In Germany, center-right Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats are in trouble. In the neighboring Czech Republic, the country’s mainstream parties “find themselves in an advanced state of decay,” says Karel Schwarzenberg, the former Foreign Minister, ex-presidential candidate, and friend of Václav Havel. Enter billionaire populist Andrej Babiš. It is happening across the West, this loosening of voter ties to traditional parties, these vacuums being filled.
Lawmakers who “owe just about everything to him [are] perfect foot soldiers” for a leader with “an expansive notion of power.” He has “almost unchecked authority … building a fawning cult of personality.” No, this is not a description of a Trump second term. That’s the New York Times on French President Emanuel Macron, a “liberal authoritarian,” as some French observers note.
Something structural is afoot.
Back in 2015, the American Enterprise Institute’s Gary J. Schmitt—now a TAI contributing editor—had a bead on Donald J. Trump: His policies were “substantively an inch deep and bombastically a mile wide. . . his flippant comments, vulgar attacks on opponents, and appeals to the public’s anger and fears … demagogic.” But, writing in the Weekly Standard at the time, Schmitt also identified something arguably more important. Wrote Schmitt:
At some level, candidates should reflect the party’s principles. Or, at least, that was the original intent for creating modern political parties. Otherwise, voting would be a matter of choosing this or that personality on a ballot who might or might not be anchored to some broader substantive program. […] It is a rather remarkable thing that a political party has so little say over who its nominee is. . . . Political parties should not have to follow their putative leader, lemming-like, off the proverbial cliff.
Prescient. Babiš and Macron created their own parties of One. We will see about the shape of a post-Merkel Germany. In the United States, the Republican Party has become the party of Trump.
Irish political scientist Peter Mair was arguing before his death in 2011 that the decline of political parties was leading to a hollowing out of representative democracy. To revive and sustain themselves, contended Mair, political parties would need to act both responsibly and responsively. As we know by now, a glaring lack of the latter has led to populism galore. “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” quipped recently the American Secretary of State.
The abdication of elites has gotten us into the current bind, and now a paradox. We trust neither experts nor government. Yet we need expertise and a managerial class to lead us out of our mess. We also need stable, healthy political parties to re-anchor our democracy. Unless, of course, you believe Mr. Trump, in his “great and unmatched wisdom,” has it all covered. Today’s “Forgotten Man” may see Trump as his advocate. But the President also happens to be a reckless fabricator, avid conspiracy theorist, and self-adoring narcissist who seeks to consolidate power by manipulating a pliant, subservient following. None of this can be good for fixing democracy. Or for tackling the nation’s problems.
None of this is to absolve the left. Multiculturalism and identity politics bear responsibility for American malaise. Part of the blame for the new populism lies with those who pushed a large policy agenda well ahead of any democratic consensus among the American electorate. We see more trouble ahead in the neo-Marxism, woolly-headed internationalism, and run-away political correctness of progressives.
TAI remains determined to look for the bigger picture, working chiefly to help rebuild a broad political and intellectual center. We want relevant, gritty detail, but without the inane food fights. Through convening and publishing, we will do our best to create a platform for gifted writers and thinkers—both seasoned and early-career—to tackle the problems our readers care most about.
In the current print issue, arriving in mid-February, Tyler Cowen explains his optimism for liberalism, democracy, and capitalism. This, while Elisabeth Braw finds evidence—in history and language—of eroding democratic culture. Karina Orlova sees in the movie Joker warnings of how social media are changing protest and participation. Her take might surprise you. In reviewing The War on Normal People, Philip A. Wallach appreciates Andrew Yang’s sincerity and lack of pretension—even as he finds the presidential candidate’s case for universal basic income wanting.
Still, two cheers for anything that steers us away from Trumpism—and to a politics and public policy both responsive and responsible.