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Douthat, Le Pen, Again

Ross Douthat has a follow-up to his piece from Sunday, and it is excellent:

In Europe as in the United States, recent trends in culture and economics have elevated an educated upper class while separating it, geographically and ideologically and in every other way, from a declining and fragmenting working class. In Europe as in the United States, a growing immigrant population serves this upper class while seeming to compete with downscale natives for jobs, housing and social benefits. In Europe as in the United States, the center-left coalition has become a kind of patronage arrangement between the multicultural meritocracy and minority groups both new and old, while the white working class drifts rightward and votes for Brexit, Trump and now Le Pen.

The best piece to read on the French version of this phenomenon comes from Chris Caldwell in City Journal, in which he discusses the work of the French geographer and sociologist Christophe Guilluy, who portrays his nation as increasingly “an ‘American’ society like any other, unequal and multicultural.”

In Guilluy’s account, the tensions between Trumpland and liberal America find their mirror in the tensions between the French republic’s thriving regions and the stagnation and disappointment of “la France périphérique” — a mix of rural areas and cities whose industries have suffered under globalization, and whose inhabitants feel disdained and ignored by the metropoles. And the ethnic tensions that Trump has exploited are mirrored as well, albeit with distinctively French twists — like the role of the vast suburban housing projects, built in the postwar era for a largely native working class and now contested between natives and immigrants. (Caldwell writes: “Guilluy speaks of a ‘battle of the eyes’ fought in the lobbies of apartment buildings across France every day, in which one person or the other — the ethnic Frenchman or the immigrant’s son — will drop his gaze to the floor first.”)

So far, so similar. But as counterintuitive as it may seem — after all, we elected Trump and they have not — in many ways these problems are worse in Europe, part of a systemic crisis that’s more serious than our own.

They’re worse because Europe is stuck with a horribly flawed experiment in political economy, a common currency without a common fiscal policy or a central political authority capable of claiming real legitimacy. The damage that this combination has done to the economies of Southern Europe, in particular, is striking and severe — years of elevated unemployment and stagnation, all of it imposed without democratic accountability by a mostly Northern European caste of bankers and politicians.

They’re worse because Europe has had sub-replacement fertility for much longer than the United States (a trend worsened, there as here, by the Great Recession), which drags on economic growth, increases fiscal burdens, heightens social anomie and makes mass immigration seem more culturally threatening to natives even as it seems more desirable to technocrats.

They’re worse because Europe is a continent of ethno-states without a strong assimilative tradition, and it’s now attempting to integrate an immigrant population that differs from its natives more dramatically — in religion, culture, education, mores — than the immigrant population differs from natives in the United States. And more, part of this immigrant population is tempted by jihadist ideologies that flourish far more easily on European than on American soil, and is linked to neighboring regions whose populations are growing fast enough to promise truly revolutionary migration rates should Europe let them come.

Finally, they’re worse because European governance has a greater democracy deficit than the United States, and because the European ruling class already relies more than its American counterpart on illiberal methods — restrictions on speech that would be the envy of our campus commisars, counterterrorism methods that would make Jeff Sessions blush, even the spread of “voluntary” euthanasia as a solution to age and illness and unhappiness — to maintain the continental peace.

This is a tangle of problems that no single statesman or party, however brilliant, is likely to cut through; they can be only managed, not resolved. But much of elite European politics seems to be organized around the premise that they are really problems only because they might lead to an extremist party taking power. So the important thing is to concentrate every effort on delegitimizing and defeating and excluding critics (be they right wing or, as in many Mediterranean countries, far left) rather than solving the problems that the outsiders often quite accurately identify.

This strategy partially succeeded in Greece, but it failed with Brexit. It should succeed in defeating Le Pen, but it has failed to prevent Poland and Hungary from turning to parties of the populist right.

But even — maybe especially — if it were comprehensively successful, it would still deserve to be discarded, because it represents a dereliction of duty, a refusal to stare actual failure in its face.

Ideally, it would be discarded first by existing parties of the center-right, which would adapt the populist critique and implement an agenda purged of crankishness and bigotry: This seems to be what Theresa May is trying to do in Britain, and I wish her well.

But elsewhere right-of-center parties are either breaking down or simply sticking to the same old playbook, leaving populists as the most viable alternative to the status quo. And the policy alternative that the right-wing populists often offer — hard limits on immigration, new financial support for families, a re-emphasis on national sovereignty, the unwinding of the euro — is in some ways less extreme than the open-borders and onward-to-federalism fantasies still nursed by the elite, and more directly responsive to the elite program’s widespread failure. (It is also considerably more coherent than the right-wing populism of Donald Trump.)

I would place the emphasis in somewhat different places than Douthat does. France has actually done an excellent job historically of assimilating immigrant groups — in part because, historically, it had an extremely strong sense of itself as a culture, such that immigrants actively wanted to assimilate to it. And I am personally skeptical that there is anything distinctly unassimilable about French Islam any more than French Judaism — rather, at this moment in history the house of Islam is going through a collective civilizational nervous breakdown. But I agree strongly with him about the common importance of extremely troubling economic trends, and the distinctive importance of the demographic position of Europe (shrinking as neighboring Africa and the Middle East burgeon) and especially the democratic deficit of European institutions.

But I strongly endorse his point about the failure of the parties of the European center-right to effectively address these questions, and would add only that there is no reason to limit that critique to the center-right. The center-left equally needs to be responsive to the distinctive demands of the moment — and if they are unable to do so, that is equally worthy of vigorous rebuke.

And I think the concluding section of his piece is especially worth the attention of self-styled guardians of the liberal center:

It may be that Le Pen is still too much like her father, or too much like the anti-Islam monomaniac Geert Wilders or the bumptious Nigel Farage or even Trump himself, to be entrusted with the leadership of an important Western power. And if you read some of the stinging responses to my column — for a relatively kind example, I recommend Yascha Mounk’s piece for Slate — you will find this case eloquently made.

But I still think it’s generally made in a way that doesn’t quite reckon with the scale of Europe’s problems, and the wider political environment in which parties like the National Front exist.

I completely agree, for instance, with Mounk’s critique of Le Pen’s secularism-on-steroids approach to public religiosity, which would try to suppress Islamic identity (and Jewish identity) in various ways, from bans on head scarves to rules against kosher and halal slaughter. I think that France would be much better served by a combination of reduced immigration and the kind of accommodations to its Muslim citizens that the Catholic French philosopher Pierre Manent has proposed, in which secularism gives ground to religious pluralism even as it firmly demands certain forms of assimilation.

I also agree with Mounk that their authoritarian inclinations and ugly historical roots are good reasons to fear what far-right parties might do with real power.

But from my perspective — as, yes, a religious conservative, and therefore someone already far outside the official European mainstream — the evils of right-populism are not some wild outlier in an otherwise harmonious and liberal Europe. They are instead dangers to be weighed against the myriad evils of the status quo.

To pluck some examples: It was not the populist right but the Social Democrats that recently banned halal and kosher butchering in Denmark, on the grounds that “animal rights come before religion.” It is not horrible fascists but high-minded progressives who are offering euthanasia to depressives and alcoholics and pressing religious institutions to go along. It is not nativism but Islamism that is driving Jews to flee from France.

Above all, perhaps — it is not right-wing authoritarians but the great and good of Brussels and Berlin who have shown consistent contempt for the popular will, for democratic self-government and for the interests of weaker countries in their union.

During an earlier spasm of European populism, the rebellion over the terms that Eurocrats imposed upon a supine and bankrupt Greece, I wrote a column called “Sympathy for the Radical Left,” in which I talked about how it was understandable that Greeks had cast ballots for the radical-front party Syriza — since that seemed like the only plausible way to assert their sovereignty and resist the misgovernment of the Continent’s elite.

The logic of that column is the same basic logic that leads me to at least entertain the case for Le Pen. The European Union has systemic problems that its existing leadership cannot or will not solve. Rebellion in such a context may not be wise; it will always risk worse evils. But it is understandable, and at some point it might become desirable as well.

It should be manifest that France — and America — desperately need an authentically liberal souverainiste and solidariste political persuasion to combat the forces of populism and nationalism on their own terrain. Instead, the center-left seems increasingly to believe that such a persuasion is a contradiction in terms. How badly will they have to lose before they change their minds?

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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