This article first appeared on Project Syndicate.
The centre ground of Western politics is known as the place of pragmatism, quiet reason, and evolution, eschewing extremes and seeking compromise. Because it is distrustful of loud-mouthed and divisive rhetoric, it has taken a somewhat ‘de haut en bas’ view of the way the political world presently functions.
Now it is being overwhelmed. Populism of Right and Left is rampant. The old rules of the old order no longer apply. Things said which would have disqualified a candidate a few years back are now the passport to connection. Policy positions previously regarded as mainstream are sneered at and those regarded as outlandish are very much inland today.
The political alliances which have held sway for a century or more are breaking apart for profound social, economic and cultural reasons.
"A new alliance is being constructed between traditional Labour supporters in old industrial communities and wealthy de-regulators and business owners united in their dislike of the way the world is changing and ‘political correctness’."
The Right is fissuring. The prevailing sentiment is nationalistic, anti- immigration, often protectionist. A new alliance is being constructed between traditional Labour supporters in old industrial communities and wealthy de-regulators and business owners united in their dislike of the way the world is changing and ‘political correctness’. Whether this coalition can survive its inherent economic contradictions is unclear, though I would not under-estimate the powerful cohesive of a prevailing sense of cultural alienation common to both.
But as we can see in the fighting within the Republican Party, the British Conservative Party and across Europe, a significant part of the Right still sees itself as championing free trade, the free market and the positive role immigrants can play.
The Left is also dividing. One part is moving to a much more traditional statist position on economic policy, and to a form of identity politics which is much more radical on cultural norms.
The other part clings to an attempt to provide a unifying national narrative around concepts of social justice and economic progress.
Of course what used to be called the mainstream in both left and right could take back control of their political Parties. But currently the extremes are in charge and many - socially liberal and for a competitive market economy alongside modern forms of social action – are without a political home.
The question is: is this temporary, or are we at an inflection point?
It is globalisation which is changing politics. The real division today is between those who see it essentially as an opportunity whose risks should be mitigated; and those who think, despite its apparent advantages, it is destroying our way of life and should be heavily constrained.
I have sometimes expressed this as the difference between an ‘open’ and ‘closed’ view of the world and that language captures some of the essence of the difference.
But now I think this is inadequate because it doesn't pay sufficient respect to the feeling that the ‘globalisers’ are ignoring genuine problems with the way globalisation is working.
"The danger of Western politics is that, without a powerful centre ground offer, the two extremes of the debate go into uncompromising confrontation. "
The danger of Western politics is that, without a powerful centre ground offer, the two extremes of the debate go into uncompromising confrontation. The polarisation in both the USA and UK is frightening. In each case the nation is dividing itself into two nations who don't think like each other, work with each other or actually like each other.
This is dangerous because if it persists over time, then democracy loses its appeal. Government becomes paralysed. The ‘Strongman’ model becomes more attractive. Our systems become a competition with a ‘winner takes all’ mentality. At some point those who win then regard the losers as ‘the enemy’.
Democracy has a spirit and not just a form; and this polarisation is inconsistent with it.
We require a new politics which tries to build bridges and bring the people together.
This must differ from the centre ground politics of yesterday in two respects.
First, we have to understand the need for radical change and not small increments. Technology alone will transform the way we live, work and think. We have to show those feeling left behind that there is a way through the challenge of change and that it is transformative. We have to meet their understandable anxieties over things like immigration which are complex and layered and cannot simply be dismissed as a cry from the ‘deplorables’.
In other words, we have to show we have listened to the legitimate sense of grievance about certain of the aspects of globalisation.
Second, we have to acknowledge that contemporary politics is not operating adequately to meet the challenge. Whilst it remains taboo for centre ground politicians in traditional Parties to work with each other, they're ineffective, unable to say what they really believe and unable to represent those who urgently need their representation.
In short, in these times, revolution is too much the zeitgeist to be left to the extremes. The centre should also become capable of exploding the status quo.