The great realignment : Who will own the cosmopolitan side of the debate ?

, par Juuso Järviniemi

The great realignment : Who will own the cosmopolitan side of the debate ?
Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, United States. Photo : Rafael Zamora.

Many say that the great Western political conflict of the 21st century won’t be over economic redistribution, but between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, or between modern and “traditional” values. The argument goes that as voters have more food on the table, they start paying more attention to immaterial questions like same-sex marriage and refugee rights.

It’s easy to exaggerate this. For example, two thirds of Donald Trump’s voters in 2016 were from the richest 50% of the electorate − rich people tended to vote for the right-wing candidate, as could be expected. Still, when one looks at the UK, bitterly divided over Brexit and vegan sausage rolls, and France where Emmanuel Macron is opposed by both ends of the political horseshoe, it’s not too wrong to say that times are a-changin’.

In the last century, the centre-right and the centre-left emerged as the two main political forces to represent the cleavage between those who want more taxes and those who want less. On the nationalist−cosmopolitan axis, on the other hand, the nationalists typically seem to be represented by one party or perhaps two (the far-right and the far-left), while a variety of moderate parties are on the rather ‘cosmopolitan’ side, some more avowedly than others.

If the main political choice of tomorrow is between vegan sausages, and “shooting refugees at the border”, can we expect the party system to coalesce around two standard-bearers for these propositions ? And if yes, whose inheritor will the catch-all cosmopolitan party be ? Finally, what does all of this mean for the EU-level party system ?

Who owns progressive values ?

The realignment witnessed so far has benefited different types of progressives in different countries. In France, Emmanuel Macron has, in the end, tended towards the centre-right, while in Germany the Greens are on the rise at the expense of the Social Democrats. The phenomenon is similar but manifests differently according to the national political context. Who successfully brands themselves as the most credible opposition to the evils of nationalism and authoritarian values wins an electoral advantage but so far, the party that comes out on top isn’t the same in every country.

Or perhaps it’s not just one party on either side. What the European Parliament seems to get this spring, more pronouncedly than before, is a coalition of pro-EU, pro-“nice things” (rule of law, free press, human rights and the like) parties faced off against the anti-EU, anti-“nice things” coalition. On the old left-right spectrum, Swedish politics has in the recent years been structured in two coalitions in much the same way. [1] Like in the European elections, then, progressive parties would mainly compete among themselves for who gets to lead the coalition. To take the analogy even further, we may ask if, for example, conservative parties can act as king-makers, like the German liberals often did between the right and the left.

In the UK, the Labour Party is divided over Brexit − the leader on one side, virtually the entire membership on the other, but divided regardless − as a result of which the party leader Jeremy Corbyn is more comfortable preaching on traditional issues of income distribution. More generally, as may be the case for traditional centre-left and centre-right parties, division among a party’s politicians or electorate on the characteristic questions of the 21st century may create obstacles on the way to the progressive throne.

Rebranding is complicated business, which is why it might not be surprising that parties which were specifically created to address the new great cleavage can navigate it better. So far, though, only in France has the newcomer party gained a near-monopoly of the progressive field, perhaps in part due to the somewhat majoritarian electoral system. Elsewhere, one might tentatively expect a progressive coalition led by an avowedly “modern” party but supported by parties defined on the left-right axis. Politics à la Sweden but with a 21st-century twist.

Now translate this to the EU level

The EU-level party system is already a confusing mess without a major realignment taking place at the same time. We might need to face two simultaneous tectonic shifts : the slow emergence of cohesive Europe-wide parties, combined with the shift in the main political cleavages. How do you go about this ?

The ‘great realignment’ happens at a different pace in different countries, and national-level politics simply doesn’t work the same way everywhere. You have France, and then you have Ireland where Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil don’t seem to be going anywhere. As was noted earlier, not even the ‘pure progressives’ come in the same form everywhere. This seems to be one more reason to believe that coalition politics is the likely way forward in the European Parliament.

Maintaining a coalition tends to be harder work than keeping just one party together. In Sweden, the lack of unity over the question of working with the far-right Sweden Democrats has been causing headache for the centre-right alliance. As a result, the Liberals and the Centre Party seem poised to jump to the other side of the fence in the ongoing, prolonged government formation negotiations.

In the European Parliament, then, the job of the various pro-“nice things” groups would be to hold the coalition together. In traditional left-right politics, both sides respect the other’s right to govern if they win the popularity contest next time, while in the 21st-century divide it’s not certain whether the other side will let go of power once it has won it. (Look at Hungary, or the Republicans in the United States.)

Of course, the better the progressive coalition fares, the more room there is for internal squabbles − when you have three-quarters of the seats, you can lose almost a third of your own and still hold the majority, a luxury you can’t afford when it’s 50/50 like in Sweden today. (A bigger majority also means there’s more room for genuine choice between different kinds of progressives.) With “rise of populism”-themed prophecies abounding, it’s still best to be prepared. Whether it’s newcomer parties, traditional ones, or no-one specific who emerge as discernible standard-bearers of 21st-century progressive values, those on the “nice things” side of the divide had better get used to the idea of sticking together, and standing behind whoever in their coalition happens to be strongest at the time.

Notes

[1The Social Democrats tend to work with the Greens and the Left Party, while the centre-right Alliance has comprised the Moderate Party, the Centre Party, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals.

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