The French presidential election suggests a new understanding of political reality, one that might be applied, I think, to Western democracies generally: nations continue to be divided by social groupings, seemingly according to sociological law, but no longer necessarily along a left/right axis. In France and elsewhere, the line now clearly separates the partisans of an open society from those who favor a closed society.

For the open society, we find the supporters of free movement of people and free trade, of international institutions and agreements such as the European Union and NATO, of an economy based on enterprise, of a regulatory state, of personal freedom, and of belief in the universality of human rights. Those who prefer a closed society largely oppose these classically liberal impulses and prefer a strong, even authoritarian state, one that serves a nation conceived according to a unique, homogenous identity, whether cultural, ethnic, or religious. The partisans of a closed society see a Golden Age in the past; those of an open society see it lying ahead, in the future.

These two visions have policy implications, whether the question concerns education, economics, social welfare, or immigration. Emmanuel Macron, Mariano Rajoy, and Angela Merkel are obviously on the side of an open society, while Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Erdoğan favor a more closed one.

Though Sunday’s electoral result was close and largely a matter of circumstance—the scandals surrounding the conservative François Fillon, the mediocrity of the socialist Benoît Hamon—it is no accident that the two finalists, Macron and Le Pen, do not coincide with the traditional left/right cleavage. All the democracies of Europe have reached a kind of equilibrium, both national and international, in which the market economy rules, more or less regulated by state intervention, along with a generalized redistribution that can be judged either excessive or inadequate. The debate now concerns only the placement of the cursor, if you will—more to the social side or more toward the free-market, liberal position. The choice between the Left and the Right no longer represents the fundamental political division, and the traditional parties of government are bound to disappoint. Voters elect left-wing leaders and blame them for pursuing conservative policies; they elect right-wing leaders and complain that they’re insufficiently conservative. The Right, which was historically statist in Europe, no longer has much to propose, and the Left, which came out of Marxism and utopian socialism, is equally exhausted.

On the other hand, the questions of an open versus a closed society, of a national or European identity, for or against immigration, for or against the spirit of free enterprise—these are strong notions that appeal to the imagination. The advocates of “openness” and those of “closure” will in turn be obliged to avoid disappointing; they will need to be more creative than they have shown so far. The partisans of closure, by their lack of realism, harm economic progress and innovation; they sow fear of the Other and possible violence, both internally and on the borders. “Open” advocates look to maintain society as it is now, without deep reflection on the imperfections of the global market and the problems that the global flow of people and capital create.

Contemporary populism is clearly the product of a long European history, of an eternal nationalism, a sense of belonging to an imaginary and supposedly warm community, and of instinctive distrust of the Other; but it is also anchored in the real malaise produced by contemporary society, with its changes in the nature of work and morality. It is an uncomfortable fact that populism does better among the less educated, who live far from urban centers, than among better-educated city-dwellers. Macron rightly observed that the great cultural, social, and political divorce is rooted in our education, beginning in the primary grades—and maybe even earlier. It seems certain, in any case, that we are watching a clear reorganization of democratic choices.

Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images


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