Flagged down on his way to the polls in a ritzy part of Paris, a French voter in the presidential showdown had this to say about his support of Emmanuel Macron: “He’s for globalization, for the EU. I’m a citizen of the world, so he gets my vote.”
That offhand remark was a sign of how politics is changing throughout the West. Whether French socialism or British labor, the pro-worker center-left is collapsing in Europe. It was wiped out in the recent Dutch election. The reason is simple: The driving political questions of our time turn on an increasingly stark contrast between nationalism and globalism.
The fact that Marine Le Pen lost does not change that trajectory. The response of the Frenchman on his way to cast his vote distills the political meaning of the election. It featured the leader of a longtime and once-marginal nationalist party against a political chameleon who presented himself as an earnest technocrat. Macron claimed he could fix France and make it flourish in the global system. Or at least do enough to keep the one-world dream alive.
There are similar symptoms of fundamental political change in the United States. Donald Trump’s liabilities were extraordinary, and they should have been fatal. Yet he won the Republican nomination handily. Then he defeated the Clinton machine. All of this happened because our political establishments, left and right, have become decadent.
The decadence is not the result of bad policies. It stems from failures of the imagination. As Richard Weaver once wrote, “Every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.”
The American side of the story is easiest to tell. Since World War II, the metaphysical dream of the West has been one of deconsolidation. American conservatives promoted economic deregulation. Liberals endorsed cultural deregulation. All of this made a great deal of sense. Reaganism opened up an overly constrained and government-dominated economy. Our brutal system of state-sponsored racial discrimination needed to be dismantled. Rigidly patterned male and female roles were overthrown as well, and sexual morality was relaxed, perhaps with less justification. For good and ill, the momentum of deconsolidation carried things forward.
All of this took place against the background of the Cold War, which produced a counter-pressure of patriotic consolidation. We had to gather ourselves to resist Soviet imperialism. Then came the mother of all deregulations: After the Berlin Wall fell, the world was able to take up the metaphysical dream of ever-greater openness and fluidity. The end of history was upon us.
“Globalism” is the best term for the post-1989 expression of this metaphysical dream. Like all dreams, it is impressionistic. But the outlines are well known at this point. The free flow of capital, goods, and labor brings universal prosperity. A global technological revolution relieves man’s estate. A scientific, pragmatic consensus puts the old ideological quarrels behind us, allowing for consensus-driven problem solving. The emerging human rights regime guarantees human dignity. In a word, we’re evolving in the direction of a more peaceful, more productive, and more just world, precisely as the old consolidating and limiting powers of religious belief, moral tradition, and national loyalty recede.
Today, globalism, in one form or another, unites the establishment left and right. This fact explains why Trump elicited bipartisan opposition during his campaign, and still does. (The same holds for recent European elections.) The political establishment quarrels over a great deal, but it shares the metaphysical dream of a more open and fluid world. The left leans in the direction of multiculturalism, where political correctness operates as an obligatory ideology of inclusion. The right tilts in the direction of free markets, even to the point of describing national citizenship as rent-seeking. But the root idea is the same. When in doubt, open things up!
The metaphysical dream that has dominated the West for decades is being challenged. People don’t weep because of tax proposals. But a temporary ban on travel from a few Muslim countries evokes anguish. That’s because it’s a direct assault on a central tenet of globalism—the belief that “openness” and other deconsolidating motifs will midwife a better future.
A quite different metaphysical dream now runs counter to globalism. It prizes loyalty and wishes to re-consolidate around something solid and tangible. Trump’s political genius was to recognize this desire. He fed it with vivid rhetorical flourishes. Building a wall may be a silly policy proposal, but it’s a powerful image of national reconsolidation. This and other nationalist themes resonated with voters. That’s because they feel that the social and economic bases for national unity are dissolving. It’s an altogether sensible worry. The eroded middle class and loss of solidarity in our society are plain to see.
How will this play out in legislation, executive actions, and judicial decisions? I do not know. Metaphysical dreams shape our political prejudices, rather than issuing policy directives. But there’s already evidence of change. If Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio had been elected, we would not be debating the merits of border adjustment taxes or other protectionist policies. Immigration would have remained a third-tier issue for pundits to discuss, if they discussed it at all. Nobody would dream of resuscitating the old language of America First.
Nationalism can be dangerous, and the French may have made the safer choice. But we face many threats, and we must be wise enough to recognize which are most pressing. I can’t speak for France, but by my reckoning, the greatest danger facing the United States is social disintegration. As family instability and other social pathologies increase, large sectors of our society become atomized and vulnerable. Add the rapid and largely un-examined revision of the social contract brought about by economic deregulation, especially in its global phase, and the situation can become politically toxic. We are losing the social and economic conditions for democratic self-government.
Conservatives must always ask themselves what they seek to conserve. In 2017, our goal must be to conserve democratic self-government, which is the basis for political freedom. A generation ago, we could focus on the perils of an enlarged government (and the Soviet Union). Now the problem has changed. The greatest threat to freedom is our dissolving society. Voters sense this, which is why they’re tilting in the direction of nationalism, however inarticulately and tentatively. We need to renew solidarity, something that can’t be done by citizens of the world.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.