Bill Clinton’s presidency swelled with the dream of high neo-liberalism: Trade and migration would expand, international institutions would consolidate power, and finance and technology would initiate a new era of globalized joy. Though some of the cracks in this post–Cold War consensus were evident at its very inception — as the relative success of Ross Perot hinted — they have widened into jagged fissures in recent years. The current nationalist–populist resistance to certain globalizing trends has caused some to despair, others to rejoice, and others to call for reform.
Clinton was famous for political triangulation, so it’s no surprise to see some of his former advisers mount their own case for triangulation in the face of challenges to globalization. In 2016, former Clinton Treasury secretary Larry Summers called for a “responsible nationalism,” in which a restored sense of national sovereignty would check some of the post-national trends of globalization. And in his new book, Anti-Pluralism, William Galston, who served as a domestic-policy adviser in the Clinton White House, offers his own argument for a “decent, responsible nationalism” that would address populist concerns while also defending the architecture of liberal democracy.
Galston surveys the challenges facing “liberal democracy” and the current geopolitical order. He argues that economic decline, social fragmentation, and the rise of “illiberal” world powers all threaten existing domestic and international consensuses. Many Western nations were governed by a “bargain” between the elites and the general public, he says; in exchange for public support, the elites would offer economic growth, rising standards of living, relative domestic tranquility, and protection from international threats. This “bargain” has now broken down, causing a surge in populism in both the United States and the European Union.
While parts of Galston’s book are political history and proposed remedies, another part is political theory, especially about the connection between liberal democracy and political pluralism. Galston is a thoughtful theorist of pluralism. In his earlier books, Liberal Pluralism and The Practice of Liberal Pluralism, he outlined a theory of pluralism and its implications for public policy. He returns to this topic in Anti-Pluralism. For Galston, liberalism requires some kind of pluralism; its “core idea” is “creating a sphere beyond the rightful reach of government in which individuals can enjoy independence and privacy.”
Because of this founding principle, a liberal society will be open-ended and diverse, but also wracked by the uneasy tension between liberalism and populism. Galston believes that the key premise of populism is a divide between the virtuous and homogeneous “people” and the uniformly wicked “elite.” In its insistence upon homogeneity, populism is inherently anti-pluralist. It risks ignoring liberal protections for individual rights and substitutes the rule of “the people” for the liberal constitutional order.
As Galston notes, the trends of the pre-2015 geopolitical order have nurtured populism, so the idea of trying to defeat it by doubling down on the policies that created those trends seems counterproductive.
One might disagree with this definition of populism, but it would be a mistake to ignore the deeper thrust of Galston’s book. Tellingly, it is not titled Anti-Populism but Anti-Pluralism, and the book as a whole argues that “populists” might not be the only threat to the pluralist order. Galston points out that the inability of governing elites to adapt to the disruptions brought by the globalizing world has been a fuel for populist fire. He offers both “populism” and “elitism” as “deformations” of liberal democracy. “Elitists claim that they best understand the means to the public’s ends and should be freed from the inconvenient necessity of popular consent,” he writes. But despite their belief that they alone carry the flame of “liberal values,” the powerful understand the public interest and such values through “the prism of their own class interests and biases.” And their efforts to “insulate themselves” from public accountability— “in the quasi-invisible civil service, in remote bureaucracies, in courts and international institutions” — can understandably stoke resentment.
One might push the envelope even further and say that some of the traits Galston attributes to populism can also be seen in the members of the establishment who purportedly resist populism. According to Galston, populism casts its opponents as some “other” who is “irredeemably malign.” This seems not too far removed from Hillary Clinton’s infamous proclamation that the Trumpian “basket of deplorables” consisted of those who were “irredeemable” and “not America.” The anti-Trump “resistance,” which includes some of those with quite comfortable establishment perches, has responded to the 2016 election with a frenzy of iconoclasm, fantasies of an extra-constitutional nullification of the election, and arguments that the federal bureaucracy should be unchecked by constitutional oversight.
As Galston notes, the trends of the pre-2015 geopolitical order have nurtured populism, so the idea of trying to defeat it by doubling down on the policies that created those trends seems counterproductive. Thinkers from Aristotle onward have realized the role a robust middle class plays in ensuring constitutional stability, so an economic regime that does not deliver for the middle is one that likely encourages political instability. And “liberal democracy” is very distinct from post-1989 hopes of a borderless world of commerce and migration. “Transnationalism is not the cure for populism,” Galston writes. In fact, “it is better understood as a cause of populism.”
In response to populist disruption, Galston offers a list of reforms that address populist concerns rather than utterly rebuking them. His policy suggestions include tightening the labor market, limiting favorable tax treatment for non-labor income, beefing up infrastructure to help rural areas share in metropolitan prosperity, licensing reform, natalist policies, selective decentralization of government power, and reforming immigration flows. As a matter of policy, such proposals could encourage broad-based economic growth and might lessen the sense of political sclerosis. And as a matter of politics, a coalition that implements them could potentially find itself well-positioned for electoral success. (In 2017, Republicans caused themselves no small political pain by rejecting such a path and instead focusing on cuts to taxes and heath-care subsidies.)
Some necessary reforms are also cultural, though. If elite irresponsibility is the counterpart of and fuel for populist angst, regaining a more measured politics requires advancing a narrative that stresses the responsibilities of the powerful. Galston counsels the Left that it might need to moderate its identity politics, but he also offers a more wide-ranging account of how “political leadership” should be reformed. He finds that democratic leaders should regain an understanding of the power of persuasion — a task that is miles away from self-righteous indifference or the frantic baying of the cybermob. Persuasion demands listening, deliberation, and an openness of the heart.
Like Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal, Anti-Pluralism can be seen as part of an effort to offer a center-left correction for a politics caught between the Scylla of technocratic transnationalism and the Charybdis of blood-and-soil chauvinism. But its lessons are not only for those on the port side of American politics: Some of its policy recommendations could appeal to the center-right, too, and it casts welcome light on the fundamental incompleteness of democratic politics. This incompleteness is in part a result of the fact that politics is itself a fundamentally incomplete solution to the problems plaguing our twilit world. But the project of “liberal democracy” also instantiates profound tensions, “poised uneasily between universalism and particularism,” social belonging and individual singularity, bureaucratic skill and popular demand. When one pole of those dichotomies achieves absolute dominance, chaos and repression ensue. That freedom and self-governance are complicated balancing acts does not, of course, nullify them; such conflicts point to the tensions at the heart of the human. Especially now, it seems of utmost importance to find that tenuous middle way and nurture the diverse institutions necessary for a realized political liberty.