Centrists Are Pining for a Golden Age that Never Was

As the political center has withered in recent years, self-described moderates have often expressed nostalgia for the "normal" politics of the 1990s. But the era of Blair and Clinton really wasn't a golden age of progress — and it brought a wave of market fundamentalism still sowing havoc today.

Hillary Clinton and former first lady Michelle Obama in Washington, DC, 2010. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

For Anne Applebaum, whose work on Soviet-era history is so respected it landed her the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, it is not the past which is a foreign country, but the present. Her latest book, Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends, offers a snapshot of a political center in disintegration.

The book takes the form of a memoir peppered with present-day interviews, Applebaum navigating former friends and milieus to make sense of shifts in the political tectonics of Europe and the United States.

The first recollection to surface is New Year’s Eve, 1999, as the author and her husband — member of European parliament and one-time Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski — hold a party at their home in northwest Poland to welcome the new millennium.

Describing those present, at what the author takes to be the high watermark of post–Cold War optimism, Applebaum quickly arrives at the book’s primary theme:

You could have lumped the majority of us, roughly, in the general category of what Poles call the right — the conservatives, the anti-Communists. But at that moment in history, you might have called most of us liberals. Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcherites.

Of course, liberalism and conservatism are distinct political traditions. The former views human nature as somewhat perfectible, the latter that we are born to err. While liberalism is generally a creed that espouses universal equality, conservatism views hierarchy as not only inevitable but preferable. In that tradition, social and individual meaning are more likely to be drawn from faith, nation, and family than abstract ideas of personal rights or subjective flourishing.

But during the final decades of the twentieth century these previously sharp differences were elided as politicians around the world drew on both — none moreso than Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Here the “center-right” was less a homogenous mass and more an expedient pick-and-mix to combat organized labor and social movements in the context of the Cold War.

It had not always been thus: two centuries earlier Robert Peel described liberalism as an “odious phrase” while his contemporary, Lord Castlereagh, alleged it was synonymous with Jacobinism. Such sentiments, despite the passage of time, are echoed today in the words of Andrzej Duda and Viktor Orbán.

Yet all of this was a world away from how the author felt at her millennial jamboree — where expedient syncretism was mistaken for something more enduring. “At that moment, when Poland was on the cusp of joining the West, it felt as if we were all on the same team,” she argues. Here, in the countryside of Eastern Europe, was a microcosm of the prevailing common sense: history was over, the big political debates were decided, and liberal technocrats had inherited the Earth.

Misdiagnosing a Crisis

The author claims that today she would cross the street to ignore some of the attendees at that gathering, while she suspects many of them would deny having been there at all. The reason why is that, particularly over the last decade, there has been a splintering of the center-right.

While some, like Applebaum, remain part of the “pro-European, pro-market centre-right,” others have turned to the Law and Justice Party — Poland’s government and a force which is firmly on Europe’s nativist right. It is the bifurcation of this previously solid status quo that haunts Applebaum, a shift extending beyond her adopted home to Russia, Western Europe, and even the United States. Why, the author wonders, has this happened all at once?

Conspicuously absent in the answer that follows — which focuses instead on personalities, the politics of nostalgia and digital culture — is the inability of the neoliberal model, specifically since 2008, to provide rising living standards. One exception is an early effort, where the author peculiarly understates the world’s biggest economic crisis since the 1930s, “The recession of 2008-9 was deep, but – at least until the coronavirus pandemic — growth had returned.”

Growth for who is ignored here, as is the fact that across those very countries Applebaum is concerned with — Britain, Poland, Hungary, Spain — living standards have stagnated for more than a decade. In Hungary and Poland GDP per capita didn’t recover to 2008 levels until nine years later. In Spain, where Applebaum speaks to a party operative for the hard-line right-wing Vox Party, even now it remains lower than a decade ago. Given that unemployment in the country, a poster child for the new economy in the early 2000s, was at 14 percent before the coronavirus, that is an extraordinary oversight.

While the term “lost decade” was once applied exclusively to a cluster of countries such as Japan and Italy, since the financial crisis it has grown to encompass much of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). The number of Americans using food stamps almost doubled in the years following 2007. For all the talk of “fake news” in the 2016 election, when Donald Trump would frequently mention how forty million Americans required federal assistance just to eat — questioning how this represented success under Barack Obama — that figure was entirely accurate.

At one point in the book, Applebaum goes as far to assert that real poverty no longer exists in the Global North, “in the Western World … if we describe them as “poor” or “deprived,” it is sometimes because they lack things that humans couldn’t dream of a century ago, like air-conditioning or wifi.” Tens of millions of people requiring government assistance to eat three square meals a day, and in the world’s wealthiest society, suggests otherwise.

Did all these people vote for Donald Trump in 2016? No, indeed many of America’s poorest communities, especially those of color, plumped for Hillary Clinton (and will for Joe Biden in due course). But given the nature of the US electoral college, and how Trump’s route to the White House ran through previously Democrat states in the country’s “rust belt,” this is another startling omission.

Then there is Britain, where the author regards Brexit as an almost exogenous and entirely unexpected shock. But, while leaving the EU counted few supporters among Tory MPs before 2016, a majority of the party’s membership had long favored withdrawal.

Margaret Thatcher is depicted as a heroine throughout the book, yet she undeniably bequeathed a more Euroskeptic party to John Major than she inherited from Ted Heath. The vote itself may have been four years ago, but the foundation was laid when Thatcher endorsed her party’s “Maastricht Rebels” a quarter of a century earlier.

As with Trump, Brexit was not powered by the “left behind,” nor was the victory of Boris Johnson last December a consequence of his being a ferocious tribune of the people. But if parallels are to be drawn between now and the 1930s, one cannot ignore the manifold failures of neoliberalism for more than a decade.

Trump, Brexit, and Johnson don’t happen entirely because of the blue-collar working class, but from Bolsover in Britain to Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, those previous Democrat and Labour voters put them over the top.

Misplaced Nostalgia

If one ignores the role of economics, and how twenty-first-century capitalism generates dramatic changes in political geography, how else can you also explain the rise of Bernie Sanders in the United States, López Obrador in Mexico, and Podemos and Syriza in Europe? Or the astonishing rise of Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland, the Five Star Movement and the Lega in Italy, and the Scottish National Party in Scotland?

All have a specific, local context, of course, but the story is more complex, and interesting, than centrist Cassandras would have us believe. Indeed for Applebaum the reason such great shifts are unfolding can be attributed to the pernicious impact of digital culture and the misfortune of bad people with bad morals.

This approach of claiming ideas and moral choices, insulated from broader forces, are what drive history, was memorably ridiculed by Marx in the German Ideology, “Once upon a time there was a brave man who imagined that the only reason men drowned was because they were possessed by the thought of gravity.” Ideas and personalities matter, of course — Trump is perhaps the ultimate sui generis politician — but so does the “base” of economic life and production.

One explanation for the book’s tepid diagnosis is that the scale of neoliberalism’s breakdown is lost on an esteemed historian and journalist insulated from its worst impacts. This would certainly explain why Applebaum can only comprehend the present conjuncture as the result of mass irrationality and moral failure.

This is not particularly new: it is there in the collective behavior tradition of postwar social science, which tended to view protest and political dissent as akin to a disturbed behavior. As with Applebaum’s more recent jeremiad, that was wrong. Political movements are generated by, and respond to, a sense of grievance — and often a material one.

Alongside this failure to admit the role of a decade-long economic malaise is the author’s often rose-tinted recollection of the past. There is the constant refrain that the politics of the West has lost the optimism and vitality that marked the Cold War years, when Reagan’s paeans of how it was “morning in America” with the republic a “shining city on the hill” conveying the essence of liberal democracy at its apogee.

There is no mention of Reagan simultaneously arming fascist Contras in central America, or a “War on Drugs” which, in the words of Nixon’s domestic advisor John Erlichman, was irrational and based on people’s fears. As he told journalist Dan Baum in 2016:

We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities… we could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.

This was undoubtedly a war against common sense and “evidence-based policy” — and one taken to the next level under Reagan — but perhaps Applebaum does not see it that way because it was overseen by politicians she admires.

Indeed during this period of purported renewal and reason, America’s prison population exploded from 300,000 in 1970 to 2.1 million in 2000. Was this the result of smart governance, which is now being dispensed with at breakneck speed in an era of populism? Was the Reagan administration’s open mockery of the AIDs crisis emblematic of a now disappearing technical expertise?

And what of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives banning the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools with Section 28 — a policy with which Poland’s Law and Justice Party, or Orbán’s Fidesz, would be entirely comfortable? How is the former a heroine who advanced the cause of freedom while the latter represent mortal threats to liberal democracy? Time after time this is a question Applebaum fails to ask, let alone answer.

Befuddled Intelligentsia

It’s no surprise that the book touches on the role of conspiracy theories and post-truth in contemporary politics, and here too a double standard seems to apply. If the United States had Donald Trump demanding Barack Obama’s birth certificate, argues Applebaum, Poland had the Smolensk disaster — when the twin brother of the Law and Justice Party leader died.

Here the proclaimed twilight of democracy goes hand in hand with the demise of truth, and all while the masses embrace conspiracism. But is it really accurate to say the Western order ever relied on “facts”?

After all, the CIA spent tens of millions to interfere in democratic elections in Italy in the 1950s and 60s, to take just one example, while the agency made a pornographic film with a Sukarno look-alike in a bid to undermine the Indonesian leader around the same time. When the CIA mooted staging the second coming of Christ in Cuba, or carried out a fake vampire murder spree in the Philippines, were these manifestations of a culture built on truth?

In reality, even domestic politics across the West have been immersed in lies and conspiracy theories for decades. The outstanding recent example is the pretext for the 2003 war in Iraq, an event which had no legal or moral justification. A report that same year revealed how seven in ten Americans believed Saddam Hussein played a role in the 9/11 attacks.

Why is that any less an expression of mass irrationality, and conspiracism, than right-wing Poles questioning the facts of the Smolensk crash? In the name of fighting a terrorist organization whose very basis was radical Islam, America and its allies invaded the most secular regime in the Arab world — a choice which, at the time, Applebaum applauded.

David Frum, whose blurb graces the book’s jacket, and who is mentioned in the acknowledgements, allegedly helped coin the term “Axis of Evil” when he worked for George W. Bush. Perhaps politics hasn’t changed as much as the centrist intelligentsia think, it’s just that the glaring inconsistencies are more obvious, and maddening, when one is on the outside looking in.

Toward the end of the book Applebaum waxes lyrical for an age which, she fears, may now be passing, “…where we can say what we think with confidence, where rational debate is possible, where knowledge and expertise are respected, where borders can be crossed with ease.” Yet that world of “easy borders” was only ever a reality for a small number of people — with more than 19,000 migrants dying in the Mediterranean since 2014 — many fleeing the failed states created by Western intervention: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.

What is more, when the likes of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, and Salvador Allende in Chile won elected office through “rational debate,” their reward wasn’t legitimacy — it was to be overthrown. In terms of “knowledge” it’s hard to see why one-time matinee idol Ronald Reagan is any different from reality TV star Donald Trump.

The book’s great merit, though, is that the author is capable of recognizing politics as something beyond the technical management of the economy — a heretical position for most “centrists” until relatively recently. Furthermore, the acceptance that the “long nineties” was a socially contingent period that is now in decline is another break with Third Way zealots, many of whom clung tight to the end of history hypothesis for far longer than was reasonable.

Despite being both retrospectively naïve, and possessed of few insights regarding the future, as a pièce d’occasion for the 2020s Twilight of Democracy is instructive. When historians come to reflect on a centrist intelligentsia in befuddled disarray it will be an excellent resource.