Quote of the day: On the evil of two lessers

From political scientist Carlo Invernizzi Accetti of the City College of New York and the Center for European Studies of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, writing for the Guardian:

The roots of this populist drift in the Republican party go back several decades. Although the party’s current establishment professes to be outraged by at least some of Trump’s excesses, there is a direct line of continuity running from the late 1990s’ bid to impeach Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, to George W Bush’s self-presentation as the candidate one would “most like to have beer with”, the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2012 and many features of Trump’s current campaign.

The Democrats’ response has been to move progressively towards the center, assuming the mantle of “reason” and “respectability”, while presenting their rivals as irresponsible mavericks. No wonder the substantive policy differences between them have fallen into the background: when politics is structured around the opposition between competent technocrats on one hand and anti-establishment populists on the other, there is little room left for substantive policy disagreement in the middle.

Nor is America alone in this shift. The debate over Brexit in the UK was fought along the same axis of opposition. The core of the Remain campaign’s argument rested on the opinion of “experts”, according to which leaving the European Union would have had objectively catastrophic consequences for the country. In contrast, the Leave campaign appealed to many of the same sentiments that underscore Trump’s appeal: widespread anti-establishment feeling, guttural nationalism and concerns about immigration and international trade.

The paradox is that all this is depoliticizing public debate, precisely as campaigns become more bitter and conflictual. Democratic politics depends on the confrontation between rival political agendas and ideological visions. But in the struggle between technocrats and populists all we are left with is the choice between preserving the system as it is or burning it all to the ground. For those who want meaningful political alternatives, this doesn’t bode well.


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