Democracy without Trust: Rhetoric, Responsibility, and Root Causes of Social Conflict

The Republicans in France are the conservative party in a political landscape that was transformed by the rise of Emanuel Macron’s La République En Marche.

Bruno Retailleau represents the Vendée in the French Senate, where he has been serving as President of The Republican group since 2014. His comments prompted by the storming of the Capitol in Washington on January 6 provide a useful European perspective, an alternative to the polarized discourse that has predominated in the United States. In addition to a pointed evaluation of the events themselves, his remarks also offer insight into political positioning in France in advance of the 2022 presidential election: as we are on the eve of the post-Merkel era in Germany, a post-Macron France may be approaching as well. More importantly, however, Retailleau reminds us that what happened in Washington is indicative of tendencies that are not exclusively American. He describes root causes of some contemporary social conflict, treating the Washington riot as symptomatic of tensions as present in France as in the United States, as well as across the West. At stake is more than Trump’s rhetoric, the impeachment debate, or the response to the 2020 presidential election outcome. The issues that fueled the populism of the past four years have not disappeared. Retailleau shows why.

The Republicans in France are the conservative party in a political landscape that was transformed by the rise of Emanuel Macron’s La République En Marche. Macron’s formation founded in 2016 took over a broad center, drawing from the right and the left simultaneously, and therefore it has always been susceptible to internal tensions between its wings. Macron’s popularity among voters has been unstable, and he will face challengers in the 2022 election, including by an as yet undecided candidate on his right from among the Republicans. Further to the right, beyond the Republicans, lies the Rassemblement National, prior to 2018 known as Le Front National, a party frequently viewed as extremist, founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now led by his daughter, Marine Le Pen. She will surely also challenge Macron. Given the peculiarity of the French electoral system, a key question involves which two candidates enter the second round for the presidential competition. If Macron faces Le Pen in the second round, as he did in 2017, conventional wisdom has it that he would surely prevail, since there has never been a majority in France willing to welcome a presidency from an heir to the National Front.

However Macron could prove vulnerable to a Republican candidate. It is therefore noteworthy that Retailleau frames his comments concerning the storming of Capitol Hill by distancing himself from Le Pen, criticizing her for minimizing President Trump’s responsibility in inciting the rioters. By doing so, he draws a clear line in the sand between himself and the far right. At stake in his remarks then is both his judgment on the Washington riot and a chess move within the field of French political competition.

In Retailleau’s account, Le Pen understates the president’s responsibility by describing him as merely having chosen his words poorly, a rhetorical slip with violent but ultimately unintended consequences. In contrast, Retailleau judges Trump more harshly for having failed to take into account the character of his addressees, their mood and their inclinations, i.e., given his public, Trump should have anticipated the results. Maintaining rhetorical moderation is the measure of responsibility that Retailleau expects a political leader to display. Trump and Le Pen, in his view, both fail that test. Intemperate rhetoric is especially inappropriate facing an “exhausted public,” with frayed nerves, anxious about its own decline, and therefore susceptible to provocation. Retailleau’s evaluation is convincing in terms of a political ethics of responsibility, but it is also smart politics. Associating Le Pen, who has a solid but ultimately limited following in the French electorate, with Trump, always unpopular in France, he can stake out his own position as a responsible conservative by distancing himself from the sort of chaos that took place in Washington and which his rival on his right flank fails, so he claims, to denounce sufficiently.

Yet the greater importance of Retailleau’s reflections, especially for American readers, involves another matter—not the jockeying on the French political landscape, not the insistence on the priority of political responsibility, and not even the verdict on Trump, but rather the interpretation of January 6 as something other than a bizarre accident. One might expect in fact for European commentators to treat the riot as somehow typically American, a claim that would fit well into a tradition of anti-Americanism that always expects a certain chaos and immaturity from American democracy. Those are standard tropes.

However, that caricature of American political life does not seem to have gained prominence in the European discussion of Capitol Hill, at least not with Retailleau, who, on the contrary, treats the eruption of violence as symptomatic of extensive social, economic and cultural cleavages. Trump did not cause them, even if his rhetoric ignited the passions around them. On the contrary, the causality works in the other direction, since it was precisely those fundamental fault lines in contemporary Western societies that have contributed to the rise of Trumpist populism in the United States and that have catalyzed similar processes elsewhere; Retailleau mentions Brexit and the “Yellow Vest” crisis in France as examples. A takeaway for the American reader is a wise note of caution: while the Trump administration has come to an end, the social conditions—the root causes—of Trumpism remain. Repressive measures, whether on the part of government or the private sector, such as the Twitter bans, will not solve these problems but, at most, force them to assume new shapes in future metamorphoses of populism 2.0. The harsher the campaign of retribution against Trump’s supporters, the more forceful the unavoidable backlash.

For Retailleau, the core issue in the United States, France, and elsewhere in the West is the continued structural dissociation of elite sectors from the wider population. A likely analysis of the phenomenon could involve a quantitative measuring of increased inequality, in the U.S. a consistent development since the late 1960s (as indicated, for example, by the Gini index). Instead of a detailed economic analysis, however, Retailleau provides a socio-cultural description, identifying two wings of the elite, each associated with specific characteristics: a technocratic wing that claims expertise but ironically proves ineffective, and a progressive wing that celebrates its values and lords them over an allegedly benighted and “deplorable” populace. The two wings can overlap, leading to the picture of a society divided between an impregnable leadership cadre and a disempowered population it aspires to organize, contain, and manage. In Retailleau’s view, the extreme separation of the elite from the populace leads to the possibility of a war of secession, as he names it in his French title, that is, civil strife in a vertically bifurcated social structure.

Retailleau’s critique of a “technocratic” elite points especially to the structure of French national administrative management, the selection of political and private sector leadership from a notoriously small circle of institutions. There is an American parallel, dating at least back to President Eisenhower’s admonition concerning a “military-industrial” complex. In both cases a technological domination of politics has emerged and proven inimical to majoritarian democracy and popular articulations of national interest. An additional path concerning the technical elite leads through cultural and philosophical versions of technology skepticism, and today’s burgeoning disaffection with Big Tech of “GAFA.” The more the big firms engage in the political sphere by manipulating the limits of permissible speech, the more reformist and populist voices, on the left and the right, will call to manage them or even to break up their monopolistic dominance.

A further variant of this empowered technocracy and the critical response to it has been playing out during the pandemic in an epistemological field, the use of knowledge as an instrument of power. Political authorities have repeatedly invoked “science” as an unquestionable foundation of policy, as if science, which is by its nature about the perpetual questioning of hypotheses, could lay claim to an ultimate infallibility. The political instrumentalization of “science” as a vehicle to delegitimize criticism of pandemic-related policies has probably hurt real science in the eyes of the public and contributed to widespread disappointment with the government response to the pandemic in many countries on both sides of the Atlantic. The scientific representatives of government policy who were sometimes initially media stars have lost much of their original luster.

Retailleau also identifies a second, parallel elite wing, the promulgators of progressive values, who choose between the right victims and the wrong (deplorable) threatened classes. While the technocrats present themselves as carriers of scientific expertise, the progressive elites lay claim to an expertise of values. Christopher Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites remains a timely read. A glaring discrepancy is evident between their declared progressivism and the de facto elitism, at odds with any genuine democratic process: government (allegedly) for the people but not by the people. In this hierarchical structure, the validity of permissible values depends on elite endorsement, not majoritarian support and certainly not traditional beliefs. Indeed if many of these values, or the policies that follow from them, were put up to a vote, they would not find widespread appeal (the recent California vote against affirmative action is a case in point: even in a state dominated by the Democratic Party and that chose Biden by a wide margin, the electorate opposed this flagship progressive policy). What results is a conflict between sanctimony from above and resentment from below, a reciprocal belligerence that corrodes the social order and undermines the credibility of political systems in which the non-elite has little chance to advocate its own interests. Hence the objectivity and durability of populism, despite the results of November 2020.

It is not the critique directed at the system that is the danger but the incongruence between a rhetoric of democracy and a reality of hierarchy. Retailleau’s phrasing is exact: “How can we maintain cohesion among citizens who no longer believe in vaccines, in information, or even in election results? The despair of the defenseless has led to a democracy without trust.” The result is an extensive legitimacy crisis, a widespread disbelief in the authenticity of the democratic process and of most social institutions: the Congress, the parties, the media, and so forth. If some on the right have refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, the same held for much of the left after 2016. “Not my president” is a phrase that can move quickly from party to party, a declaration of disaffiliation from the reality principle of state power.

In this context, where a former consensus of confidence and trust has dissipated, conspiracy theories of all sorts proliferate, and a generalized distrust of authority ensues. There is no longer an authoritative narrative, due in part to the partisan character of the press that has renounced goals of objectivity and thereby lost credibility. Parts of the public refuse scientific expertise, while others call for the abolition of the police. As different as the respective allegiances are—the anti-vaxxers versus Antifa—they share an extreme hermeneutics of skepticism toward social order and authority: dismissiveness toward the system is endemic. The storming of Capitol Hill follows from that infinite distrust, but it also continued a pattern of violent unrest that had received approval or at least tacit toleration from much of the country’s media and political establishment: the summer riots fueled by Black Lives Matter and Antifa (which even continued through the Biden inauguration in Portland and Seattle, indicative of an anarchic hostility to American governance regardless of the party in power). Reportedly parts of groups understood as belonging to the extreme right, such as the Boogaloos, have at times even supported BLM due to a shared opposition to the police as a sign of hated state authority. As Retailleau points out, all this is not only an American phenomenon, as shown by the Yellow Vests in France, to which one could add violent conflicts between competing ethnic groups in France and Austria (Turks, Kurds, Chechens), and the youth riots in German cities during the past summer. We are facing societies in which urban riots, whether explicitly politicized or not, have become a new normal: the center is not holding.

Retailleau clearly condemns this violence, in Washington and elsewhere, just as he condemns anyone who condones it. At the same time, however, he reminds us that this is not just about the rhetoric of incitement on the part of politicians. On the contrary, he diagnoses a root cause, a society fracturing in the wake of accelerated elite formation. The causes of this enhanced inequality go beyond his short paper but include aspects of globalization and impacts of new technologies, each of which works against traditional democratic governance: globalization shifts power beyond the democratic nation-state into intangible international bureaucracies, while technologies concentrate power in the new monopolies. Against those sources of social crisis, Retailleau invokes the need for a social contract and policies that would work toward integration through institutions and national communities in order to rebuild the cohesion that has been lost. This is where political leadership matters. The coming years provide an opportunity to reverse the forms of inequality—economic, social, and cultural—but if the elite engages in a triumphalism against the deplorables, the cycle of dissolution will only continue. No one should think that populism has come to an end.

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