The political centre cannot hold. If this was not already obvious, last Sunday’s elections in France have surely made it so.
A clear majority of all voters supported candidates of the far right or far left. The candidates of the traditional centre left and centre right – the parties that dominated French postwar politics – received an astonishing 7 per cent of the vote between them.
Even if Emmanuel Macron, who is certainly a centrist, is re-elected in the second round, it will be less because of what he is than what he is not: a crypto-fascist.
In Germany last September, the two traditional giants, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, took less than half the vote between them. Twenty years ago, in 2002, these two parties had the support of 77 per cent of the electorate. As recently as 2013, they had 67 per cent.
In the Anglophone world, the two great centre-right parties were the Conservatives in the UK and the Republicans in the US. Both have now morphed into parties of the nationalist right
In Ireland the old centrist duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael scooped, in the early 1980s, more than 80 per cent of the ballot. In 2016 its combined vote dropped below 50 per cent for the first time. By 2020 it was just 43 per cent.
But even figures like these, dramatic as they are, disguise the full scale of what has happened. We also have to reckon with the way big, traditional centre-right parties no longer merit that description.
In the Anglophone world, the two great centre-right parties were the Conservatives in the UK and the Republicans in the US. Both have now morphed into parties of the nationalist right.
In the case of the Tories, almost all of the old centrist politicians were driven out as the Conservative Party reinvented itself as the Brexit party. The Republicans in the US have, similarly, become the Trump party, a vehicle for far-right identity politics in which traditional conservatives have either vanished or capitulated to extremism.
And underneath all of this is the larger reality that what we’re now seeing is in fact the second great implosion of the centre of democratic politics in the past 50 years. It’s not just that an old consensus has been shattered – it’s that the new consensus that replaced it has now followed it into oblivion.
The first consensus was, broadly speaking, social democratic. After the second World War, most of the mainstream parties of the right accepted (in however qualified a way) the idea that government had to be very active in providing housing and healthcare, in expanding education, in lessening inequality and in creating some kind of safety net to keep people out of poverty.
Thus, for example, when the Tories came back into power in Britain in the 1950s, they didn't attempt to dismantle the great socialist experiment that was the National Health Service. In the US a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, could implement a 90 per cent tax on the super rich.
This old centre ground fractured in the 1970s. With the coming to power at the end of that decade of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the new consensus of neoliberalism took hold.
This time it was the centre left that shifted to the right. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair pioneered a new centrism in which the left would essentially accept the basic tenets of neoliberalism (deregulation, privatisation, marketisation) while attempting to mitigate the disruptions and inequalities it created.
It is easy to forget that Orbán was originally a fairly mainstream Christian Democrat
But neoliberalism is dead now too. It had been pretty much killed off by four huge blows: the banking and property crash of 2008; the climate emergency; the rise of China’s model of state capitalism; and the pandemic. A fifth – the need to respond collectively to Russian aggression and its economic consequences – is surely the coup de grâce.
From this vacuum, the centre left has some chance of escape. It can go back to the previous model, social democracy, and try to revivify it for the 21st century. Hence, the modest revival of some of the old socialist parties in Europe (France and Ireland being spectacular exceptions) and the reanimation of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the US.
But the centre right does not have this option – or at least does not seem to want to take it. It has generally chosen instead to compete with the far right by trying to steal its clothes.
One of the first movers in this effort was Viktor Orbán in Hungary. It is easy to forget that Orbán was originally a fairly mainstream Christian Democrat. (It was not until March last year that his party quit the centre-right European People's Party grouping in the European Parliament. ) He adopted far-right authoritarian nationalism as a way to consolidate his power.
His lead has been followed by the Tories and the Republicans, both of whom have substituted national “greatness” for the neoliberal promise of universal enrichment, and opposition to immigration for the promise of globalisation.
Yet there is no guarantee of success with this strategy. Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the traditional centre-right in France, spouted far-right rhetoric about the "great replacement". Voters decided that if this quasi-fascist stuff is now okay, then Marine Le Pen, who has been touting it for decades, gives it a more authentic voice.
Economies cannot be decarbonised and democracy cannot be defended if the present system of feral capitalism, with its vast tolerance for gross inequality, persists
Is there, after the demise of the social democratic consensus of the 1950s and 1960s and then of the neoliberalism of the 1980s and 1990s, the possibility of reconstituting a third centre?
Perhaps – but it would have to be a rather left-facing piece of ground. There are two urgent existential issues on which a broad political consensus simply has to be forged: the climate emergency and the defence of democracy.
In some places – most notably the US – the old centre right is too far gone into white supremacy, religious extremism and climate change denial to come back into that sane centre. Maybe in others – and Ireland could be one of them – a new consensus is still possible.
The big problem, though, is that economies cannot be decarbonised and democracy cannot be defended if the present system of feral capitalism, with its vast tolerance for gross inequality, persists. If there were to be a renewed centre ground, it would have to look a lot more like the 1950s and 1960s, when most of the mainstream right accepted, at least in principle, that democracies had to be constantly moving in the direction of greater equality.
Conservative parties have to ask themselves what it is they want to conserve. If it’s old forms of supremacy and “greatness”, they will be swallowed up by the far right. If it’s a sustainable democracy and a habitable planet, they will have to adopt a very progressive kind of conservatism.