Two views on realignment

Everyone wants to talk about realignment. Especially in Britain – where Brexit, in co-operation with a woeful electoral system, is shredding the existing two-party setup – but similar forces are operating in much of the democratic world.

A few years ago, economist John Quiggin described what he saw as an emerging three-party system, divided between, in his terms, “tribalism, neoliberalism and leftism.” I criticised this analysis for leaving no room for actual liberals, at a time when they were desperately needed.

Last week, Quiggin returned to the fray with an update on his view. The fundamentals have not changed, but with the rise of Donald Trump (his “tribalism” has been rebaptised “Trumpism”), Quiggin sees the virtual disappearance of the right-wing half of the centre, “neoliberal”, group – what he calls “hard neoliberalism”.

As a result, he thinks, “neoliberals” are being squeezed out:

In aggregate, though, it seems clear not only that the mainstream conservatives are losing ground electorally, but that they are moving towards Trumpism.

This suggests that the current three-party system might rapidly resolve itself into a new two-party system: Trumpists against everyone else, with the remnants of the old neoliberal duopoly being forced to take sides.

For a contrasting, yet interestingly similar, view from the other side of the political spectrum, look at Iain Murray, of the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, who gave a presentation last month on “Political Realignment and the Resurgence of Socialism.”

Murray also sees a realignment under way, in which “the old ‘left-right’ economic alignment of politics, essentially socialist vs. capitalist, has been displaced as the primary dividing political issue.” Instead, he sees three main forces emerging – economic nationalists, globalist technocrats and Greens – and he laments that none of them is friendly to free-market policies.

Clearly, these are roughly the same three tendencies that Quiggin identifies. And although Murray doesn’t say this himself, it’s easy to see his “globalist technocrats” (“who believe in a strong regulatory state and managed trade”) being squeezed out between the Trumpist/nationalists and leftist/Greens.

Murray draws on the work of Stephen Davies, which I’ve discussed before. Davies is less preoccupied with economics than either Quiggin or Murray, but he makes fundamentally the same sort of classification: national collectivists, liberals and radical leftists, with the middle group being divided between “national” and “cosmopolitan”, corresponding approximately to Quiggin’s “hard” and “soft” neoliberals.

And Davies also sees the three- or four-party system as unstable, and likely to resolve itself into a straight fight between a nationalist/Trumpist and a leftist/cosmopolitan side.

There’s a lot more to be said on this topic, but I think that Quiggin, Murray and Davies, in their slightly different ways, are all onto something. I’m not sure, though, that it’s all as new as they think.

Realignment is real, but it didn’t start with Trump, or the refugee crisis, or the 2008 GFC. It started 30 years ago, when the collapse of the Soviet empire rendered traditional socialism obsolete and kicked away some of the main props of the left-right spectrum.

Since then, parties of both left and right have been looking for new causes. The former have found them, somewhat hesitantly, in liberalism and cosmopolitanism; the latter have found them, rather more enthusiastically, in reactionary nationalism.

But old attitudes die hard. Many on the left still cling to something like socialism, and some will even make their peace with xenophobia in exchange. Many on the right still see themselves as warriors for freedom, refighting the Cold War, and believe they can square the circle by marrying market liberalism with Trumpism.

There’s no limit to the strange ideological combinations that people can bring themselves to believe. But the dynamics of political competition tend to drive systems towards bipolarity: realignment may still have some way yet to run.

One thought on “Two views on realignment

  1. Obviously, the realignment predates Trump – I was writing about it in 2014, after all. But the collapse of the Soviet Union set the scene for the rise of neoliberalism, which peaked with the dotcom crash in 2000, and has been declining sharply since the GFC.

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