Traditional political distinctions between left and right have blurred. And the dichotomy is waning faster than any alternative can coherently supplant it. Much of this apparent confusion, which tends to express itself through rabid populism and anti-establishment mania, is due to the disruptive effect of social media. Traditional means of spreading messages, or even propaganda, have undergone a revolution. What was once the purview of the media elite can now be generated at the grassroots level, with a deft social media campaign.
Since the end of World War II, throughout the capitalist industrialized world, the dichotomy of left and right tended to be most marked in the economic sphere. The left championed more socialized institutions, trying to narrow the gap between rich and poor. The right insisted that any success was due more to liberal economic policy than dirigisme, advocating for a more laissez-faire approach.
In many respects this left-right distinction was a holdover from the communist-fascist dichotomy of the decades between the World Wars. But during the Cold War, communism – in the narrow sense of the state controlling of all means of production – was effectively walled off from free-market capitalism. When the communist system fell apart, an inevitable paradigm shift gained traction.
Today we have traditionally leftist parties that seem to represent the professional intellectual classes more than the workers, and rightist parties urging all sorts of protectionist measures that fly in the face of free market ideals.
What’s left is the one still-tangible political reality that can be communicated with a quick image or slogan: identity.
Since the Treaty of Westphalia in the 17th century, the nation has been a fundamental building block of political institutions. One of the modern age’s most striking characteristics, at least politically, is the attempt to transfer sovereignty to the “the people,” as opposed to some emperor, king, or religious institution. But people’s interests diverge and often come into conflict. So for practical purposes, various nexuses of sovereignty were grouped along lines of geographic proximity and cultural affinity.
In run-up to the recent parliamentary election in Europe, the fear of a nationalist anti-European surge generated a lot of concern. A new political dichotomy between sovereignists and supranationalists has taken shape. Economically, the issues revolve around how best to deal with a globalized world in which Europe seems to be falling behind. But on a deeper, more visceral level, it’s about identity and the fear of diluting it through immigration and cultural homogenization.
In France, this dichotomy played out with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally offering a stark contrast to Emmanuel Macron’s beleaguered pro-European supranationalism. In a speech Macron gave during Armistice Day 2018, the French president made a distinction between patriotism and nationalism. “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying, ‘Our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: its moral values.”
It didn’t take long for commentators to scratch away the semantic veneer and point out the patent sophism. Clearly, in the minds of most people who don’t have an ideological agenda, nationalism is almost synonymous with patriotism. The confusion is such (at least in English) that the online Webster’s dictionary has even added an entry to its “Word History” section analyzing the semantic difference between patriotism and nationalism. Basically, nationalism is a later iteration of patriotism, with the recent distinction that nationalism implies “exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”
It’s a fair distinction. Yet to say that nationalism is the opposite, a betrayal of patriotism, is a disingenuous rhetorical leap. It would be fatuous to deny our natural human need for priorities and, by extension, hierarchies. While the ideal of universal well-being may be a noble one, practical considerations force us to focus on our local environment first, and only then spread out to the rest of the world.
US President Donald Trump echoed this assessment with a characteristically unintellectual response to accusations that his rhetoric emboldened white nationalists. “I love our country. You have nationalists. You have globalists. I also love the world and I don’t mind helping the world, but we have to straighten out our country first.”
Here the US President nails the rebranding of what is essentially a perennial and ancient political dichotomy: nationalists vs. globalists. The novelty of today’s conflict between the local and universal lies in the fact that it is taking shape in the wake of an existential threat to the human species: two World Wars, the specter of nuclear Armageddon, and now irreversible climate change.