The last five years in Western politics has seen a repeated failure of “cordons sanitaires” — the barriers that political establishments have tried to throw up against both radical ideas and xenophobic sentiments. The rise of populism and the return of socialism have breached these cordons, and racism and Judeophobia have come through the breach with them — to the point where it’s entirely plausible that Britain will soon find itself with a prime minister, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has an anti-Semitism problem, even as the United States has already elected a birther to the presidency.
This week we’re watching two interesting attempts to re-establish or shore up those old barriers. On the right, there’s the congressional Republican effort to isolate Steve King, the Iowa congressman whose racist comments and flirtations with white nationalism have become, at long last, a matter of severe embarrassment to his colleagues. On the left, there’s the mass exodus of corporate and political sponsors from this weekend’s Women’s March, which has fallen into controversy because of some of its leaders’ ties to Louis Farrakhan, and reports that anti-Semitic canards were aired at its organizing meetings.
The two efforts are similar but not parallel. The push against King is an attempt to redraw a line effaced by Donald Trump’s race-baiting, and since as you may have noticed Trump is still the president, it matters only as a possible marker for a post-Trump Republican future, not a defining statement for the GOP today. The exodus from the Women’s March, on the other hand, is an attempt to get out ahead of a problem before it becomes worse — before anti-Semitism migrates from the left-wing fringe to the centre, before the party starts getting its own versions of Jeremy Corbyn in positions of real influence.
This is not to say that anti-Semitism or other paranoid worldviews are a new problem on the left, or that the Democratic Party has always handled them effectively. The permanent prominence of Al Sharpton and the eternal return of Michael Moore testify to certain unsuccessful reckonings, and the grassroots left can be as amenable to conspiracy theories as the grassroots right. But the fact that Trump is in the White House while the Democratic National Committee bails on the Women’s March illustrates a fundamental difference; if the Democrats struggle with the tiger, the Republicans have let it leap the cage.
But it’s possible that this is changing, with the Women’s March’s eccentric leadership as a leading indicator, and that a more left-wing, populist, anti-establishment Democratic Party — a party reshaped by Ocasio-Cortezan energy, shall we say — will become increasingly influenced by paranoias and bigotries that bubble up on the far left. (The Democrats are already vulnerable to paranoias of the centre, like the obsessive fixation on Vladimir Putin’s puppeteering whenever populism wins another victory — but that’s a subject for another time.)
For liberals pondering how to sustain a quarantine in a more populist future, the right’s experience with (and leading up to) Trump offers several lessons. The first is the obvious one: For a quarantine to work, you have to be willing to commit to it even when it has electoral costs. That’s emphatically not what Republicans working to sideline Steve King are doing; they’ve turned on him only after a hard-fought midterm election in which they didn’t want to lose his seat. In this sense the partial GOP abandonment of Roy Moore, which helped cost the party a Senate seat, was a more limited but also more important case study in how to establish a cordon sanitaire.
The ascent of Trump was the opposite case. The party establishment could have worked to marginalize or exclude him from the primary process; the birtherism alone offered grounds enough. But the GOP feared the possibility of a Trump third-party run too much to take a stand or draw a line — and because it didn’t, imagining that he could never win, many more lines have subsequently ended up erased.
The second lesson is less high-minded and more complicated. You can’t make your quarantine too broad, or you’ll end up repressing ideas that need to be debated, and empowering demagogues when they’re the only ones who will talk about them. The centrist political parties of Europe have fallen victim to this trap; their respectable consensus excluded far too much (scepticism of the euro, of austerity, of mass immigration) and reaped the whirlwind when centrist governance stopped working. And the pre-Trump Republicans had a similar problem: By trying to simply bury the “America First!” ideas that Pat Buchanan ran on in the 1990s, they created a return-of-the-repressed scenario, where a big swathe of their own voters felt chronically unrepresented and ignored and turned eagerly to Trump.
For Democrats this quandary is likely to play out over foreign policy, and especially policy toward Israel. Anti-Zionism isn’t necessarily anti-Semitism, but the difference can get blurry quick, and the Israel debate is the place where rhetorical poison seems most likely to infect left-wing politics. Which means that most establishment Democrats would prefer not to have debates about Israel at all, just as most establishment Republicans circa 2013 hoped to stop debating immigration.
But for a party whose base is clearly less sympathetic toward Israel than Democratic elders in D.C., repressing the debate would be a mistake — because then anti-Zionism is more likely to percolate below the party’s surface and then bubble up as bigotry. The challenge is to figure out how to quarantine those kinds of hatreds and also represent your voters — because if you fail at the second task, even with the highest of principles the quarantine won’t hold.
And it also won’t hold, to reach our final lesson, if you fail egregiously at governing. Where did Donald Trump come from, ultimately? From the presidency of George W. Bush, in which establishment-Republican blunders gave us the Iraq debacle and the financial crisis. Where did European populism come from, ultimately? From the misgovernment of the eurozone by respectable centrists. Why have the Democrats managed to keep the cranks at bay more successfully than the GOP? Because the party’s elite has mostly kept the trust of the party’s base.
I say “mostly” because the shocking defeat of Hillary Clinton did create a power vacuum in which more crankish figures — from various Resistance grifters to the Women’s March’s Farrakhan–friendly organizers — have gained prominence. But still, nothing like the prominence now enjoyed by grifters on the right.
For the Democratic Party’s cordon sanitaire to really fail, you would need something that Bush delivered, that Barack Obama avoided, and that Democrats should (obviously) hope their next president avoids as well — a failed presidency, in which the bonds of trust between voters and party leaders are decisively severed.
Without wishing liberalism well, I also hope it doesn’t come to that.
© 2019 New York Times News Service