September 22, 2019 Reading Time: 8 minutes

Today the widespread perception is that politics in democratic nations is in a state of chaos and upheaval. Events such as the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit in the UK are seen as instances of a general uprising against mainstream politics.

Further evidence for this is the rise in many countries of a kind of politics usually described as “right-wing populist” with examples such as the AfD in Germany, the Sweden Democrats, and the RN of Marine Le Pen in France. Some countries, such as Spain and Italy, have also seen the appearance of “left populist” parties while a number of mainstream center-left parties have moved sharply to the left on economics, including the UK Labour Party and the Social Democrats in Denmark.

The same may well happen in the current electoral cycle with the Democrats in the U.S. The kind of “radical center” politics that appeared to be dominant in the 1990s and 2000s is in retreat.

Faced with this, the outside observer could well conclude that we are seeing a breakdown of stable politics and a kind of modern peasants’ revolt, with voters moving to radical parties of left and right. Others fret about a challenge to democracy itself and fear that we are seeing a rerun of the politics of the 1930s. There is certainly cause for alarm, particularly if you are a liberal of any kind, but it is important to understand exactly what is happening.

In fact, the disorder is only apparent. There is a clear pattern to what is going on in most developed countries and a fair number of less developed ones as well. Once you understand what that pattern is, the current situation makes more sense and you can have a much clearer idea of what is likely to happen in the next few years.

The key is to realize that what we are seeing across Europe (and indeed elsewhere) right now is not the normal political cut and thrust, but neither is it a collapse of democratic politics. What we are seeing is a political realignment. What though is that?

In any time and place, there are many political issues and debates that divide people. Typically however just one or two of those debates have a particular salience — they matter to large numbers of people, both voters and what we may call “political investors” (donors, whether individual, corporate, or bodies such as unions). These are the aligning issues — people sort themselves out into large and diverse coalitions on the basis of where they stand on those issues, and political parties both reflect and shape those coalitions.

There is typically one main aligning issue and one or sometimes two secondary ones. It is these main aligning issues that define what “right” and “left” are at a particular time. People who find themselves on the same side of the aligning issue become allies, even when they disagree sharply on other, less salient, issues. Over time those internal divisions tend to diminish, but they never entirely disappear.

After a time however the primary aligning issue loses its salience. This can be because the arguments have become exhausted and a consensus has emerged or because of social and economic change, which means some other division in society has become primary. At this point there is a realignment: the old tribes and coalitions break up and new ones form; allies become foes, and opponents find themselves on the same side; some issues disappear or become secondary while new ones appear. This process usually takes about 10 years but can happen even more quickly.

Sometimes old parties disappear entirely and are replaced by new ones, as happened with the Whigs and Republicans in the U.S. in the 1850s. On other occasions, parties are transformed, rather than being replaced. In that case, although you have a party with the same name and often personnel as before, its voting base and politics are changed significantly. This happened in the last realignment in the U.S., in the 1970s, when the Republican Party became the party of white Southerners and became also the party of both (relatively) free markets and strong social conservatism.

Since the 1930s, the main aligning division in developed societies has been over economics, specifically the question of the relative role and importance of government and politics on the one hand and markets and spontaneous orders on the other.

This reflects deep divisions of interest and perception or experience within those societies and has produced in almost all of them a political division into two large political camps. Since the 1960s there has also often been a secondary division over the degree to which governments should enforce certain moral standards and social norms — combining the two divisions produces four broad blocs of voters.

This though is now changing. In most countries, the economic division is becoming a secondary one instead of the primary one. The emerging primary division and consequent political alignment is over questions of identity and the tension between nationalism and the nation-state on the one hand and supranational governance and a global economy on the other.

Socially it is a division between large, successful, and globally connected metropolitan areas on the one hand, and rural areas plus small towns and declining ex-industrial districts on the other. There is also an acute cultural division between university-educated, often-younger professionals who work in globally connected businesses, and less educated, often-older people who work in less connected sectors, often in insecure employment.

So, the main issues now are ones of culture and identity, of nationalism versus cosmopolitanism, with economics playing a secondary part (the two emerging sides are both internally divided over economic questions).

The new division can be seen very clearly in the U.S. In the 2016 election, Trump won in rural areas, small towns, and ex-industrial regions, while Clinton swept the major metropolitan areas. Socially he still did well among the affluent but also picked up a significant blue-collar vote, while the Democrats made gains among the better off and in suburbia. In fact economic position was a relatively weak predictor of voting choice. The biggest single predictor of support for one candidate or the other was whether or not a voter had been to college. This trend continued in subsequent midterm elections.

In the UK it was this emerging division that led to the vote for Brexit. Subsequent analysis and polling has shown a weak to nonexistent correlation between voting Leave or Remain and economic position but very high (in fact almost perfect) correlation between the position taken on Brexit and a range of social and cultural attitudes or even favorite brands.

The view taken of migration for example was an almost perfect predictor of the way the respondent voted in the referendum. What the Brexit referendum did in the UK case was to accelerate the emergence of the new division and crystalize it. Since the referendum, a series of polls have shown that the identities of Leaver and Remainer are now much stronger and matter far more to most voters than traditional party allegiance.

A similar pattern can be seen in the rest of the EU. In the most recent Europe-wide elections, most countries (Spain and Finland were partial exceptions) saw a decline in votes for the traditional center left and center right. Populist nationalists did well, though not as well as expected. There were gains for green parties and also liberal ones (as opposed to center right).

Again this all reflects the decline of the old alignment and division and the appearance of a new one. Center-left and center-right parties are both based on electoral coalitions defined by their position on the old aligning issue of economics, but those coalitions are now being pulled apart by the new divide over culture and nationalism versus cosmopolitanism.

Social democrats are losing their traditional working class core to the populist right and are also shedding middle class and metropolitan voters to the greens and radical left. Meanwhile the traditional center right is losing voters to both the populist right and the liberals — in the first case rural and also more affluent but older voters, in the second middle class and metropolitan ones.

All this means that the categories of “right” and “left” are changing their commonly understood meaning. Increasingly the “right” is no longer defined by its attachment to free-market economics, even in theory. Instead it is coming to be defined by attachment to nationalism and a focus on a traditional conception of national identity.

In economic terms, this means a focus on policies such as protectionism and the support of “national champions” (i.e., favored large firms) through an industrial policy. There is growing hostility to businesses and sectors that operate on a transnational basis, above all finance but also IT and high-tech industry in general. This kind of combination was very clear in the recent national conservatism conference in Washington, D.C., for example.

We are also seeing the first faint signs, among the more radical fringe of this nationalist right, of support for strongly environmentalist views and policies, which amounts in some cases (such as the Christchurch shooter) to a revival of the older tradition of eco-fascism.

This transformation of the “right” is happening very rapidly in most developed countries and will be complete in less than a decade. At that point we will have a “right” of politics very different from the one most of us are familiar with and in many ways much more like the “right” of the later 19th and early 20th century.

What though will be the opposite pole of the new alignment? Currently in both Europe and the U.S. there are two coherent positions and voting blocs that are coming together in response to the decline of the old center right and center left and the emergence of the new national collectivist right.

One is what we may call radical left/green, a position that combines interventionist economics with environmentalism and a specific kind of radical identity politics. This last aspect alienates this new left from much of the older left’s working class constituency. The other is what we may call cosmopolitan liberals, a group that combines support for a broadly free market economy with personal liberty and cultural individualism, but also supports a more egalitarian public policy than most individualists would like. Both of these groups are cosmopolitan in their outlook and skeptical about nationalism, but they have different ideas about how the supranational order should be organized.

We can see both of these tendencies in the Democratic side of politics in the U.S., and they are currently engaged in a competition for the future of that party. Meanwhile the Republican Party is clearly moving in the national collectivist direction described above and becoming the American nationalist party.

What though should a classical liberal individualist do when faced with this new political situation? Clearly there should be no question of cooperating with the national collectivists, much less allying with them. This is an explicitly anti-liberal politics that rejects liberal principles in every area. On the other hand, the radical left/green bloc is also unwelcoming and hostile. This leaves the cosmopolitan liberals as the group least hostile to individualist ideas and perspectives.

The main problem with politicians and voters in that group, from an individualist point of view, is not their egalitarianism or support for a certain degree of economic interventionism. Rather it is their continued fascination with a technocratic and managerial approach to politics, the idea of a rule by experts.

Faced with this situation, individualist liberals have to walk a straight but narrow path. They should continue to uphold and articulate the individualist perspective on politics and society, clearly and simply, while also pursuing the intellectual agenda of exploring those insights and applying them to the contemporary world.

They should avoid diluting their principles (which is not the same as responding to new challenges or situations). However, they should not go down the road of self-righteous sectarianism and should always distinguish between the ideal and the better and not make the former the enemy of the latter. Individualist classical liberals are relatively few in number, as perhaps they have always been, but the influence and persuasiveness of ideas is not always related to the number of their adherents.

Stephen Davies


Dr Steve Davies, a Senior Fellow at AIER,  is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).

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