Is a “political realignment” happening under our own eyes?

The idea of a fundamental change in the way people divide politically has been around at least since Donald Trump won the Presidential race and the Brexit referendum in England. People tend to believe that the new fault line will be between “anywheres” and “somewheres”, to borrow the terms used by David Goodhart: that is, between those who, broadly speaking, support globalisation and those who oppose it. The first do embrace a certain view of the open society, the latter do not.

On what such a realignment may imply, I recommend to listen to IEA’s Steve Davies (for example, here). What seems most relevant, at least to me, is that cultural issues seem to be more prominent over economic ones. Instead of coalescing around questions of taxation and redistribution, people may increasingly get more likely to do so around ideas of how their society should look like: if immigrants are to be allowed in or not, if gay people should be allowed to get married or not, et cetera. The American Left has been a forerunner of this phenomenon, with its growing reliance on identity policy, which in Europe is going by and large to the benefit of right-wing parties that are (so far, successfully) rebranding nationalism in a new guise for our times.

It is not clear, of course, that such a realignment is truly an *international* phenomenon. Political cultures vary sharply in different countries, and so do the electoral system, that may either facilitate or obstruct the process. It seems to me that the process may be easier with a pure proportional representation system and more difficult with first past the post electoral systems.

French economist Jean Pisani-Ferry thinks the next European elections (June 2019) are a grand opportunity for such realignment to take place – and yet he fears it may not happen.

The European Parliament elections would be a great opportunity because EU countries elect their MEPs in different ways, but they all use some form of proportional representation. On top of that, voters tend to perceive European elections as the equivalent of some sort of gigantic opinion poll, as they perceive the vote as not affecting their own national government. So, it may well be that European elections allow for bold experimentation.

Pisani Ferry holds that “both [Hungary premier] Orbán and [French President] Macron seem to think that the European Parliament election in 2019 will bring about a political realignment”: on one side those who accept globalisation and (and a relatively freer movement of persons) and those who do not. I’m not completely sure this is a fair representation, as Macron looks to me as a leader investing a great deal in French nationalism, but let’s go along with this.

For Pisani Ferry, “European politics has long been structured along a left-right divide” but

In more than a handful of countries, however, this divide no longer characterizes the political scene. In Poland, Hungary, and most of Central Europe, the key confrontation is between illiberal nationalists and pro-European liberals. In France, the choice in 2017 was not between left and right, but between Macron, the champion of openness (whose campaign I advised), and Marine Le Pen, his exact opposite. And in Italy, both center-right and center-left forces have been marginalized by two new anti-system parties with roots in the far right and the far left.

Indeed, today’s most divisive issues – economic openness, Europe, and immigration – do not pit the center left and the center right against each other. … For next year’s European Parliament election to bring greater clarity on the issues that matter for Europe, new camps would need to be formed. Despite cracks on both sides, this is unlikely to happen.

Pisani Ferry’s piece is interesting and thoughtful. My modest caveat however is that left and right have very rarely been associated with clear political philosophies. That may have happened in a few key moments in recent history, say Thatcher vs Kinnock or Carter vs Reagan, but for the most part, people are bound together in their allegiances even though their beliefs overlap up to a point.

I find the scenario of a realignment around cultural issues potentially terrifying. It seems to me that advocates of a closed society have an advantage in forging an alliance with advocates of a closed economy: they tend to be highly ideological and, thus, committed. On the other hand, with the exception of libertarians, the preference for a freer economy is a rather “weak”, cold blooded, reasoned choice that people understand to be intertwined with a bunch of trade offs (I’m in a favour of a relatively freer economy insofar as my local grocery doesn’t get overwhelmed by Amazon’s competition, et cetera). I’m not so sure, once again: with the exception of libertarians, how easy is it for people that care about civil rights to forge an alliance with those who want a freer economy? Some of the latter are genuinely conservative people, some of the first think that part of their own civil rights advocacy entail redistribution-as-retribution (affirmative actions and the likes).

The old political allegiances were confused and incoherent for a reason: it is very difficult to develop coherent ones.