The United States will elect a new president in November. France will do the same early next year. In both countries, the political Establishment is under assault from outsiders: Donald Trump in the U.S., Marine Le Pen in France. Both candidates have mastered a belligerent rhetoric combining bluster, innuendo, racism, xenophobia, and ridicule or slander of opponents with a carefully calibrated faux frankness intended to bolster their claims to reveal truths that other politicians have allegedly conspired to conceal.
Despite high negative ratings, both Trump and Le Pen have also exceeded all expectations, exposed deep rifts in their respective electorates, and struck fear into political, economic, and intellectual elites who, despite evidence of growing voter alienation over a period of many years, could never quite bring themselves to imagine the depth of resentment their monopoly of acceptable political discourse inspired.
Notwithstanding these similarities, there are also substantial differences between the two countries.
The American political system has become increasingly polarized over several decades. In the U.S. Democrats and Republicans differ profoundly over the appropriate role of government, the legitimacy and size of the welfare state, the division of powers between federal and state governments, and the need for protection of minority rights. Both sides have been frustrated, and occasionally incensed, on the one hand by the power of Congress to thwart presidential initiatives, on the other hand by the arrogance of executive fiat and foreign-policy adventurism. Rage against the system, festering for years, has this year erupted into the open.
Although the recovery of the U.S. economy from the Great Recession looks robust when compared to Europe, the benefits of recovery have been unevenly shared, and the reluctance to punish private-sector actors deemed responsible for the crash and perceived as having profited from the bailout has contributed to the backlash against the Democratic nominee, who was imprudent enough to accept large payments for speeches to Goldman Sachs.
In France, by contrast, what fuels the rage is not extreme polarization of the political system but rather the opposite: the charge, honed to perfection by Marine Le Pen, that there is no difference between the two major parties, the Socialists and the Republicans. Ignore their campaign rhetoric, she exhorts her followers: The parties only pretend to be different. Focus instead on what they do in power. Both are subservient to “outside forces”—European Union bureaucrats, “neoliberal” financiers, multinational corporations—that have hollowed out France’s national sovereignty and subjected French workers to the corrosive forces of global capitalism. Both have cut taxes on corporations, allowed foreign-born workers to compete for jobs and welfare benefits, and presided over the collapse of French manufacturing and the seemingly irreversible rise of unemployment.
Unlike American right-wingers, Le Pen is not hostile to big government or the welfare state. France needs a powerful state to keep the foreigners out, she argues, and the only problem with the welfare state is that too much money is being spent on immigrants.
Win or lose, these two insurgent candidacies, one French, the other American, will transform politics going forward. How this is likely to play out is already evident in France. The extreme has infected the mainstream, and the boundaries of acceptable political discourse have bent accordingly.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy is vying with a handful of rivals for the Republican nomination in the upcoming presidential election. As president, one of Sarkozy’s first acts back in 2007 was to convene a conference on the environment to consider ways to slow France’s production of greenhouse gases. His initial choice to preside over that conference was the man who has emerged as his chief rival for the presidential nomination, Alain Juppé.
But now, taking a leaf from Donald Trump’s playbook, Sarkozy has decided that consistency on such an important matter of policy is of no use in wooing voters and that respect for scientific findings is no way to command headlines. The cannier strategy is to attack the consensus of the respectable, to show that one is tough enough to “stand up to authority.” Sarkozy therefore announced the other day that he no longer believes that man should be held responsible for impending environmental disaster: “We human beings must be arrogant to think that it is we who cause climate change.” The former champion of sound environmental policy has become a climate change denier.
Sarkozy has also moved to outflank Marine Le Pen on her right on immigration, religious, and security issues. He now opposes admitting immigrants for the purpose of family reunification. He wants to extend the ban on Muslim headscarves from public schools to universities and has proposed suspending normal legal protections for thousands of French citizens merely suspected of links to radical Islam, even in the absence of overt acts. Like Trump, he attempts to project an aura of unremitting toughness and scornful disdain for legal niceties.
Still, given the differences already mentioned between the situations of France and the United States, it is reasonable to ask why the political establishments in both countries are facing such radical assaults on their legitimacy and competence. And such assaults are not limited to France and the United States. From the shock of Brexit to the inability of any of the Spanish parties to form a government to the populist takeovers of important city governments in places such as Rome and Madrid and even the surprising strength of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, wherever we look we see extremism, anger, instability, and disruption. What is it that transcends national boundaries to create the profound political turmoil we find across the Western world?
A clue to the nature of the anxiety that is shaking the foundations of liberal democracy everywhere can be found in the penchant of politicians like Trump and Le Pen and Sarkozy to divide the electorate between us and them.
Trump launched his campaign with an assault on Mexican immigrants, whom he associated with rapists and killers. Similarly, Sarkozy declared that France today is “having trouble not with all religions but with only one of them,” Islam, making it crystal clear which segment of the population he wished to separate from us, the good citizens, and identify as the unwelcome, dangerous, hostile other—them.
When his rival Juppé published a book referring to France’s “happy identity”—a response to intellectual Alain Finkielkraut’s lament of what he describes as the “unhappy identity” inflicted on France by an admixture of foreign elements and consequent decay of once potent and cohesive French traditions—Sarkozy counterattacked by asserting that there could be no happy French identity as long as citizens born and raised in France grew up to “hate” their fatherland and “despise” its laws. But apart from stigmatizing them and proposing their exclusion from the body politic or outright incarceration, the former president had no more to offer the French than Trump offers Americans with his promises of impenetrable walls and mass deportations.
Beyond the economic discontents implicated in democracy’s malaise, it is hard to avoid seeing a profound cultural anxiety, a near panic in the face of changes in the mix of languages, histories, religions, manners, customs, and habits of mind—what Tocqueville called mores—that shape what the French call our vivre-ensemble, or living together, and civilize our politics. Politicians like Trump, Sarkozy, and Le Pen seek to exploit rather than reduce the cultural differences that have slowly accumulated to the point where they must now be squarely faced. If they succeed in their attempt to drive a wedge between us and them, we can expect the polarization of today’s politics to devolve into something far worse than mere gridlock, something resembling tribal warfare.