A new two party system?

by John Quiggin on July 5, 2019

Recent elections (notably including those for the European Parliament) have shown the evolution of what I’ve called a three-party system, replacing the alternation between soft and hard versions of neoliberalism dominant since the 1980s. The three parties in this analysis are the (a) remaining elements of the neoliberal consensus, (b) Trumpists[1], and (c) leftists, defined as broadly as possible to encompass greens, feminist, social democrats, old-style US liberals, as well as those who would consciously embrace the label “Left”.

When I wrote in 2016, the biggest loser from this process seemed to be the kind of soft neoliberalism exemplified by Blair, and many of the European social democratic parties. But that was before Trump and Brexit.

The striking development of the past few years has been the capitulation of the mainstream rightwing parties to various forms of Trumpism. That’s most obvious with the US Republicans. And, while some advocates of Brexit may still hope for a free-market utopia, its pretty clear now that this is unlikely to happen. The continuing desire to get Brexit done at all costs is all about culture wars, with Leavers cast as the British people and Remainers as out of touch elites. The same pattern is evident in Australia, where free market policies have been abandoned in favour of culture wars, to the extent that the government is seriously considering building coal-fired power stations, just to make a point.

I’m not well enough attuned to the nuances of European politics to discuss developments at the national level. In aggregate, though, it seems clear not only that the mainstream conservatives are losing ground electorally, but that they are moving towards Trumpism.

This suggests that the current three-party system might rapidly resolve itself into a new two-party system: Trumpists against everyone else, with the remnants of the old neoliberal duopoly being forced to take sides. This is already happening to some extent.

In this context, it was striking to read a piece in the Washington Post, of all places, slamming the “economically conservative, socially liberal” centrism of Howard Schultz, and pointing out that

Centrism,” in other words, has become a byword for the politics of the business elite. Defined left to right, on an x-axis, it may approximate the center of the political spectrum. But on a y-axis that represents socioeconomic status, it sits at the very top.

It’s hard to say where centrists will end up. On the one hand, they mostly benefit from the regressive tax policies and weak regulation that Trumpists have carried over from hard neoliberalism. On the other hand, the Trumpists have abandoned free markets for crony capitalism, typically favoring well-connected national insiders, exemplified by the US First Family. That poses problems for global corporations and fans of globalized capitalism like Tom Friedman, who still yearn for the halcyon days of the 1990s.

As ought to be obvious, I’m still working this out, so I’ll leave it to commenters from here.

fn1. I previously called this group “tribalists”, which was problematic. The Key characteristic is the identity politics of a formerly unchallenged dominant group facing the real or perceived prospect of becoming a politically weak minority, as with white Christians in the US. As Trump and others have shown, this kind of politics leads naturally to support for demagogic dictators and would-be dictators.