What a difference 30 years makes. In the early 1990s, thanks to Francis Fukuyama’s celebrated “End of History” thesis, the gist of which was that liberalism had won the war of ideas, and Thomas Friedman’s best-selling Lexus and the Olive Tree, a full-throated paean to globalization, the air was thick with optimism. Liberal democracy and market capitalism were, it appeared, the wave of the future. Democracy promotion was all the rage in think tanks and universities. Linearity seemed to be destiny.
Now, however, Fukuyama ruminates about democracy’s decline. Friedman, with nary a blush, blames globalization, once his salvationist Zeitgeist, for having produced economic inequality and social disruption. Indeed, dire warnings about democracy’s death (not merely its decline) abound, and talk of “de-globalization” and tariff wars has become commonplace—and in places like Bloomberg.com no less.
In the wake of the pessimism prevalent in the center, a “populist” politics has re-emerged and shaken the world’s democracies. Given that leaders like Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, and Matteo Salvini exemplify the moment, we generally associate this approach with the right. But a similar tendency to suggest simplistic solutions to complex problems can be found as much on the far left. The right typically proposes policies that promise to restore some real or imagined glorious past, while the left typically proffers some future utopia.
That this kind of un-nuanced politicking emerges at both ends of the political spectrum should not be surprising. Elections are the core of democracy, and success involves attracting a majority of votes—which in turn means making broad appeals that at times promise the sky to voters. In that sense, democracy encourages politicians to place their rhetoric within a populist frame, and it has done so for a long time. No politician gets elected—or stays in office—by arguing that problems are unsolvable, that patience is necessary, and that better days are decades away. Real solutions are, however, always complex and hard and take time—but complexity and patience aren’t words that inspire.
These points lead to a surprising conclusion: Centrists may also drift toward populism, if only in an effort to take some wind out of left- and right-wing populists’ sails. One recent example is Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera, held up by Omar Encarnacion as a centrist who is also “Spain’s top populist.” In the event, Rivera’s maneuvers came to naught, and he resigned the party’s leadership after its dismal electoral showing in the November 2019 elections.
Although centrists can also be populists, the main event is populism on the right and left. Both variants and their practitioners understand the art of simpleminded politics instinctively. They offer simple answers to complicated questions, and in ways that centrists dedicated to market capitalism, individualism, liberal democracy, and its technocratic apparatus generally do not. Left- and right-wing populists don’t stress the individual as the agent of change, but instead valorize a larger collectivity (nation, class, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual minority, disrespected non-elite) to which the individual belongs. This narrative envelops people in some larger community, rather than reinforcing their existential loneliness. Moreover, populists play on people’s sense of injustice (even outrage) and point to some other collectivity or abstraction as the problem, even the villain. The right focuses on the godless, the snobbish and deracinated Davos elite, blacks, immigrants, Jews, and globalization. The left blames greed, capitalism, whites, racism, patriarchy, and cops. The center can only blame bad ideas and inefficient behavior.
Left- and right-wing populism thrives because it points to real problems, but the secret of its success lies in jettisoning tinkering and, instead, promising transformation, drawing stark lines that demarcate good and evil, friend and foe, and swaddling the individual in the comfort of a righteous community of common purpose. For left- and right-wing populists, the thin gruel of individualism, compromise, and gradualism is unsatisfying. They seem to have taken to heart what Erich Fromm underscored in Escape from Freedom—namely that individualism discounts the human desire to be part of something bigger, to be moored in a community or belief system, an insight that was also offered by Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power. As a rule, left and right-wing populisms flourish for the very reasons that undermine centrism and because of the errors that centrists, in their smugness, make.
The left and right may well thrive best in times of severe dislocation: the vanishing (or diminution) of jobs that had been a staple for the working class and that provided the means to middle-class lifestyles; immigration (legal or not) that threatens identity and well-established cultural norms (note the “I want my country back” refrain); and status anxiety (the one-time middle class facing the prospect of becoming the working class, or even the non-working class). Add to all this the heightened polarization that has turned out to be the main byproduct of the internet and social media. These are the main ingredients of the potent brew that sustains today’s febrile politics on both ends of the political spectrum.
How can centrism make a comeback in today’s world, and especially in today’s America? It must reinvent itself and recognize the importance of community and collectivity, and then craft its appeals in ways that voice commitment to both individual and collective rights. And it must do so in a manner that eschews the quest for immediate panaceas and, instead, underscores the inevitability of compromise and gradualism—all while recognizing the pain and anger of those who feel excluded from the benefits of markets and believe that democracy has been hijacked by a well-heeled elite.
That means starting with the recognition that communities, whether constituted by gender, race, sexual orientation, or the nation, matter to people, for reasons both instrumental and emotional and that dismissing them as the politics of a tribalism that will eventually give way to the individualism cherished by liberalism amounts to leaving the door open for populists of the right and the left.
It also means understanding that market capitalism has inevitable, often jarring distributional consequences—that is both its strength and its weakness. Deepening inequality will eventually provoke a political backlash. It cannot be explained away as the inevitable result of the industriousness of some and the indolence of others, at least not in a society in which one’s starting point—the type of neighborhood, the caliber of schools, the opportunities made available, or denied, by the circumstances of birth—has, as economists such as Raj Chetty have shown, much to do with one’s prospects for success. Individual political rights will not ultimately mean much to those who lack the material wherewithal to exercise political agency and therefore feel marginalized, as John Gray presciently pointed out in False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, written in the late 1990s, when Friedman-style globalization was hailed as the only way forward and those who warned of a revolt tended to be dismissed as troglodytes.
The proponents of centrist politics must also understand that “forever wars” in faraway places have imposed huge burdens on a small segment of society, which is generally constituted by its least privileged. When military service is not obligatory and those who do not have to go off to fight and die are not even asked to demonstrate their patriotism by funding, through higher taxes, campaigns that are presented as essential for national security, the faux patriotism of “shared sacrifice,” flag pins, and yellow ribbons won’t suffice to contain the anger of those who have paid the real, and in thousands of instances ultimate, price.
Seen thus, centrists unwittingly laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s triumph in 2016. To see him as an authoritarian—and he is certainly that—who somehow dropped out of the sky absolves liberalism of any responsibility for his success. Trump caught the wave of resentment and rode it to victory, posing, falsely, as the savior of the masses against a haughty elite that had lost all connection with them and their quotidian concerns and struggles.
In short, centrism must come to terms with the conditions that have enabled populism’s left- and right-wing variants to re-emerge. It must find a way to reconcile the tensions between the appeals of collectivity and of individualism and cannot place its bets on the latter alone. Finally, centrism must, when pressed to the wall, be willing to engage in populist rhetoric. That wouldn’t mean abandoning liberalism, individualism, or the market. But it would mean embracing a rough-house form of democratic politics.
Today’s populist luminaries will inevitably depart the scene—the iron logic of the actuarial process will ensure that, no matter how politically adept they prove to be—but the larger lessons of their victories will remain. The question is whether centrists will have learned anything from them—and from their own blunders. If they do not, any revival of centrism will be followed by a resurgence of populist movements, on the right and left.