The Corner


Post-Democracy and The ‘Two Brexits’

Over at Semi-Partisan Politics, there’s a long post by Sam Hooper on the two debates surrounding Brexit, the one economic, and the other, which, for want of a better term, I’ll call politico-cultural.

Sam touches briefly on the economic debate, which (in deliberately exaggerated terms) he describes as “the world of quantifiable (if still largely speculative) prognostications and arguments over just how impoverished Britain will be after Hard Brexit versus the untold riches which will be ours once we have concluded that mega trade deal with New Zealand.’

But his real focus is on that second politico-cultural debate. There’s too much to summarize here (really, read the whole thing, not least what he has to say about his home town, Harlow: Much of it will sound very familiar to readers over here), but note, in particular this:

But there is another Brexit, too. I struggle to define it – some days I feel like it is “Constitutional Brexit”, the Brexit which concerns itself with high-minded questions of governance, statecraft and geopolitics. But on other days it feels more visceral, more inchoate, though no less important for that. This is “Cultural Brexit” – sneered at by the Economist but best understood as secession from the EU partly as a reaction against supranational European government, yes, but also an enormous cultural backlash against years of self-serving, centrist, technocratic government within the narrow boundaries of an incredibly restrictive Overton Window.

I’d go a little further than that. The problem is not necessarily ‘centrism’, but the fact that the so-called centrists have been anything but, other perhaps, than when looked at solely in the context of the great economic debates of the twentieth century. It’s fashionable apparently in some corners of metropolitan London to talk about the need for a ‘radical center’, well, guess what, that radical center has been around for while, shaping politics for years on both sides of the Atlantic, and the results have not always been…satisfactory.

Which brings me to another must-read article, John O’Sullivan’s new piece in the Claremont Review of Books, and, in particular, this:

If “populism” describes a movement that is personalist, rooted in a leader-principle, hostile to the “regime of the parties,” and based on blending Left and Right in a vague new synthesis, as political scientists have traditionally argued, then the most successful populist leader in Europe today is President Emmanuel Macron of France. He is never described as such, however, and the E.U.’s Jean-Claude Juncker has even hailed his election as the beginning of the end of populism. That is because Brussels and establishment opinion generally approve of his ideological bent, which embraces such familiar policies as multiculturalism, open borders, a banking union to underpin the Euro, and a kind of militant born-again Europeanism.

This is neither centrist, unless that term has been emptied of meaning, nor can it even be redeemed by the claim that such policies have at least delivered good results. Like the five-year planners of the Soviet Union, Utopian planners they resemble in more ways than is entirely comfortable, ‘Europe’s’ stumblebum technocrats stagger from one shambles to another, which is why they have become increasingly authoritarian, forever narrowing the ‘opinion corridor’ (a useful and depressingly relevant term, borrowed from the Swedish åsiktskorridor) lest impudent voters attempt to shout back.


Liberal democracy, too, can be an example of verbal shape-shifting. [James] Kirchick writes at one point that democracy has to be intertwined with liberalism in order to be truly democratic. That would be true, as it used to be, if liberalism meant such things as free speech, free assembly, a free press, etc. How can an election be free without free speech to enable discussion of the issues?

In recent years, however, liberalism has come to mean the proliferation of liberal institutions—the courts, supranational bodies, charters of rights, independent agencies, U.N. treaty monitoring bodies, etc.—that increasingly restrain and correct parliaments, congresses, and elected officials. This shift of power was questionable when these bodies merely nullified or delayed laws and regulations. But more recently they have taken to instructing democratically accountable bodies to make particular reforms and even to impose them on the entire polity through creative constitutional and treaty interpretation…Liberal democracy under this definition becomes the undemocratic imposition of liberal policies (often with the silent cooperation of liberal legislators), and if unchecked over time, it devolves into a new political system that Hudson Institute scholar John Fonte calls “post-democracy.”

Once we take this (fairly major) development into account, it becomes possible to reach a definition of populism that is not simply a way of abusing a political party or set of proposals. Political scientists are belatedly realizing this. As the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde said some years ago: “[P]opulism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. It criticizes the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their re-politicisation.” That is true and important of no issue more than of the massive flood of immigrants into Europe that began in the 1950s and that may now be reaching a crescendo…

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