The fate of the Union and the safe center

The French election seems torn – almost binary – between progress and backwardness. Le Pen or Mélenchon would both mean a severe and possibly catastrophic blow to the European Union as well as a conflict-ridden French government. Voters, disregarding populism from both flanks of the political spectrum, search for the middle ground; En Marche!

If one were to use sporting terms, 2016/2017 has been an immensely worrying – albeit interesting – season of politics. All suggested that it would be the season of the ‘people’, of the left-behind working man, that at its center would be the battle between the forgotten and the global elite. The next domino stone of this nationalist insurgent seemed destined to fall as Donald Trump climbed the stairs of the White House and the United Kingdom took a header down the steps of the European Parliament. However, as the Netherlands has acted a little more ‘normal’ and rejected the ‘wrong kind of populism’, in the words of Prime-Minister Rutte, Western political development saw a rejection of the nationalist incumbents and with that a safe escape to more centrist and conventional parties. Now, as France’s election is coming up with two anti-EU and market-skeptical candidates – Jean Luc Mélenchon is downright anti-market – are estimated to lose, as well as a general election in the United Kingdom, many hope that this trend can continue and Western democracies can once again rely on moderates to run the country.

Today (April 23), three days after another IS-claimed terrorist attack, is the day that the French will take to the polls. Under a loud a voté, as is tradition under de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, their vote will be cast and their most important civic duty satisfied. Contrary to convention in the Fifth Republic, however, an independent candidate is leading the polls, with the runner-up and the number three being independents as well. As already stated in the previous paragraph, the election seems torn between populists and more conventional candidates. Torn – almost binary – between progress and backwardness. France, as one of the three main founding countries of the European Union, still is one of the driving forces behind the Union. Now, with Brexit, Trump, Erdogan and Putin already threatening the connecting element of the continent, the people of France have the power to bring the final catastrophic blow to the project. One that was created not only to further trade and commerce, but to work together on projects that take decades to accomplish, to fight climate change as well as create a powerful bond to protect its people from a repeat of the great wars at the beginning of the Twentieth century. 

Bluntly, a victory by either Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon – both independents – would be an outright disaster. Both take anti-EU and anti-immigration stands and as such pose immediate threats to the European Union as well as create nothing but conflict within the French government itself. Mélenchon, who is a traditional Trotskyist, does add some of his own hard-left ingredients, 100 billion in social spending in an already in-debt country for example, all in all, however, their would-be presidency reflects rather the same type of EU-loathing and anti-elite sentiment. That leaves two candidates who have an actual chance of winning the election: Macron, the Socialist economy minister turned liberal internationalist and the scandal-scarred Thatcherite conservative Fillon.

Mr Fillon, the Republican candidate, is a well-known figure in the French establishment – a true ‘swamp habitant’ if you will. In a country that has long been a staple of big government and strong, charismatic presidents, the hard-right Fillon dares to campaign with pro-market ideas that include deregulation, a higher pensioning age and drastic cuts in social spending. However, as he has taken 900.000 euros of state money to pay family members for ‘work’ – doing nothing – he turns his powerful claims of change in mere hypocrisy. We then find Macron, the political newcomer.  He started his movement En Marche! only yesteryear. As of yet, his only government experience is as economy minister under François Hollande, whom he frequently opposed with more liberal-oriented views. His plans include drastic cuts in social spending, progressive social policy and more collaboration with the European Union. The social-liberal candidate rejects the traditionalist views of his Republican opponent and does not care for deep relationships with Russia.

Many disregard him for his centrist views with Le Pen noting that he ‘can’t decide’. Those who support the idea that one has to hold a dogmatic position that can be easily categorized and sorted on the political spectrum frankly does not understand democracy. As with any democracy, what matters is the will of the people, whether that’s a little leftist in terms of social ideas and a little right-wing in terms of economy does not matter the slightest bit. After all, we can conclude that the French elections show, as with the Dutch elections – note this article – an escape to a safe center. Disregarding the hard-right under Le pen, the hard-left under Mélenchon and the Catholic conservative Fillon leaves a void for just one pro-EU, pro-market, Russian-skeptic, non-stealing, social-liberal candidate: Emmanuel Macron. En Marche!

The non-governing majority

The Republican party, as a whole, seems to have hit a roadblock. Increasing ideological differences within the party may seem good news to many Democrats. However, a serious lack of vision with regard to foreign policy is in no one’s interest.

As Thomas Frank so well pointed out in his book Listen, liberal, the Democrats catastrophic loss in the 2016 election can be blamed largely on growing disengagement between the parties traditional voter base and its newer, younger, cosmopolitan voter base. With this discontent among the poorer, white, working-man voters, came a general distrust for whoever occupied the West-Wing. Clinton – as has also been pointed out on many occasions – is considered, rightly so, to be at the heart of this distancing from Democratic roots. Practically inhabiting the dead-man-zone between right and wrong, she is the true epitome of what can be considered an ‘establishment’ figure. It is for these two reasons – among others of course, such as shifting demographic and terrorism – that a certain Mr. Trump was able to win the electoral college. Quite contrary to Clinton, for whom a blind folded walk through the government buildings would be a piece of cake, Trump’s career path did not once branch into politics. He won on the premise that government was easy and efficiency should be regained, that Trump was a businessman who might have once read his own (ghost-written) book – The Art of the Deal – and on the premise that he, the Donald, the disengaged billionaire, was in real contact with the people, the one who dared to say out loud what the ‘people’ felt was suppressed and who dared to say that the ‘swamp’ should be drained of all the Hillaries that occupy it.

In a small wooden shed in Ripon, Wisconsin, anti-slavery activists as well as ex-members of the Whigs and the Free Soldiers founded a grassroots movement that would later grow to be the Republican Party. In the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the Republicans were dominant. Their appeal was mostly found in their upholding of liberty – “Free labor, free land, free man” – and the constitution. The Republican party gained a reputation as the party of big business and the suppression of workers. Still, they managed to control government up until World War II. Roughly forty years in on the New Deal-era, a time in which Keynesian economics were dominant in most Western democracies, the Republicans regained government. After withstanding Watergate under Nixon and the shear disappointment of Ford, Ronald Reagan was elected president. His famous patriotic, classically liberal approach to governing – as he shared with the likes of Margaret Thatcher – and more contemporary conservatism has lead to many Republican still claiming to share his views.

For the past eight years, the Republican party has done none of these things – of course, the fact that they did not repeat Watergate can be considered a succes. It has spent its time debating vague ideological differences that mostly lay within the party itself, concerning mostly the differences between neo-conservatism and more traditional conservatism. It has worked to disagree with all that was put forward by the Obama administration, their no-attitude being quite comparable with a typical four-year-old. For the past eight years they have not made deals to secure bipartisan efforts, nor have they rationally debated compromise. Their nay-saying was merely of symbolical value, distancing themselves as far from the Obama-administration as possible.

After years of disagreement and a freshly adopted anti-everything attitude, a Republican victory seemed like a godsend. “Welcome to the dawn of a new unified Republican government”, exclaimed Paul Ryan the morning after. Paul Ryan, whom Ezra Klein recently argued to be “the greatest policymaker of our generation”, was hoping to finally stretch his legs and hit the gas on the conservative, old-school V-8 that is the Republican party. Actually, the GOP is rather similar to a big V-8: inefficient, brute-force, very much old-fashioned but as distinctly old-school American as a baguette is to the French. The car jots along fine in the hands of the skilled driver, able to handle its lethal combination of abundant power and practically absent undercarriage, steering rack and brakes. However, in the hands of most, it is merely an uncontrolled missile. This sums it up rather well. The GOP is old-fashioned, under-designed, poorly substantiated and, quite frankly, does not support the majority. Now, as Paul Ryan is hoping to sound its conservative voice, hitting the gas on our imaginary muscle car, he finds that even with a long-awaited Republican president, as well as a majority in both chambers, the GOP is out of gas.

Ideological differences

Often the failure of the healthcare bill is blamed on the shear political inexperience of the President and his administration. Add to that the Republican absence in bipartisan efforts. However, in all this, what may be of more importance in the coming four years as well as explaining the dying AHCA, are the increasing ideological differences within the Republican party itself. A majority party that can’t pass a bill forwarded by their own speaker of the House, is not a governing party. Now that even Senate majority leader McConnel can’t seem to pass his health care bill before recess, that leaves us merely with a fractured reminiscent of what used to be a respected party.

The best example of ideological divisions within the party is the President himself. As so often proclaimed, Trump is a man without a vision, lacking ideas or even a goal. The election is won, Clinton humiliated, the Democratic Party slashed to bits, Trump’s work is done. Aimlessly following Fox News, he has, however, given top spots in his cabinet to alt-right ideologists as well as the ‘swampers’ he once loathed. The legislative branch of the Republican party seems to be in as much of a crisis, with Paul Ryan not being able to pass a bill. The Republican party spans from moderates – who claimed the AHCA did too little – to traditionalists – who claimed the AHCA did too much. The Republican party is in the middle of an identity crisis.

The recent Syrian airstrikes are a prime example of these divides. In a true Trump fashion, foreign policy can drastically change within 24 hours. As bombs dropped on Syrian airfields and the possibly disastrous geopolitical consequences of these measures become obvious, traditional Republican hawks embraced Trump’s interventionist attack whilst right-wing ideologists raced to their blogs to write that Trump is ‘just another neocon-puppet’. Furthermore, a coherent message between the main players – often proclaimed to be Trump’s more ‘sensual axis’ – in foreign measures seems absent as McMaster, Haley, Mattis and Tillerson can’t seem to agree.

To many Democrats, this all comes as rather positive news. In some ways it is, for one, Trump’s approval ratings will certainly be slashed and second, the vacuum of ideas with regard to healthcare may be filled by the Democrats. Most importantly, the void that Trump’s ‘flip-flops’ leave behind, gives the Democrats some breathing room. However, a serious lack of vision concerning foreign policy is – especially in times like these – in no one’s interest and although Democrats may not like traditional interventionist measures, Trump’s America First chant is one they loathe even more.