Cynics who say power is all that counts in politics forget that power without ideas is just improvisation. It is ideas that enable leaders to impose a direction on events. Margaret Thatcher’s death last year reminds us what it felt like to be led by a conviction politician. Some hated the UK prime minister’s direction, but no one doubted there was one. No one doubted that her success helped produce a conviction politician on the progressive side: Tony Blair.
In the past 15 years, few politicians have imposed their will on our times. We can blame the current crop of leaders for that, but the deeper cause seems to lie in the waning power of ideas. Politics is more polarised than ever, but behind the party stockades, diminishing bands of believers repeat partisan incantations that no longer describe the world, let alone change it.
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We are living through the slow decay of the two master narratives – conservative and progressive – that have defined political argument since 1945. Whether you liked it or not, the conservatism that Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper crafted in the 1940s had the courage of its convictions. It was a passionate defence of individual freedom and competitive markets against state tyranny. When articulated by politicians of genius, such as Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan, these ideas conveyed a confidence about the future that forced progressives to answer with a vision of their own. In the dialectic of politics, without conviction conservatism, there would have been no progressive Third Way.
American conservatism today is an embittered shell of Reagan’s vision. Country club Republicans defend the privileges of the elites while Tea Party insurgents wage a rearguard revolt against the welfare state and the sexual revolution. In Europe, conservatism risks curdling into a sour language of fear towards foreigners, immigrants and the European dream itself.
Progressives seem unable to capitalise on conservatism’s travails. The depression has not produced a John Maynard Keynes de nos jours – and no youth protest from Madrid to Rio has inspired a rebirth in progressive thought. The Occupy movement came and went without leaving an intellectual trace.
In this vacuum of ideas, progressivism’s motto today seems to come from Hilaire Belloc: “Keep a-hold of Nurse for fear of something worse.” Progressives have become closet conservatives, defending the welfare state and the public-sector middle class at the very moment when rising inequality is eroding the tax and voter base for welfarism.
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In the resulting political void, economists rule, but technical fixes lack the anchorage of public support. Economic policy lurches between excessive austerity and timid reflation. The great fear that grips democratic electorates – that globalised markets will once again run out of control – remains unaddressed. And no politician seems to hear these fears or offer hope.
It is no use bemoaning polarisation. The stockades are unlikely to come down soon. Conservative and progressive polarisation endures for good reason. Each tradition offers different answers to the fundamental question of politics: how to control the power of the market and of the state. Yet the current exhaustion of these two traditions illustrates a paradox: neither can renew itself unless each learns from the other.
Progressives will have to make their peace with the creative destruction brought about by competition, while conservatives will have to accept that the state has to take care of the market’s victims. As governments’ powers of surveillance grow, progressives will learn new respect for the conservative instinct that state power must be kept in check. As the globalisation of finance multiplies the risk of systemic meltdown, conservatives will begin to appreciate the progressive insight that only the state can keep markets from dropping us into the abyss.
One side of the partisan divide will put social justice first; the other, profits. But one is not the enemy of the other. And, whichever side wins power, each will have to repair the fissures of disadvantage that the new economy is carving into our social fabric. These risk pulling our societies apart unless both sides put their authority behind a social contract in which the success of the few enriches life for the many.
Finally, both traditions will not survive unless they remember what political ideas are for: to bring us together and enable us to believe that we can control our collective destinies. Without a political vision of where we should be headed, we become spectators of our own drift.
When democracies drift, as they are now, voters edge towards extremes, towards demagogues who throw false solutions at imagined problems. If the demagogues of right and left are to be defeated, politicians in the vital centre need to learn from their adversaries, break with the polarities of our time and, most of all, give fellow citizens faith that we can master events rather than bob in the tide.
The writer teaches politics at Harvard and is the author of ‘Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics’