Why the left is losing

A political community does not have to be defined in ethnic terms. The United States is not — and never has been, not even during the darkest era of official white supremacy. For that matter, France is not — historically, it has stood out among European nations for its relatively large foreign-born population, and has prided itself on a culture that people from all over Europe, and even beyond, might want to adopt it. But for a political community to exist, its members must at least acknowledge its existence. And that implies some sense of its boundaries.

This process of self-definition is increasingly anathema to liberal parties. Ostensibly, the reason is fear of being exclusionary — even racist. To define the political community in any way beyond the purely formal — those who happen to live in a particular territory — is to risk implying a preference for one group over another. But this kind of thinking is misguided — and not just because the applause for diversity is frequently selective (a common complaint of religious conservatives). The deeper reason may be more subtly self-interested.

The leadership of center-left and liberal parties is increasingly the product of formally meritocratic institutions: universities, government, banks, and other corporations. And their strongest base of support comes from citizens of a similar background, including the professional classes. Success within the world of these institutions often depends on performance metrics as well as formal qualifications and self-promotion — however imperfectly meritocratic they are, there is some basis to their claims to promote the “best” individuals. They do not, however, depend on evidence of political leadership as democracies have traditionally understood it. They do not depend on a deep investment in or ability to speak to a particular political community. And that shows in the way they do speak, whether it’s Hillary Clinton’s self-directed “I’m With Her” campaign slogan or Emmanuel Macron’s statement that there is no such thing as French culture.

These impolitic slips aren’t accidents. People who rose through these systems and these institutions have a vested interest in defining politics in technocratic terms, in suggesting that the purpose of politics is to find the “best” people to make the “best” policy decisions. If that’s what politics is, then community has little to do with political decision-making. Indeed, democracy itself can come to seem more a problem than a solution — if the people can’t bring themselves to make the right decision, then maybe more and more decisions need to be taken out of their hands. The European Union was arguably designed with that very notion consciously in mind.