Five years ago demagogues waging a culture war against metropolitan elites and minorities broke into mainstream politics in Britain and the United States. The result was Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Eric Zemmour’s meteoric rise as a challenger to French President Emmanuel Macron confirms that vicious cultural wars have become a focal point of the great political democracies of the West.
Even more disturbing, liberals and progressives who invest in economic and social progress are too divided and diverted from factional struggles to effectively combat these prophets of decline and sellers of ethnic and racial renewal. The core areas of Western democracy are thus becoming increasingly dysfunctional, and the language of the majority relationship takes over the public discourse.
Twice convicted by French courts of incitement to racial hatred, Zemmour believes that France is inundated with Muslims and that unpatriotic media “constantly spit on French history and culture”. Inquired by Macron himself for his views on immigration during the shift in French political culture to the right, Zemmour has recently been buoyed by his appearances on the French version of Fox News. Even if he does not become president, he has already played the vital role of British arsonist Nigel Farage in British politics: consolidating the voters behind white nationalism and forcing established parties to face them.
What does this convergence of styles of government with demagoguery show in France, the UK and the US? For one thing, the traditional political categories and constituencies from left and right have dissolved.
While the old-style Tories have looked appalled in recent months, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has radically reshaped the Conservative Party for a more desperate and ideologically promiscuous era. He proposes to raise corporate taxes and offers voters a quasi-socialist program of generous public spending in what he calls “one of the most unbalanced societies and one-sided economies”.
Much like Trump, Johnson works on the intuition that the main political divide today is between those who have benefited from three decades of hectic globalization – mostly well-educated, urban classes – and those who have not. Elections, it seems, will be won by those who can secure enough votes from those left behind.
The mainstream political parties that once promoted economic and social liberalism – Democrats and Republicans in the US, socialists and center-right parties in France, and the conservative and workers’ parties in Britain – have been fighting to keep dissatisfaction in since the 2008 financial crisis their societies. Amid widespread perplexity, cranky, and often marginalized, figures like Trump, Johnson, and Zemmour have short-circuited partisan processes to rally older voters in suburbs, cities, and rural areas.
None of these impresarios have a coherent plan to make their nation great again. But a well-thought-out economic policy does not seem appropriate to voters who are gripped by existential fears. Intrepid racists have found a reliable political resource in cultural wars – essentially the agitation against racial and ethnic minorities and their supposedly “awakened” patrons among the metropolitan elites, as well as the pounding of national, racial and civilizational fame.
Rooted in false promises and startling slogans (“Take back control!
The most flexible and resourceful forces shaping politics today seem to be on the right, while the traditional left-liberal opposition is in disarray. Some of the ideas of the progressive left that were discarded during three decades of triumphant neoliberalism have reappeared in the policies of the Biden government. But the left, limited to academia and small sectors of politics, the media and the think tank establishment, cannot come close to keeping up with the institutional mass and ideological reach of the right.
There is no left version of Fox News or even left media platforms approaching the vast echo chambers of the right. Liberals and leftists also have no sweeping backlash to the emotional evocation of region and country by the right, no startling symbols that correspond to the freshly powerful myths of national and racial glory.
Liberals, advocates of an international order, cannot convincingly spread lip-synchronized white-nationalist agitation against immigrants, refugees and Muslims. Self-proclaimed “centrists” have made it their business to hold the “awakened” left responsible for their own political failures. But noisy finger-pointing, attributing more leverage to left than they have, detracts from the real forces polluting the public and private spheres with conspiracy theories and hideous prejudice.
The implications are dire: the right in the US, UK and France ruthlessly define the parameters of political cultures, while liberals and left argue among themselves. Zemmour is unlikely to be the last demagogue to drive Western democracy further on to majoritarianism.