The political centre needs to ditch the haughty indifference and start fighting populism.
Sometimes the simplest insights can be the most revelatory. This was very much my feeling on reading a recent article by Simon Reich. The Rutgers University Professor argues that the traditional political division between left and right is now being replaced by a division between “ cosmopolitans favouring economic globalisation, multiculturalism and integration on the one hand and populists who favour local rule, managed trade and a greater regulation of money and people on the other”.
Events seem to increasingly confirm Reich’s perspective. The growing dominance of Eastern Europe by chauvinistic, illiberal governments, the recent Presidential election in Austria, the popularity of Marine Le Pen in France, the selection of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, the unexpectedly strong showing for Bernie Sanders, the transformation of the British Labour Party into a Marxist tribute act and the rise of anti-austerity parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain can all be seen as part of a global pattern. Populism is a backlash against the cosmopolitan political centre that has governed Europe and America since the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
Once one sees this pattern, it changes your political perspective in two radical ways.
Firstly, it means recognising that this new populism is very serious and very real. It is not a fringe affair anymore: it is a genuine and growing political threat to the principles and policies that have made our world a more tolerant, freer and wealthier place.
Secondly, it requires acceptance that populism is not a fad. It is being powered by deep shifts in attitudes towards political elites and representative democracy, the fury of economic groups who have suffered since the 2008 Crash combined with the dismay of a younger generation facing financial and employment insecurity.
This matters enormously because it should have a profound effect on the way cosmopolitans and centrists respond to the threat. It should consign the supercilious attitude that dismisses populism as some sort of childish silliness to the bin. A perfect example of this deeply complacent perspective was produced by the esteemed journalist George F. Will in The Washington Post just three days ago. Such views are common on the political centre and are regularly promoted by the otherwise excellent columnists John Rentoul and Janan Ganesh. It is a perspective that encourages the highly misleading belief that we can always rely on the sensible majority to defeat populists at elections: one of those views that is true until it isn’t by which point it’s too late.
Equally importantly the recognition of this new divide should encourage political leaders to be crystal clear on which side they stand.
Viewed through the prism of the battle between populists and cosmopolitans, it is absurd that cosmopolitan figures like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Steve Hilton are campaigning furiously for Brexit seemingly unaware that such a move would be an unprecedented boost to the protectionist, chauvinstic political forces now on the march across Europe.
It also means that Republican politicians currently biting their tongues to give half-hearted backing to Trump are wrong if they think they are playing a short game. The battle to save the cosmopolitan vision could last for many years and giving the populists any succour will only heighten their chances of victory and prolong the fight.
In short, it’s high time the forces of tolerance, openness and freedom not only recognised that there is a battle afoot but got ready to fight back.
My book ‘Small is Powerful: Why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over’ is published on 30th June. You can follow me on Twitter here.