In a previous post I mentioned the binary thinking that characterises much of the current debate about “populism”. Perhaps the best example of that binary thinking is the idea that there is a new fault line in politics between “open” and “closed” that is more important than, or has even replaced, the fault line between left and right. This argument is generally made by centrists like Tony Blair (e.g. here) and Emmanuel Macron, who successfully used the idea in the presidential campaign in 2017. There is clearly something to the idea that there is a new fault line that cuts across the divide between left and right, but thinking of it in terms of “open” and “closed” is problematic in all kinds of ways. In particular, it seems to me to be misleading and simplistic to identify the European Union with the idea of “openness”.
Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, I have been reading a lot about the American Civil War, which suddenly feels extremely relevant – especially after Charlottesville. In my last post, I mentioned David Blight’s Race and Reunion, a study of the memory of the Civil War in the fifty years following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It brilliantly shows how, during that period, a sectional reconciliation took place that was based on Southern terms and thus entrenched racism in America. But as a foreign policy analyst, I was particularly interested in Blight’s discussion of American imperialism at a time of worsening race relations in 1890s, which it seemed to me raises difficult questions about the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and race relations in America.
In February 2017, a month after the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, the veteran U.S. diplomat Dan Fried gave a much-covered retirement speech that included the following line: “The option of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox.” It was an extraordinary thing for a senior American diplomat to feel the need to say in 2017 and the line was on my mind a lot as I read more about the American Civil War in the months that followed and visited Appomattox last autumn. But increasingly it seemed to me that Fried was wrong. The “option of a White Man’s Republic” should have ended at Appomattox. But what was happening in America, and in particular what happened in Charlottesville (60 miles from Appomattox) in the summer of 2017, showed that it hadn’t – at least in the minds of some Americans.
Much of the discussion about the causes of “populism” that is currently taking place seems to me to be hopelessly binary. The term is now used to describe an extraordinarily diverse array of figures, movements and parties (and even, in the case of Brexit, outcomes) in different geographical locations. The causes clearly differ in each case – even within Europe. But even many of those who recognize this seem to think it is possible to make the claim that, in a specific case, populism can be explained by either “economic” or “cultural” factors rather than a complex interaction between the two. A good example is Timothy Garton Ash’s essay in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, in which he claims that the success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is caused by culture rather than “economic factors”. It seems to me the reality is much more complex.
There has been much discussion of the role of ordoliberalism in Germany’s approach to the euro crisis (see for example this paper by two former colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations and this paper by my former Transatlantic Academy colleague Wade Jacoby). But of course the story of how German ideas have influenced the European Union does not begin with the Greek crisis in 2010. It is well known that the European Central Bank (ECB) reflects the values of the Bundesbank. (Actually, it doubles down on them – the ECB is even more independent, and has an even tighter focus on price stability, than the Bundesbank – see this explainer.) Less well known, though, is the way German ideas on competition policy that go back to ordoliberalism have shaped European integration since its beginnings in the 1950s. You might almost say that competition policy is the missing link between histories of ordoliberalism and the EU.
There seems to be a lot of discussion about rules these days. In particular, among foreign policy analysts, rules come up both in discussions about the liberal international order and in discussions about the eurozone. But it is striking to me how disconnected the two discussions are – and how differently rules are seen in each case. In discussions about the liberal international order, rules are widely seen as a good thing because they are thought of as an alternative to relations between states based simply on power. But in discussions about the eurozone, rules are seen by many as being much more problematic. In particular, critics of the German view, which emphasises rules over discretion (see Brunnermeier, James and Landau on this), see them as essentially post-democratic. So are rules a good or bad thing?
During the last year countless commentators have made the point that Donald Trump embodies the “paranoid style” in American politics that the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his famous 1964 essay. A central feature of the style, which Hofstadter thought was “all but ineradicable”, is a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories – a tendency Trump certainly has. Moreover, with his election as president, the style seems to have a had what Hofstadter called a “consummatory triumph” in the United States – something that, he wrote, had up to that point only occurred in Germany. Thus it seems to me that we now have to rethink some of our assumptions about the differences between Europe and the United States. But what struck me reading Hofstadter’s essay now was not just the way Trump embodies the “paranoid style” but also something altogether stranger: he is in reality exactly what previous practitioners of the “paranoid style” feared.