The establishment lacks imagination. The nationalists lack skill. Who will prevail?
Why I'm pessimistic about the great political conflict of our time
Finally the great battle between open society and national solidarity is at hand.
France has clarified the political stakes of our time by replacing the traditional left and right with a sharper division between the internationalist establishment and the populist nationalists. You could make out this fissure last year when the U.K. voted to leave the European and the U.S. elected Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but this time it's crystalline.
Some people have been waiting a long time for this divide to emerge. I might have been one of them once, but now that it's here, I can only see it ending in tears.
The establishmentarians believe the old system has problems, but nothing that can't be fixed by their proper technocratic management. Perhaps a little more redistribution to globalization's losers via a steeper tax on corporations, for instance. They live in the great global cities, and their idea for building consensus towards the redistribution of resources is to first try to redistribute esteem. This happens to be a great excuse to not think all that hard about the nuts and bolts of politics, and spend more time in their private lives obsessing about getting into precisely the best real estate arrangement, the right neighborhood and schools that will protect their own wealth.
The problem for the establishmentarians is that they're privately as exhausted by the world that made them winners as everyone else is. To enter into this high stakes game in the mega cities, they have to work insane hours. This is not a status quo that looks primed to inspire loyalty over the long term.
On a few of the major questions of the day, the nationalists seem to have it right. National governments are where governing decisions can be given democratic legitimacy. The post-1989 consensus politics began breaking down in earnest after 9/11, and went into freefall after the global financial crisis. The rate of immigration into rich countries has been unsustainably high and contributed to inequality.
The problem is that it seems the great majority of capable, hard-working, and decent people are establishmentarians. And the nationalist side is dangerously over-weighted with second raters and worse: simplifiers, cranks, opportunists, and haters.
That's a problem because successful ideological revolutions are usually led by very capable people who had been excluded from the normal positions of power and influence. Idiots and opportunists can ruin and discredit the politics of a movement, especially an insurgency.
So far, the nationalists have achieved their greatest successes by simply scaring the establishment into adopting their ideas. France's Socialist President Francois Hollande co-opted policies that had been supported only by the far-right National Front after waves of terror attacks forced his hand. And in Britain, the U.K. Independence Party and Tory backbenchers were able to transfer their primary cause to the Conservative leadership through the shock success of the Brexit referendum.
But that tricky bank shot doesn't allay my pessimism. The establishmentarians and the nationalists seem unable to imagine a compromise with the other. These electoral contests look less like national debates and more like winner-take-all wars in which one side makes off with all the spoils of the state. One French major responded to the news that his town voted for the National Front's Marine Le Pen by saying, "It is possible that I will resign because I do not want to devote my life to assholes."
This is a precarious place to be. And so far no one has shown the imagination or skill to navigate us through it.