I was among those who breathed a big sigh of relief at the results of the French election, and the defeat (once again) of far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen. (I also worried, along with many others, about the fact that–despite the very comfortable margin of Macron’s win– Le Pen increased her vote from former match-ups.)
Among the various news reports and opinion pieces describing the French election results was a column in the Washington Post that got to the essence of the challenge faced not just by the French, but by all Western democracies.
A center-left leader can be a champion of tolerance, a force to fight climate change and an advocate for an agenda that a majority of voters favor. But they must do so while facing deep divisions between urban and rural populations, between religious and secular voters and between the well-educated and less-educated. That makes it virtually impossible for competent, well-intentioned leaders to fend off constant criticism from a 24/7 media or to withstand fierce opposing factions and cynical voters.
And there it is.
Commenters to this blog will point out–accurately–that not every rural voters is a bigot or a MAGA fanatic, and that is absolutely true. It’s also true that not every urban resident is a progressive voter. Overall, however, it is undeniably the case that rural America is Red and urban America is Blue.
It is patently unfair to accuse all religious voters of being Christian Nationalists; I have several good friends among the Christian Clergy who are liberal–or, as we might once have labeled them, advocates of the Social Gospel. That said, they aren’t the ones leading the charge to discriminate against gay and transgender youth. They aren’t looking askance (or worse) at Muslim or Jewish Americans. My friends’ churches aren’t among the concerning numbers of Evangelical congregations encouraging acceptance of the “Big Lie,” and insisting that only White Christians are “real Americans.”
I’d also be one of the first people to argue that education and intellect are not the same thing. (Education and job training aren’t the same thing either.) I think of my mother, who bitterly regretted not having been able to go to college; like many others who lacked that experience, she was widely-read, well-informed and highly intelligent. But again, when we look at the population at large, we find statistically-significant differences between people who have and have not been introduced to logic, to respect for evidence (and an understanding of what does and does not constitute evidence), and to the intellectual inheritance of humankind. Educated people are–on average– more likely to recognize complexity and connection, more likely to understand the role of culture and the consequences of systemic forms of discrimination.
If these are the fault-lines of today’s political environment–and I think they are–what are the challenges that situation poses for political leadership? What is the result when more than a third of a country comes from the ranks of those who see governance in terms of culture war and personal loss, rather than an exercise in effective management of the infrastructure of the state?
First, a politician who considers it their job to solve problems, as opposed to channeling anger and fanning cultural resentment, will rarely receive credit for achieving half or even three-quarters of a loaf. No matter how well the president helps the country recover from the recession, how many jobs are created on their watch or how effective an international leader they become, anything less than perfect will be met with unforgiving criticism. The temptation to paint a president as a loser is overwhelming for allies who are disappointed with the results. This is made worse in a media environment that thrives on conflict and a political environment in which the opposition party is unwilling to give credit for any achievement. Therefore, one can expect few, if any constructive problem-solvers on the center left enjoying high approval ratings.
In France, center-left Macron won, despite polling in the low 40s. He did that by making the case that the alternative was a rightwing, unhinged, grievance-mongering opponent. As the linked column noted, the French were not particularly enamored with Macron– but given the “binary choice between him and Le Pen,” most French voters opted for competence and sanity.
The key to escaping fascism in the U.S. is to ensure that enough educated, urban, secular voters understand that the election is between democracy and authoritarianism; between free markets and crony capitalism, and between genuine religious freedom and Christian nationalism–and then getting enough of those voters to the polls.