For years now, highly paid political consultants have been advising their clients to triangulate, telling them that if they show contempt for old-fashioned ideological dogmas and pinch some of their rivals’ better ideas, they should be able to capture the centre ground which, as everyone knows, is where most of the votes are. That approach worked well enough when moderation, pragmatism and the like were what most people wanted, but as time went by, an increasing number grew tired of the mush politicians were serving them and began demanding something a bit stronger.
Leftists were the first to take advantage of the change in mood. On both sides of the Atlantic, they set about wooing youngish voters by inviting them to storm the battlements of power and put an end to the patriarchy, white privilege, nostalgia for empire and other disgraceful relics of a bygone age. They took it for granted that older folk would follow in the wake of their revolutionary offspring.
In Latin America, priorities may have been rather different, but even so fervent Kirchnerites and other populists who posed as left-leaning progressives gleefully adopted the causes that were making waves in the United States and Europe. Despite their alleged opposition to cultural imperialism, they imported wholesale gay rights, women’s liberation, transgenderism and the need to make Spanish androgynous by replacing vowels reflecting ancient sexual prejudices with suitably neutral ones. Some enthusiasts are promoting a strange dialect that sounds more like Catalan than any known variety of Castilian.
It has all been great fun for leftists, but their moment in the sun may soon be over. Though they remain well-entrenched in the media, academe, and what currently passes for culture, they are finding it hard to push back the horde of right-wingers who, like them, have no interest in triangulating anything. Calling the upstarts who are ruining their party names is counterproductive. Upstanding men and women no longer shudder with disgust when confronted by “ultraconservatives,” “extreme right-wingers,” or “neo-fascists” who are accused of preferring “hate” to “love.”
The Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro understands this very well, which is why hopes that he would sidle towards the centre-ground in search of the few extra votes he needs to beat his leftist rival, Fernando Haddad, in the final round of Brazil’s electoral process soon faded. Why, he asked, should he pretend to be “Jairzinho peace and love” – his tongue-in-cheek adaptation of a mawkish slogan used by his arch-enemy Lula when in a tender mood – after getting where he is despite, or because of, all his bloodthirsty rhetoric?
Like the many others whose ability to attract voters is spreading panic among defenders of the established order, the former Army officer and long-time parliamentarian thinks he owes his success to his willingness to make the most of the loathing millions of people have come to feel for the middle-of-the-road consensus that until fairly recently dominated politics in much of the world but which does not offer plausible solutions for the very real problems all societies are facing.
The phase which is coming to an end began when the Soviet Union got dumped on what Leon Trotsky once called the garbage heap of history, a place he thought would be reserved for the mild Mensheviks he and his comrades were intent on wiping out. Then it seemed reasonable to assume that, as Francis Fukuyama had predicted, all countries would eventually adopt a blend of freemarket capitalism and social welfare, and that while arguments would continue about how much of one or the other should be put into the mixer, the result would be much the same.
For a couple of decades, moderation was the name of the game. Socialists and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, triangulated like mad and converged until it became hard to tell them apart. But then people started to object to a boring status quo. They wanted something more exciting than being asked to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, neither of whom knew what to do in order to keep most people satisfied with their lot in life. So some on what was broadly assumed to be the leftward side of the ideological spectrum decided that their own particular ethnic, sexual, religious or ideological group deserved to be compensated for the terrible things they had allegedly suffered in the previous decades, centuries or millennia. They tended to agree that not merely nationalism but also the nation state was wicked and therefore called for open borders.
Before too long, such views provoked the reaction of many others who believed themselves to be under attack, as indeed most of them were. For these, the “right-wingers” who have been winning support in Europe, North America and also, thanks to Bolsonaro, in Brazil are fighting against a leftist elite which is determined to hold them down. Disgruntled Europeans and North Americans resent having to make way for noisy “minorities” who assume their time has come, and strongly object to seeing their neighbourhoods transformed by immigrants from exotic places who, far from seeking to adapt to their new surroundings, want their hosts to embrace their own customs and prejudices. Bolsonaro evidently shares many of their prejudices; among other things, he says blacks are useless layabouts who “are not even fit for breeding” and Amerindians “stink.”
To make matters more complicated, what is going on has little to do with the traditional differences between Left and Right. Islam is by any reckoning a conservative creed, far more so than Catholicism, but that has not stopped leftists and even feminists from allying themselves with hard-line clerics who say women should be kept firmly in their divinely allotted place. Some even call for blasphemy laws to be revived.
Once upon a time, European and North American leftists thought the largely white “proletariat” of their countries would save the world; today, they see the local working class as an ignorant rabble which deserves whatever fate newcomers may have in store for it. In other words, people who think of themselves as progressives look increasingly like conservatives and those they deride as reactionaries are forming the new avant-garde, though what they are marching us towards is anybody’s guess.