I was born in 1954, and until now I would have said that the late 1960s was the greatest period of political convulsion I have lived through. Yet for all that the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggle changed American culture and reshaped political parties, in retrospect those wild storms look like the normal oscillations of a relatively stable political system. The present moment is different. Today’s citizen revolt — in the United States, Britain, and Europe — may upend politics as nothing else has in my lifetime.
In the late 1960s, elites were in disarray, as they are now — but back then they were fleeing from kids rebelling against their parents’ world; now the elites are fleeing from the parents. Extremism has gone mainstream. One of the most brazen features of the Brexit vote was the utter repudiation of the bankers and economists and Western heads of state who warned voters against the dangers of a split with the European Union. British Prime Minister David Cameron thought that voters would defer to the near-universal opinion of experts; that only shows how utterly he misjudged his own people.
Both the Conservative and the Labour parties in Britain are now in crisis. The British have had their day of reckoning; the American one looms. If Donald Trump loses, and loses badly (forgive me my reckless optimism, but I believe he will) the Republican Party may endure a historic split between its know-nothing base and its K Street/Chamber of Commerce leadership class. The Socialist government of France may face a similar fiasco in national elections next spring: Polls indicate that President François Hollande would not even make it to the final round of voting. Right-wing parties all over Europe are clamoring for an exit vote of their own.
Yes, it’s possible that all the political pieces will fly up into the air and settle down more or less where they were before, but the Brexit vote shows that shocking change isn’t very shocking anymore. Where, then, could those pieces end up? Europe is already pointing in one direction. In much of Europe, far-right nativist parties lead in the polls. So far, none has mustered a majority, though last month Norbert Hofer, the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, which traffics in Nazi symbolism, came within a hair of winning election as president. Mainstream parties of the left and right may increasingly combine forces to keep out the nationalists. This has already happened in Sweden, where a right-of-center party serves as the minority partner to the left-of-center government. If the Socialists in France do in fact lose the first round, they will almost certainly support the conservative Republicans against the far-right National Front.
The Republican Party, already rife with science-deniers and economic reality-deniers, has thrown itself into the embrace of a man who fabricates realities that ignorant people like to inhabit.
Did I say “ignorant”? Yes, I did. It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them. Is that “elitist”? Maybe it is; maybe we have become so inclined to celebrate the authenticity of all personal conviction that it is now elitist to believe in reason, expertise, and the lessons of history. If so, the party of accepting reality must be prepared to take on the party of denying reality, and its enablers among those who know better. If that is the coming realignment, we should embrace it.