European Parliament three years after voting to leave the EU. You don’t need any clever psephology to explain why that makes the established parties unpopular. But a breakdown on this scale doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is the culmination of tendencies that have been building for decades.
I wrote here a couple of years back about the collapse of the Old Left. Across the Western world, I observed, traditional social democratic and labor parties were disappearing, because the sorts of people they were created to defend were becoming thinner on the ground. The world of industrialized workforces, collective bargaining, and syndicalism no longer exists. Most millennials will never have “a job” as we understood that concept in the 20th century. Their lives, rather, are likely to involve spells of self-employment interspersed by regular reskilling and bursts of contract work. In such a world, parties tied to big labor unions look archaic.
Since I wrote that piece, the traditional Left has made one partial comeback, winning Spain’s general election last month. Yet, Spain may turn out to be the exception that proves the rule. Spanish Leftists (like Spanish Rightists) march to ancestral drums that are inaudible to the rest of us. The issues that sparked that country’s civil war (anti-clericalism, anti-fascism, anti-communism, regional separatism) have a continuing resonance there precisely because the conflict was so monstrous and so tragic. At the recent election, for example, there was a big argument about whether to disinter the body of Francisco Franco, who currently lies entombed, pharaoh-like, in the Valley of the Fallen, with the remains of his soldiers and his enemies around him.
In other words, the Spanish Left benefited from fighting a culture war rather than a normal election campaign about the economy, schools, and so on. A big part of the socialist party’s campaign was rooted in opposition to the insurgent Rightist party, Vox, which socialists enjoyed portraying as Francoist. Such campaigns, I’m afraid, look like the future for advanced democracies.
The acceleration of technology that is putting the Old Left out of business is hardly an unmixed blessing for conservatives. Margaret Thatcher loved to talk about “a property-owning democracy,” having borrowed the concept, if not the phrase, from the American Founders. But look at how teenagers relate to property these days. They don’t own music or movies. They are less and less likely, in the age of Uber, to own cars. They are less likely, too, to own their homes. In consequence, the old conservative promise — work hard and we’ll make sure you get to keep the rewards — no longer has the same resonance.
These debates are taking place in the context of unprecedentedly high living standards. Poverty as it was defined for thousands of years, the want of food and shelter, barely exists anymore in Western countries. And so, perhaps inevitably, it’s no longer the economy, stupid. The successful politicians are the ones who are good at picking fights. Their target could be “the 1%” or Muslims or “banksters” or remote elites or biased media or illegal immigrants or even, incredibly after all this time, Jews.
Seen in this context, the coarsening of political discourse suddenly makes sense. It turns out that populism, in the sense of angry campaigns against some supposed domestic enemy, isn’t a product of poverty, but of plenty. With more time on our hands than any previous generation, we fill it by raging against our fellow citizens over what would once have seemed relatively minor issues. The Right becomes more authoritarian, the Left more extreme. Such are the unlikely challenges of prosperity.