The continuing debate over realignment

Stephen Davies, the political historian whom I’ve cited a few times on the politics of Brexit and political realignment more generally, has a new book out: The Economics and Politics of Brexit: the Realignment of British Public Life. I’m sure it’ll be a good read, but since I haven’t read it yet myself, what follows is based on the essay in which he presents his main argument.

Davies says that, not just in Britain but “in almost every democracy,” there’s a realignment under way in which “the question of identity and, above all, of nationalism versus cosmopolitanism and globalism,” is becoming the main issue around which politics is oriented, replacing (he says) the previously dominant question of economic policy.

As he puts it:

With economics now the secondary question this produces four new groups of voters; globalists who favour free markets (Cosmopolitan Liberals); nationalists who favour an active state (National Collectivists); globalists who reject free markets (Radical Left); nationalists who favour free markets and what we might call ‘capitalism in one country.’ The first two are the two dominant poles of the new alignment because they contain the bulk of voters in most countries – including the US and the UK.

I think this is basically right, but it raises a few points that I think are worth exploring, and where I disagree with Davies at least in emphasis.

First is the story of how Brexit came about and why it took so long to implement the referendum result. Davies attributes the “leave” vote, fairly uncontroversially, to the rise of nationalist discontent with liberal cosmopolitanism, and then argues that “a key element in this story was the refusal of large parts of the Remain establishment to accept the legitimacy of the outcome and their complete misunderstanding of both the motives for it and their own position.”

I’m afraid I don’t see this at all. I think “remain” supporters understood perfectly well that their opponents were largely driven by reactionary nationalism. Granted, they dealt with that fact badly, but I don’t think they misunderstood where Brexit was coming from. And I don’t think they refused to accept its legitimacy: throughout 2017 and well into 2018 large majorities were resigned to Brexit happening.

The problem arose because the Brexit vote had been won on the basis of contradictory promises, so when it came to actually reaching an agreement to leave there was no consensus on what it should look like. The Brexiters, never having expected to win, had no serious plan for what to do next. Eventually, their opponents tried (unsuccessfully) to exploit that confusion to have the decision reversed, but only after more than two years of dithering.

This might seem like ancient history, but I think it matters for Davies’s account of realignment. The problem wasn’t that people didn’t realise that nationalism was suddenly important, it’s that the nationalist camp was divided (and still is) on just how far it was willing to take its nationalism.

That harks back to the question of when realignment started to happen. Davies says that it is replacing the previous alignment, which dated from the “later 1960s and 1970s” and was based on the division between free-marketers and government interventionists. It therefore depended, on the free-market pole, on an “alliance between classical liberals and conservatives,” which by the turn of the century* was “under growing strain.”

There’s an obvious culprit for this development, although Davies doesn’t mention it, namely the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91. It was the Cold War more than anything that had pushed liberals and conservatives together; without it, their differences started to look more important than their similarities.

Nor was this just about the removal of a defining foreign policy issue. It also opened up the economic debate by finally discrediting “socialism”, in the traditional sense of central planning and collective ownership. Once that was off the table, many parties of the centre-left embraced free-market policies more enthusiastically than their centre-right rivals.

By the mid-1990s, democratic politics was already starting to reorient itself around a liberal vs conservative divide. To the extent that “classical liberals” remained (as many did) in alliance with conservatives, they consigned themselves to irrelevance: conservatism was the predominant strand on the centre-right, and it became more so as cultural issues like immigration and national “sovereignty” moved to centre stage.

Meanwhile, a string of centre-left politicians – Paul Keating, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, and others – made their names as basically pro-market reformers. Sometimes they made compromises with authoritarian elements as well, but they went a long way towards making their parties the natural home for liberalism.

The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 interrupted this process, by giving a revived impetus to policies that could be called “socialist” (although they were mostly well removed from the traditional full-blooded version). But attempts to marry those policies to a generally liberal sensibility (this, I think, is John Quiggin’s project) have mostly failed.

Instead we have seen the appearance of a sort of politics – let’s call it “Corbynite” for convenience – that doesn’t fit neatly in Davies’s schema. It’s hostile to both the free market and to cosmopolitan liberal ideals. “National collectivist” seems like a good description, but these people are actually quite different from the Boris Johnsons and Donald Trumps of the world: their collectivism is left-wing, at least insofar as it’s supposed to benefit the masses rather than the rich and powerful.

Perhaps Corbynism is a dying faith, and its scattered adherents will eventually be absorbed by either the Trumpists or the liberal cosmopolitans. But I wouldn’t be too confident.

So I think that Davies’s bifurcation between nationalists and cosmopolitans is not as new as he makes out, and in a way is actually a bit less clear than it was a decade or so ago. But I agree that now and for the foreseeable future it’s going to be the most useful axis for understanding democratic politics.


* Davies doesn’t specify exactly when he started thinking along these lines, but he credits Virginia Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies, which was published in 1998.

8 thoughts on “The continuing debate over realignment

  1. Your description of Corbynism seems very Corbyn-specific and reflective of the particular history of Lexitism. Looking at the US left Democrats from Sanders to AOC, it’s hard to see much opposition to cosmopolitanism or to liberalism (except in the loaded senses where it’s assumed to imply wishy washy elitism). Similarly Jacinta Ardern. Although you make much of her deal with Peters,it is, as far as I can see, just the usual kind of deal needed to form a governing coalition.


    1. Thanks John! Corbyn may represent an extreme case, but I think the phenomenon is fairly widespread: I’m thinking Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, or the left wing of the German SPD, or Podemos in Spain. Sanders is a less clear case, but he’s at least strongly protectionist. I wouldn’t put Ardern in the same category (altho I do think she’s made too many concessions to anti-immigrant sentiment), but then what would you say puts her on the left as distinct from a Hawke/Clinton style left-liberal?


      1. “Lexitism” may be the lingering and powerful legacy of Tony Benn? Here in Australia, there was a lot of the same left-nationalist thought around that era with Jim Cairns, Rex Connor and Ted Wheelwright. Opposition to economic domination by multinationals and political interference by the CIA and/or the (vestiges of the) British Empire – especially the Whitlam dismissal – fuelled this view of Australia as a colony or client state of overseas superpowers. (Whereas the more globalist left-wingers would view Australia as a major and willing imperialist power in its own right – Timor, Bouganville, and you could include the NT Intervention by extension).
        The 1991-99 bout of republicanism seemed to be fuelled by left- (in some cases centre-left[-ish]) nationalism rather than populism, hence “The Queen is a marvellous brand ambassador for the UK but for our own country we want A Resident For President”.


  2. When most people hear the word ‘politics’, what they are most likely to think of are political parties (and their representatives) and elections. So most people who heard a reference to ‘political realignment’ would be likely to think of a realignment affecting political parties and elections.

    It’s not clear to me (from your account of him) whether that’s what Stephen Davies is referring to, but in any case there’s a significant difference between a realignment of electorally significant political parties (or one with a major effect on them) and a realignment that has little or no effect on electorally significant political parties.

    The statement ‘Elections are now mainly contested between a party (or parties) defined by support for globalism and free markets and a party (or parties) defined by support for nationalism and an active state’ isn’t true at present of the US, the UK, or any other country I can think of. So if that’s not what Stephen Davies is talking about, what is he talking about?

    One thing he might possibly mean is that most people who are now interested or engaged in politics fall into those two groups (either supporters of globalism and free markets or supporters of nationalism and an active state), but if that’s what he means, how could he know that’s true if it’s not reflected in electoral competition between political parties, and if it true why is it not reflected in electoral competition between political parties?

    I can’t help wondering whether all that’s happened here is that Stephen Davies has fallen victim to a form of pareidolia.


    1. ISTM that the nation-state Right is generally more willing to seek alliances with the nation-state Left against globalisation than vice versa. That is, right-wingers are keener to see “old prejudices dissolving and new alliances forming” than left-wingers are, even if both share the same bete noire in “Davos Man”/ “the Davoisie”. [C/f comment by the Right’s pope Mark Steyn that Trump and Saunders were “the only two 2016 president candidates who talked like they were running for president of the USA, not president of Davos”].
      Hence we see (to borrow the title of a book on Lyndon LaRouche’s cult] “Right Woos Left”; Hanson’s vote on the unions bill; some unions supporting Katter’s party; etc. However, these overtures are usually unrequited. Left-wingers are generally very wary of getting into bed with allies who might express reactionary views on the shared platform. (Muslim imams excepted, of course, but that goes without saying).
      Put another way, to paraphrase the 19th century French trope about deputies and socialists, there is more in common between two left-wingers, one of whom is anti-globalist, than between two two anti-globalists, one of whom is left-wing.


      1. As I can’t help wondering whether Stephen Davies has fallen victim to a form of pareidolia, I can’t help wondering whether you’ve fallen victim to a form of glossolalia.


  3. Charles’ blog, J-D; if and when our mutual host thinks I’m lowering the tone and wants to block my comments, I’ll take orders from him.


  4. You are right, it is his blog, where I have no power to give orders, which is why I did not presume to attempt anything of the kind. What I did was to give my candid reaction to your comment.


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