Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 2 June 2024



The madness of modern politics is an indulgence the West cannot afford

You almost feel like putting the United States on the psychiatrist’s couch. What’s eating you? You’re making plenty of money (at least at an aggregate level), your national income is rising … sure, you’re borrowing a bit too much, but compared with many others in the neighbourhood (GDP is stagnating in Europe, long-term growth rates have fallen in China) you’re not doing so badly. So why all the chaos, anger, recrimination?

Last week, Donald Trump was convicted on 34 felony counts, which in any sane world would have led to his withdrawal from the election, or at the very least a dent to his prospects. Instead, while liberals threw parties (one podcaster popped open champagne), Republicans came out to condemn the verdict and Trump did what he does, staging a bizarre press conference where his narcissism and paranoia were given full vent. And then the odds on him winning the presidency moved in his favour. Madness.

Oh, I know that everyone and his brother has sought to offer a diagnosis for the surrealism of modern America, where perhaps the most successful nation in history (we don’t reflect enough on its rise over two-and-a-bit centuries from global backwater to hegemon), with more Nobel prize-winners than any other nation and dozens of brilliant entrepreneurs and captains of industry, is confronted with candidates for the presidency who are hopelessly unsuitable.

Joe Biden is, to my mind, infinitely preferable to Trump, but let’s not pretend he isn’t old and struggling. Polling confirms this, with clear majorities saying that neither Trump nor Biden should be president and that if either party nominated a different candidate, they’d win — but they just can’t bring themselves to do so.


Trump has now effectively put the American justice system on the ballot. He says it’s rigged against him because he has been convicted of a crime of sexual assault (in a civil trial), and will soon face charges related to seeking to overturn the election result. Meanwhile the Supreme Court — one of whose justices recently had a Maga flag flying outside his home, and another who has been found to have been taking extravagant gifts that, to me, look like corruption — will soon make a determination of whether future presidents should enjoy full legal immunity for acts taken in office. Crazy.

What strikes me, looking from across the pond, is that much analysis is focused on symptoms rather than causes. Millions blame the American predicament on Trump: he’s crazy, dishonest, seditious, felonious — all true. But isn’t his rise a consequence of deeper trends? And doesn’t a milder version of these trends extend to Europe too, which is characterised by its own kind of chaos and recrimination?

The UK has cycled through five prime ministers since the Brexit vote and Europe has seen an ominous rise in populism, from the AfD in Germany to Giorgia Meloni, Marine Le Pen, the Swedish Democrats and Geert Wilders. Polling shows that this trend will intensify in the upcoming European elections.

Many of the putative explanations for all this are familiar and, in their way, cogent. Economic inequality has been allowed to rise too high, particularly in America, which has seen blue-collar alienation, urban decay and an appalling opioid epidemic. There has also been a pervasive inability to control borders, not least because of human rights legislation written decades ago that is clearly out of date. There has also been a “long march through the institutions” by liberals wielding identity politics and other obsessions leading to an ever greater backlash from the populist right, all encouraged by social media algorithms that feed on conflict.


But perhaps this hints at the deepest problem of all. The West arguably rose on the basis of one precept above all others: a shared commitment to the common institutions and norms that underpin a successful state. Admittedly, the US endured a civil war in the 19th century, but came out on the other side with a renewed sense of its shared future. And at crucial moments during its history, heroes of democracy have put nation above faction.

One thinks of Barry Goldwater, who was brought to the White House for a meeting with Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. Nixon needed 34 senators to survive impeachment and hoped that Goldwater would come to his aid. Goldwater, the so-called “conscience of the Republican party”, demurred. For all his faults, he was willing to put his duty to the constitution above his party. “You only have five votes,” he said, “and mine is not one of them.”

One thinks, too, of Franklin Roosevelt, who was peeved at the obstacles put in his way during the New Deal era by the US Supreme Court. His solution was simple: pack the court with sympathisers. But fellow Democrats, who agreed with many of his policies, could nevertheless see this was an attack on constitutional norms that would weaken the foundations of the citadel they shared in common with their political opponents — and they duly blocked FDR.

But this moral consensus is disappearing, just as it has in previous empires that have risen to power, enjoyed their moment in the sun and then lost sight of what matters. Writing about Rome towards the end of the Republic, the historian SE Finer said: “If you strip personalities away … you will find no more sophistication or nobility than in a Latin-American banana republic … You will find clientelist factions, personalist armies and military struggle.”

In America today, Democrats and Republicans are fighting with not dissimilar hostility, albeit not yet with guns. Both parties are engaging in blatant gerrymandering. Congress can no longer pass legislation that everyone knows is in the public interest because it has become unthinkable to reach across the aisle. And as the indices that track political polarisation rise, so trust in shared institutions falls, since nobody believes the other side is acting in good faith, thereby perpetuating the cycle.


There is a word for all this: decadence. In a world where American interests are threatened by an ever more cohesive autocratic alliance, these internal fights are a kind of madness. Trump has weaponised these disputes and fanned the animosities, seeking to ride them into another term in the White House, where he could take a wrecking ball to the entire system. Populists in Europe are using the same playbook.

The only solution is the one that is revealed by history: moderates and patriots on both sides must hang together, or they will hang separately. Democracy now depends on it.

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