Democracy's dyin', who's got the will? What France's election tells us about the state of modern discontent

With the left facing disarray and defeat amid a new age of revolution, it's time to ask: Is democracy over?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 22, 2017 4:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Jean-Sebastien Evrard/Jeff J Mitchell)
(Getty/Jean-Sebastien Evrard/Jeff J Mitchell)

A specter is haunting Europe. But nobody can agree about what it is, and whether it’s good or bad. All eyes this weekend are on the dramatic and unprecedented presidential election in France, home of the revolution that set the stage for the modern age, and also home of the paradigmatic slide from revolution into anarchy, terror and tyranny. Right now across the Western world, we seem to be getting both things at once.

I see considerable evidence that we are in a new age of revolution, although these revolutions are happening in relative slow motion, with no obvious signifiers like tanks or barricades in the street. The ideological character of these revolutions is largely unclear — ideology itself being in considerable disrepute — except that they are anti-Establishment and reflect widespread dissatisfaction with the social order of the post-Cold War era. All over the so-called democracies of the so-called West, an upsurge of populist discontent is overthrowing the old order. Or at least trying to — very little about the current political situation is clear, nor is it clear what a hypothetical New Order might look like.

Those who are still fighting to stem the tide of ambiguous revolution, I suspect, are fighting a battle that was lost around the time of Mitt Romney’s bitter, confused 2012 concession speech. My most poignant memory of last year’s presidential campaign, mercifully, has nothing to do with Donald Trump. It was Jeb Bush’s next-to-last stand, when I watched him tell a middle-school auditorium full of concerned middle-class Republicans in a southern New Hampshire suburb that America was in big trouble if it couldn’t find its way back to “regular-order democracy.” He seemed like a genuinely nice man with some bad-to-mediocre policy ideas (a veritable Lorenzo de’ Medici compared to the guy who beat him, needless to say), and at the time I was halfway convinced he had a point.

Much of the horse-race analysis of the French election — and for that matter much of the purported big-picture analysis too — falls into this tradition of pathetic Jeb-style wishcasting, of hoping to harness the whirlwind with reasonable talk and a really good net. I witnessed this phenomenon in full effect at last summer’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia, where the overwhelming ethos was that of normal people behaving normally, in the belief that normalcy would soon be restored. Party loyalists were so rattled by the sometimes intemperate behavior of Bernie Sanders’ delegates — which was in no way exceptional, as political discord goes — precisely because the Bernie troops refused to pretend that everything was OK and we were all Moving Forward Together, in nice but not ostentatious designer clothing. There continues to be a strain of Democratic opinion holding that if only Hillary Clinton had been allowed to run unopposed and if only no one on the left had ever complained about anything — beginning in 2009 or 1992 or, I don’t know, 1968 — we wouldn’t be in this doggone pickle today.

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So we frame the French election largely as a catechism of unhelpful questions. Is far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen the Donald Trump of France? (Sure, although you could just as well put it the other way around.) Is left-wing insurgent Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who emerged from nowhere over the last three weeks to maybe-sorta-kinda being a contender, the Bernie Sanders of France? (I guess. But Mélenchon is actually Bernie en français 2.0; Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon auditioned for the role first, before his campaign flatlined.) Beneath such flattened-out metaphors — are apples really oranges, or shiny, spherical pieces of steak? — lies a deeper, darker lesson.

Democracy is failing. It may already have failed. Can you name a nation where it is working more or less as envisioned? You in the back, the person who quietly said “Canada,” thank you: B-plus for the day. Now go write me two pages, single-spaced, on Canada’s political and economic relationship to the United States, and whether the term “subaltern” applies in this case.

On a global scale, democracy is in deep trouble. And I’m sorry, but Vladimir Putin didn’t do it. He is merely a carrion bird feasting on its remains, and probably not important in historical terms. We need to open our minds to this possibility — maybe representative or parliamentary democracy, on the Euro-American model, simply doesn’t work — and consider the potential landscape that opens up.

Indeed, I’m inclined to believe that the only way to save or redeem democracy, as a principle or an idea or a thought experiment, is not to cling blindly to its current and self-evidently broken manifestation — which in any case is a modern invention, the result of a long and grotesque evolutionary process. Before you start weeping reverently about Rousseau and Jefferson and the empyrean minds of the Enlightenment, what the hell do those guys have to do with the system that has given us Jason Chaffetz and Steve King and a nation of gerrymandered electoral districts that resemble Minnie Mouse being eaten by a python? Here’s what that glorious age has bequeathed us: the fucking Electoral College. Thanks a bunch, Alexander Hamilton!

Anyway: When I look at the French election, I see a bunch of people on both sides of the Atlantic desperately trying to pretend that democracy isn’t broken and may yet yield an acceptable and/or “progressive” outcome. Much of this falls on the shoulders of supposed French frontrunner Emmanuel Macron, a vastly wealthy former investment banker with no real political party and no clear ideology. Macron is young and cosmopolitan and looks great in a 3,000-euro suit; he speaks fluent English and German, which at one time might have been the kiss of death in French politics. Against Marine Le Pen’s nostalgic and xenophobic French nationalism, fueled not just by present-tense Islamophobia but by hints of anti-Semitism and the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, Macron stands for the European Union and the globalized economic order and the sorts of “pragmatic solutions” to social problems that are designed to make your eyes glaze over so you don’t notice the details.

Macron isn’t even the French Hillary Clinton, or at least not the 2016 version, who understood that she needed to embrace a progressive-sounding policy agenda, however unconvincingly. He’s more like Tony Blair, teleported forward from 1995 in the Hot Tub Time Machine, which is something that could only seem like a new and invigorating phenomenon in the peculiar political climate of France. He’s such a hardcore neoliberal he probably doesn’t know that’s become a dirty word: As Salon’s Conor Lynch observed earlier this week, Macron wants to cut corporate tax rates, eliminate 120,000 government jobs and deregulate the economy even more than the widely despised current Socialist government has done. (The government he quit, let us note, presumably because he still found it ever so faintly tinged with pink.)

Is this bizarre ’90s throwback preferable to Le Pen, who might be a throwback to a different era altogether? Well, sure — but my point is that that’s not as important a question as it seems. Even with McDonald’s and Starbucks seemingly on every Parisian street corner, France remains devoted to the proposition that it is not like America, or at least not as much as everyplace else is. If Macron and Le Pen face off in the runoff election next month, which remains the likeliest scenario (though certainly not the only plausible one), he will likely win by a large majority. There is definitely a Trumpian demographic of disgruntled downscale “Europeans” (aka native-born whites) in the provinces and smaller cities that supports Le Pen enthusiastically. But almost 80 percent of the French population lives in urban areas, and nearly one-fifth lives in or around Paris.

OK, but first of all: Haven’t we heard those kinds of assurances somewhere before? It all sounds faintly familiar. Second, and perhaps more important, if those in the transatlantic liberal and neoliberal castes who are so furiously backing Macron believe that his election would signal the end of the worldwide populist insurrection and the restoration of the ancien régime, they’re even more delusional than I thought. As Lynch pointed out, President Macron might well serve to “heighten the contradictions” in French society, and pave the way for Le Pen’s movement to sweep to power in 2022.

Maybe you were expecting me to sing the praises of Mélenchon, the crusty ex-Socialist who has attracted a Bernie-like following among younger French voters virtually overnight, and to suggest that, hey, maybe the left’s not dead after all. It’s tempting, right? But I’d only be trolling you. Here’s the thing: Mélenchon is an important symbol, but probably not an important political figure. He’s important for the same reason Sanders and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn are important: They galvanized a sense of political possibility that had been sidelined or forgotten, and they scared the living crap out of the powers that be.

A recent Bloomberg article even resorted to describing the French candidate as “Communist-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon,” as if that phrase had some point of reference in 2017, or meant anything at all to readers under 40. A day or so later, the same site published a follow-up suggesting that the rich people of France were prepared to flee if Mélenchon is elected, in fear of exorbitant tax increases or perhaps the guillotine.

The Parisian upper crust need not worry. Because the other thing that unites these three aging radicals is that none of them will ever be in power. Sanders lost, Mélenchon is about to lose, and Corbyn and his weak and divided party are likely to get wiped off the map in the surprise British election just called by Prime Minister Theresa May. My conclusion is that under the current ecological conditions of “democracy,” the left — by which I mean the actual left, not the center-left neoliberal parties —  can’t win elections. It can play an inspirational or cheerleading role and it can sometimes play a spoiler role, which of course means it will be pilloried and purged by the center-left, as has repeatedly occurred in the Democratic Party, the Labour Party and the French Socialist Party.

How and why that happened would require many volumes to explore. One way of answering is to say that it took decades of conditioning: Even poor and working-class people were encouraged to compare themselves to those who were less well off or lower in social status, and socialist or social-democratic policies were relentlessly portrayed as wasteful, impractical or useless.

As for the condition of democracy, elections can only count those people who decide to vote, choosing between the options on offer. (France typically has much higher rates of political participation than the U.S., but one in four voters may skip this presidential election.) They provide only a partial and poorly translated account of “the public mood” or any such abstraction, and they tell us almost nothing about what people might want in a more open-ended political universe.

Hence the baffling paradox that large majorities favor progressive policies, in poll after poll, yet actual progressive candidates are hardly ever elected. And so the primary electoral outlet for the incoherent populist revolution of 2016 and 2017, at least so far, has been on the right, with Brexit, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.

French radical scholar Cécile Winter, in fact, perceives a “general law” in Western-style democracy that “the left is necessarily in the minority.” Elections cannot remedy this, she writes, because “they always appeal to the individual account and to the counting of individuals” and can only confirm “that indeed there exists what had always existed in the static, state-like impotence of its dissipation, and nothing else.”

Winter’s solution to this state of political stagnation and despair, induced by the illusory nature of democracy? She thinks the left needs to get over seeing “dictatorship” as a bad word, because it’s the only way stuff actually gets done. OK then! Full points for thinking outside the box! But in all honesty, we might want to bring in some consultants and refine that a little.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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