American democracy has had a rough few years. We seem to have worn out the word “unprecedented.” Even if the pace of the news out of Washington has slowed in the Biden era, the respite still feels precarious.
But if you look back further in history, American democracy has seen some crazy before. In fact, in the years between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century, U.S. politics was far more unruly, violent and corrupt than it’s been before or since, for politicians and ordinary Americans alike. It was a period of mass participation, but also mass outrage. Even as millions turned out to vote, march and fight, many agreed with the populist newspaper the Nonconformist when it grumbled, “we are the worst governed country on the face of the earth.”
It might be hard to accept that the political worries of a nation of mutton-chopped Rutherfords could feel as urgent as our own. But the volume of politics in the late 1800s drowns out anything any living American has experienced. For one thing, that era saw the highest turnouts in U.S. history. Imagine if, instead of the impressive 66 percent of eligible voters who went to the polls this past November, the 2020 election drew a turnout of 82 percent, as in 1876. Or if, instead of being decided by hundreds of thousands of votes in half-dozen swing states, elections were won, as in 1884, by just 1,047 voters in one state. Or if, instead of lies about widespread fraud, tens of thousands of votes really were stolen at each election.
Imagine a 2020 every four years, for 40 years.
Or consider living in an age when, instead of individual incidents of political violence, the news contained so many outrages that the papers could barely list them all: Black voters murdered during Reconstruction, organized labor crushed with brute force, urban machines warring like gangs, regular “knockdowns” and “awlings” — when campaigners actually stabbed people with awls to keep them from voting for the opposition. Literally thousands of people died in political warfare. These were the years, after all, that saw three of the four presidential assassinations in American history.
There’s value in revisiting this era beyond making us feel better about our own political dysfunctions. America ultimately got out of that messy phase, offering us lessons about political reform and the tradeoffs that sometimes come with it. In what we might call the “Great Quieting,” Americans after 1900 managed to restrain the worst aspects of their political culture; our standards for “normal” democracy come from this forgotten revolution. But we lost some of the good with the bad, as political participation and enthusiasm crashed in the 20th century.
As we debate how to rein in our own political chaos today, this history reminds us that we might sacrifice something vital in the process.
How did 19th century politics get so broken? It began with optimism. With the end of the Civil War, many Americans hoped they were heading into an era of “pure democracy,” freed from old limitations and elitist hierarchies. Since the founding, more and more people of all classes had started to participate in politics. And with the defeat of the aristocratic Southern slave power, as well as the possibilities of Black voting rights and maybe even women’s suffrage, it looked like a populist alliance of Northern laborers, Southern freed slaves and new immigrants might eradicate what one hopeful New Hampshire preacher dismissed as “class government.”
Minority rule had governed most societies for most of history, but in America after 1865, as the flamboyant New York boss Roscoe Conkling put it, “the will of the majority must be the only king; the ballot-box must be the only throne.”
The result was a carnival of public, partisan, passionate politics. Although today we wince when we see men with torches marching in the night, this was how nearly every campaign hyped up voters in pre-election rallies from the 1860s through the 1890s. Citizens grew used to watching thousands of torch-waving, uniformed young partisans streaming through their towns and cities, surrounded by crowds of cheering, jeering, fighting, flirting onlookers. This style predominated nationwide, burning the brightest in swing districts, big cities, the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest—basically wherever the political fight was hottest. And each successive campaign upped the ante, turning out banners and broadsides, whiskey and lager, barbecues and clambakes, brickbats and revolvers.
European visitors were stunned. Many wrote home about the wild spectacle of an American election, watching “people living as far asunder as the population of Paris is from that of St. Petersburg” simultaneously break out in political debate. To Europeans, it looked like a festival of diversity, anchored by working-class young white marchers and filled out by clubs of African Americans, Cubans or Italians, all joining “the motley crowd — American, Irish, Mexican, and Chinese,” as one stunned London correspondent reported out of San Francisco. Other travelers marveled at America’s women, denied the right to vote but still fiercely opinionated. Tourists never got used to watching schoolgirls argue politics on the streetcars.
A Swedish immigrant wrote home, proud of his new country, where “both the millionaire and the poor working man” seemed ready to break out in a compelling political speech, where “[a]ll work with both hands and feet to get the party they belong to on top.”
Those parties defined everything. When one immigrant in Pennsylvania was asked, during his naturalization test, to explain the structure of the U.S. government, he famously responded that it was “two-sided.” That about summed it up, with Republicans and Democrats locked in a perpetual war. The parties became identifiers for something larger than policies, two tribes using politics to fight over race, class, religion, immigration, inequality and more. As today, many Americans could tell, at a glance, who was a Democrat and who a Republican.
And no wonder so many gravitated toward these parties: There was little else to anchor their lives. In a booming, diverse, disrupted nation, filling with new immigrants and new factories and new cities, the parties were rare institutions that offered stability. Tammany Hall Boss Richard Croker (himself once jailed for an Election Day stabbing) claimed his machine was the Republic’s “great digestive apparatus,” turning rough, foreign-born paupers into the nation’s fuel. Drink at the party’s saloon, march in the party’s rallies, curse the party’s enemies, and suddenly an isolated individual had a tribe. Party offered identity, for good and for bad.
Such public, partisan campaigns fired up the nation’s passions. Thousands of newspapers stoked a steam-punk outrage machine, cranking out verbose insults and sarcastic accusations. There was no assumption of objectivity — fewer than 5 percent of papers identified as “independent” —keeping most readers locked in their partisan bubbles. Such heated emotions drove what one unimpressed political scientist called “government by indignation.”
“The law of everything,” explained Roscoe Conkling, the U.S. senator in love with the new doctrine of survival of the fittest, “is competition.”
By the 1870s, the optimism of the post-Civil War era was turning into a public acknowledgement that what made American politics exciting also made it maddening. Neither party passed decisive legislation; presidents did next to nothing. Yet the fight for their office turned into what Teddy Roosevelt called “a quadrennial Presidential riot.” Party bosses, like Manhattan’s George Washington Plunkitt, found it easier to rile up voters if he avoided the topic of legislation altogether, preferring culture war fodder or free booze and free jobs. “I don’t trouble them with political arguments,” Plunkitt smiled.
At first, thought leaders and barroom grumblers blamed the politicians. The well-to-do heaped scorn on the working-class politicos who had won so much power, and who were caricatured as thieving vultures, “shifty-eyed, dribbling tobacco, badly dressed,” in the words of Henry Seidel Canby, a wealthy Delaware Quaker. There were plenty of easy targets, men with nicknames like Boss Tweed and Lord Roscoe, Pig Iron Kelley and Black Jack Logan, Bill the Butcher and Bathhouse John. Other Americans assigned fault to a widening circle of real culprits — the parties, the press, the monopolies — and also scapegoats like Black voters, Catholic immigrants and Jewish socialists.
But some argued that democracy itself was the problem. By the late 1870s, a class of bitter elite intellectuals — tired of being drowned out in America’s working-class democracy — argued that majority rule and human equality were nothing but schemes to siphon power from “superior to inferior types of men.” The Boston historian Francis Parkman made this case in a famous screed titled “The Failure of Universal suffrage,” in which he accused the voters of being “a public pest,” wielding “promiscuous suffrage” against their betters.
Elite “reformers,” both Northern and Southern, pushed back against the widening of democracy. In the South, white Democrats attacked African American voting rights. Moving from election day terrorism to a campaign of lynchings to Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement, they suffocated a generation of Black politicians, born as slaves but elected as members of Congress, senators and governors. After new state constitutions were introduced, such as in Louisiana, the number of registered Black voters there crashed from 130,000 to just 1,342 in just eight years. In the North, “reform” was subtler. When New York’s elites moved to disenfranchise the 69 percent of the electorate of New York City that didn’t own much property, organized labor rebelled, filling the streets, threatening violence and scuttling the scheme.
Three-quarters of a century of democratic gains couldn’t be taken away, but maybe the carnival could be quieted? By the 1880s, sneering aristocrats had given way to a bigger bloc of upper-middle class reformers, who felt trapped between upstart millionaires and agitated masses, what Josiah Strong, a notoriously bigoted Protestant minister and popular author, called “the dangerously rich and the dangerously poor.” This rising coalition set about making politics more respectable. Some operated with the “secret cause” of shutting down mass democracy, but others legitimately wanted to clean up government, or rationalize politics, or win women suffrage. They mixed the highest and the lowest of motivations, agreeing only a new style. The problem with democracy was that it was too loud, too busy, too convulsive. Instead of suppressing the vote, what if they could just make participating less compelling?
This new generation launched a revolution for boring politics.
The resulting changes looked small, but they fundamentally reframed democracy. Cities introduced permit requirements to end those raucous public marches. They closed saloons on Election Day in order to guarantee sober voters. “Educational campaigns” printed sheafs of dense pamphlets about issues like tariffs or the currency. Parties replaced on-the-ground volunteers with paid organizers. And voting itself grew calmer. Previously, voters had gathered in noisy crowds to cast party-printed, color-coded paper ballots. After about 1890, individuals were isolated in new polling booths, “alone with their conscience,” as the Los Angeles Times put it, to select candidates from text-dense, government-printed secret ballots.
The changes made voting more thoughtful and less open to fraud or intimidation — but also more isolating, harder for illiterate or non-English speakers, and a lot less fun.
The results were predictable. Turnout crashed. Up through 1896, presidential election turnout averaged 77 percent. But after 1900, it fell consistently in election after election across 20 years, until fewer than half of eligible voters bothered to participate. Even the rise of women’s suffrage didn’t stop the free-fall. Participation crumbled most among voters who were working class, young, Black or immigrants, leaving an electorate that was whiter, older and wealthier. These are the years when wealth and education first began to correlate with turnout.
This Great Quieting also pulled government away from the public. The number of members in Congress, which had always increased with population, froze permanently in 1911. Even though the nation has tripled in population since then, we’re still stuck at 435 representatives, who are by necessity more distant from their constituents. At the same time, elections became less competitive, with more landslides, safer seats and more incumbents. Presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson seized more power, as did administrators and federal agencies. These changes helped to enable a wave of Progressive legislation, improving Americans’ lives in immeasurable ways. But they also put new distance between the people and their politics.
As one muckraking journalist wrote in 1903, while the 19th century often meant “politics without government,” the 20th century would be the age of “government without politics.”
It was no longer polite to talk politics at the dinner table. Tribal partisanship withered, until by mid-century, political scientists noticed that voters really couldn’t distinguish between the two parties. And people restrained the raucous energies politics had once unleashed. Political violence declined. In the late 1800s, one congressman was murdered every seven years, on average; in the 20th century, it was one every 25.
This is the origin story of “normal” politics — the style that has been under “unprecedented” assault over the past few years. As old restraints crumble, Americans have seen a new heat seep back into politics. It’s not entirely a bad thing, pushing up engagement, turnout and ownership again. Youth participation is up, and the era of shrugging, don’t-talk-politics-at-the-dinner-table apathy is over. But that old vitriol has risen, too.
This history seems to suggest that we must choose: “politics without government” or “government without politics”? Now that we have made it through 2020, can we enjoy the benefits of popular, participatory democracy without ugly, tribal, violent consequences? Our past shows the alternative, the tragic overcorrection, the culling of the best aspects of a political culture along with its worst tendencies. It’s a mistake we should remember as we fight to fix our democracy again today.
Debt Limit Fight as Much About 2022 Politics as Fiscal Policy – BNN
(Bloomberg) — The U.S. is heading to the precipice of a debt default as much for the sake of campaign ads and political branding as fiscal philosophy.
While agreeing that the statutory limit on U.S. borrowing must be raised before it’s breached sometime next month, Republicans and Democrats are completely at odds over who should act.
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell argues that Democrats alone are responsible since they are pursuing a partisan multi-trillion dollar tax and spending plan. The Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, accuses Republicans of trying to “dine and dash” on the cost of their 2017 tax cuts and wants their fingerprints on the vote to raise the debt ceiling.
The debt limit fight has become part of an ongoing struggle between the parties to shape public perceptions of President Joe Biden’s agenda heading into next years congressional election.
For Republicans, it puts the focus on the overall cost of Biden’s economic plan, rather than popular components like paid family leave and an expanded child tax credit. And it ties Biden to the rising national debt, never mind the ballooning deficits under former President Donald Trump.
That prepares ground for the kind of traditional Republican campaign against tax-and-spend liberalism that McConnell is trying to steer his party toward instead of centering the midterm election on cultural issues and Trump’s false charges about election fraud.
At its most basic level, McConnell’s bid to force a Democrats-only vote to raise the limit gives the GOP ready ammunition for campaigning.
“It’s another line in the attack ad,” said Michael Steel, who was then-Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s press secretary during the 2011 fight over raising the debt limit. “Increasing the debt limit is a terribly unpopular vote.”
Many lawmakers make little effort to cloak their political motives. Republican Senator Rick Scott, who heads the Senate GOP’s campaign committee, said he expects Democrats’ votes in favor of raising the debt ceiling will feature prominently in the 2022 election.
“Oh yeah, you’re going to hear about it a lot,” Scott said.
Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, said the party-line debt limit vote will “absolutely” help crystalize the case that Democrats’ spending is out of control. “It will be very effective in Iowa.”
Democrats are already heading into a challenging midterm campaign, particularly in the House, where the party has a slim majority, Democratic-leaning states are losing seats to Republican ones in the Census reapportionment, and the president’s party typically loses members during midterm elections. Control of the 50-50 Senate also is in play.
“It’s total political rhetoric, drama,” Michigan Democratic Representative Debbie Dingell said. “We shouldn’t be playing political games the way we are.”
Democratic leaders have primarily responded by casting the GOP as reckless with the economy in their readiness to risk a debt default as well as their actions when they controlled the White House and Congress.
The total U.S. debt rose from $19.8 trillion, or 104% of gross domestic product, when Trump took office in 2017 to $28.1 trillion, or 128% of GDP when he left in 2021. The $8.3 trillion increase during Trump’s single term is almost as much as the $10.6 trillion rise during Barack Obama’s two terms.
Democrats claim their $3.5 trillion economic program won’t add to deficits because it will be paid for with tax increases on corporations and the wealthy, though they haven’t finished negotiating a final version and the independent Congressional Budget Office hasn’t yet made a projection. A separate bipartisan infrastructure package backed by Biden would add $256 billion to the national debt over the next decade, the CBO estimated.
Democrats voted with Republicans three times during the Trump presidency to raise or suspend the debt limit to avoid default, despite opposing the 2017 Republican tax cuts that added to the debt.
This time, McConnell is insisting Democrats use a process called reconciliation to pass the debt limit increase in the Senate without Republican votes. Democrats so far have refused. They instead added the debt limit increase to stopgap legislation to avert an Oct. 1 government shutdown and fund disaster aid, daring Republicans to oppose the measure. The legislation passed the House, but Republicans have vowed to block the measure in the Senate when a procedural vote is taken as soon as Monday.
So far, Democratic efforts to blame Republicans for the stand-off haven’t worked. Asked which party would be more to blame if the U.S. defaulted, 33% of Americans said Democrats, 42% both parties, and only 16% Republicans, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll taken Sept. 18-20.
The stability of global financial markets and strength of U.S. economic growth once again are on the line in the resulting game of chicken.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, warned in a note to clients that even a short default would raise borrowing costs to U.S. taxpayers for decades. A prolonged default on U.S. debts would cost the country 6 million jobs, drive down U.S. stock prices by a third and wipe out $15 trillion in household wealth, Moody’s predicts.
Even without a default, brinksmanship over the debt limit between Republicans and the Obama administration in 2011 provoked the first-ever downgrade in the U.S. sovereign credit rating and contributed to a stock-market slide.
The political payoff for the risk is nebulous.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres, a 30-year campaign veteran, can’t think of a single election in which a debt limit vote played a decisive role.
“There may be some campaign out there that someone can point to,” Ayres said, “I can’t come up with one.”
Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a think tank aligned with the Democratic party’s moderate wing, also argues there’s “more bark than bite” in established political wisdom that votes to raise the debt limit are perilous.
Even so, many moderate Democratic lawmakers represent closely divided constituencies and aren’t anxious to add to their political risks. Public feeling on government debt can be potent.
“American voters’ sensitivity to debt and deficits shows up episodically, but when it shows up it shows up with a vengeance,” Kessler said, citing the Tea Party movement that began in 2009 and helped provide energy for the Republican resurgence in the 2010 midterm elections.
Pete Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster who has worked for party leaders’ House Majority super-PAC in battleground races every election the past decade, said the midterm results will hinge on what the public believes about the party’s economic strategy. And that is the critical battle beneath the surface.
“An economic narrative is critical,” Brodnitz said. “If the economy gets better, Democrats won’t be helped unless there is a Democratic strategy people associate with it.”
The debt limit fight is playing out just as Congress debates the spending packages that will enact the Biden agenda and voters are forming impressions of the plan.
“They want the narrative to be the Democrats just want to spend,” Brodnitz said. “We need the narrative to be we’re trying to invest in our future, and the Republicans are trying to stand in the way.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.
German Election Heralds Messier Politics and Weaker Leadership After Merkel – The New York Times
Preliminary results indicated an outcome so tight that it could take months of talks to form a new government at a critical moment for Europe.
BERLIN — After 16 years of Angela Merkel as their chancellor, Germans scattered their votes across the political spectrum on Sunday in the election to replace her, a fractured return that heralds a messier political era in Germany and weaker German leadership in Europe.
Preliminary official results gave the center-left Social Democrats a lead of 1.6 percentage points, an outcome so close that no one could yet say who the next chancellor would be nor what the next government would look like.
The only thing that seemed clear was that it would take weeks if not months of haggling to form a coalition, leaving Europe’s biggest democracy suspended in a kind of limbo at a critical moment when the continent is still struggling to recover from the pandemic and France — Germany’s partner at the core of Europe — faces divisive elections of its own next spring.
Sunday’s election signaled the end of an era for Germany and for Europe. For over a decade, Ms. Merkel was not just chancellor of Germany but effectively the leader of Europe. She steered her country and the continent through successive crises and in the process helped Germany become Europe’s leading power for the first time since two world wars.
Her time in office was characterized above all by stability. Her center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union, has governed in Germany for 52 of the 72 postwar years, traditionally with one smaller party.
But the campaign proved to be the most volatile in decades. Armin Laschet, the candidate of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, was long seen as the front-runner until a series of blunders compounded by his own unpopularity eroded his party’s lead. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic candidate, was counted out altogether before his steady persona led his party to a spectacular 10-point comeback. And the Greens, who briefly led the polls early on, fell short of expectations but recorded their best result ever.
On Sunday, the Christian Democrats’ share of the vote collapsed well below 30 percent, heading toward the worst showing in their history. For the first time, three parties will be needed to form a coalition — and both main parties are planning to hold competing talks to do so.
“It’s so unprecedented that it’s not even clear who talks with whom on whose invitation about what, because the Constitution does not have guardrails for a situation like that,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, the Berlin-based vice president of the German Marshall Fund, a research group.
Even before the first official returns were announced, the battle lines were drawn as both main contenders to succeed Ms. Merkel as chancellor announced their claims to the top job — and their intention to fight for it. A long tradition of deferential, consensus-driven politics was quickly evaporating, giving way to a more raucous tone.
At the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Berlin, loud cheering erupted when the first exit polls were announced. “The S.P.D. is back!” Lars Klingbeil, the party’s general secretary, told the crowd of party members, before Mr. Scholz took the stage with his wife and insisted “that the next chancellor is called Olaf Scholz.”
Across town, at the conservative headquarters, Mr. Laschet, the candidate of Ms. Merkel’s party, made clear who he thought the next chancellor should be, saying, “We will do everything to form a government.”
It is a messy set of circumstances likely to complicate the negotiations to form a government. And whoever ends up being chancellor will have not just a weaker mandate — but less time to spend on leading in Europe, analysts said.
“Germany will be absent in Europe for a while,” said Andrea Römmele, dean of the Hertie School in Berlin. “And whoever becomes chancellor is likely to be a lot more distracted by domestic politics.”
With two-thirds of the voting districts counted, the Social Democrats appeared to have a slight lead, with less than two percentage points dividing the two main parties. Analysts said the vote could continue to swing marginally in favor of either party. Four in 10 Germans voted by mail-in ballots, which were being counted at the same time as votes dropped into ballot boxes.
But few anticipated a dramatic turn that would yield a less murky outcome and alleviate the need for protracted coalition talks.
The outcome gives significant leverage to the two smaller parties that are almost certain to be part of any new government: the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats. Courted by both Mr. Scholz and Mr. Laschet, they have signaled they will first talk among themselves.
“Two Maybe-Chancellors and Two Kingmakers,” read one headline of the German public broadcaster ARD.
In one way Sunday’s returns were an expression of how disoriented voters are by the departure of Ms. Merkel, who is leaving office as the most popular politician in her country.
The chancellor oversaw a golden decade for Europe’s largest economy, which expanded by more than a fifth, pushing unemployment to the lowest levels since the 1980s.
As the United States was distracted by multiple wars, Britain gambled its future on a referendum to leave the European Union and France failed to reform itself, Ms. Merkel’s Germany was mostly a haven of stability.
“She was the steady hand at the helm, the steady presence,” said Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund.
“Now there is an uneasiness about what comes next,” he said. “The presence and reputation of this chancellor is outsized and very hard to emulate.”
That explains why both main candidates to succeed her mostly ran on platforms of continuity rather than change, attempting where possible to signal they would be the one most like the departing chancellor.
“This election campaign was basically a contest for who could be the most Merkel-like,” Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff said.
Even Mr. Scholz, whose center-left party is the traditional opposition party to Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, played up his role as finance minister in the departing government rather than his own party’s sensibilities, which are well to the left of his own.
“Stability, not change, was his promise,” said Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff.
The distinctive political tradition of the Federal Republic of Germany is change through consensus.
In the four decades it was split from the Communist East, West Germany had strong governments, traditionally formed by one of the two larger parties teaming up with a smaller partner or, in rare circumstances, the two big parties forming a grand coalition. This tradition was continued after reunification in 1990, with far-reaching changes — like the labor market reforms of the early 2000s — often carried out with support from across the aisle.
But four parties have become seven and the two traditional main parties have shrunk, changing the arithmetic of forming a government that represents more than 50 percent of the vote. In the future, analysts say, three or four, not two, parties, will have to find enough common ground to govern together.
Some analysts say this increasing fragmentation of Germany’s political landscape has the potential to revitalize politics by bringing more voices into the public debate. But it will no doubt make governing harder, as Germany becomes more like other countries in Europe — among them, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands — that have seen a similar fracturing. And messier politics could make the next chancellor weaker.
Ms. Merkel has embodied the tradition of consensus more than perhaps any of her predecessors. Of her four terms in office, she spent three in a grand coalition with her party’s traditional opponents, the Social Democrats.
Governing as Ms. Merkel’s junior partners almost killed the Social Democrats, Germany’s oldest party, stripping it of its identity and its place as the leading voice of center-left opposition. But Mr. Scholz used his cozy relationship with the chancellor to his advantage, effectively running as an incumbent in a race without one.
At party headquarters on Sunday night, he was being celebrated as a savior by party members who were adamant that the chancellery was theirs.
“The S.P.D. is the winner here,” insisted Karsten Hayde, a longtime party member, while Ernst-Ingo Lind, who works for a parliamentarian, said that only a year ago, he would “not have dreamed of being here.”
Among the parties represented in the next German Parliament is the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which shocked the nation four years ago by becoming the first far-right party to win seats there since World War II. Its vote share slipped to 10.5 percent from almost 13 percent in 2017 and it will no longer be the country’s main opposition party. But it solidified its status as a permanent force to be reckoned with. In two states in the former Communist East it came first.
“We are here to stay, and we showed that today,” Tino Chrupalla, co-leader of the party, told party members gathered on the outskirts of Berlin.
For all the messiness of this election and Merkel nostalgia, many Germans took heart from the fact that more than eight in 10 voters had cast their ballots for a centrist party and that turnout was high.
The mobilization was palpable outside several polling stations in Berlin, where families patiently waited their turn in long lines.
“It’s the beginning of a new era,” said Ms. Römmele of the Hertie School.
Christopher F. Schuetze, Jack Ewing and Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.
Quebec undergoes a culture shift as ‘woke’ politics is redefined in the province – The Globe and Mail
For 50 contentious years, the defining split in Quebec politics was between sovereigntists and federalists. “Should Quebec remain in Canada?” was the ideological question par excellence.
But last week, when Premier François Legault exchanged barbed words with the rising opposition star Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois in the Salon bleu of the National Assembly, a new political axis was born. Call it “les wokes” vs. “les Duplessistes.”
This divide isn’t about economics or independence so much as issues of race and religion, whose primal importance in Quebec was once again borne out by this year’s federal election. And although the divide stems from a pair of insults hurled across the floor of the provincial legislature, it reveals a deeper realignment in Quebec’s political class that is being mirrored around the democratic world, away from traditional standards of left and right and toward a preoccupation with identity.
The fracas began on Sept. 15, when Mr. Nadeau-Dubois, a leader of the “Maple Spring” student protests in 2012 and now parliamentary leader of the left-wing Québec Solidaire, rose in the Assembly to accuse Mr. Legault of imitating Maurice Duplessis. It was meant as a bitter reproach: “The Boss” ruled Quebec for most of the period between 1936 and his death in 1959 with a mixture of Catholic piety, anti-Communism and Quebec nationalism, while openly persecuting religious minorities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and suppressing dissent. His time in power is still often called The Great Darkness.
The current Premier, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois argued, was channeling his notorious predecessor in part by conflating support for Bill 21, a contentious piece of provincial legislation that bans the wearing of visible religious symbols by certain public servants, with membership in “the Quebec nation.”
Visibly angry, Mr. Legault shot back that a majority of Quebeckers support the religious-symbols law. Duplessis, he said, had “many faults, but he defended his nation. He wasn’t un woke like the leader of Québec Solidaire.”
A surprised wave of laughter went up in the Blue Room; the Quebec media has been tittering about Mr. Legault’s choice of epithet ever since. Why was the Premier of North America’s only majority francophone jurisdiction wielding a term popularized by Black activists to describe vigilance about social injustice? Why was he using it as a put-down, not to mention a noun?
Asked to define “un woke” the following day, Mr. Legault offered an original contribution to the Quebec vernacular, saying that to him it meant someone “who wants to make us feel guilty about defending the Quebec nation [and] defending its values.” Google searches for the word exploded in Quebec.
But if the Premier’s particular gloss on the term was novel, its use by conservatives in the province was not. In the past couple of years, columnists for the influential Quebecor media conglomerate have become particularly enamoured of using “woke,” in English, as a slur for liberals and leftists who are highly sensitive about race and gender, a trend on the American right as well. Benoît Melançon, a literature professor at the University of Montreal, searched a media database to find that, since the beginning of last year, the word has appeared in francophone outlets more than 2,000 times.
The word entered Quebec’s political bloodstream purely as a pejorative; virtually no one in the province owns up to the label. While a French politician running to be the Green Party’s presidential candidate recently embraced being “woke,” Prof. Melançon noted, “that’s never done in Quebec.” Likewise, although some historians and journalists have recently begun rehabilitating Maurice Duplessis’s reputation – and Mr. Legault himself jokingly compared his party to Duplessis’s as recently as 2019 – his name remains a popular shorthand for reactionary authoritarianism.
Both political camps have begun life, then, with no self-professed members – but that does not mean they lack weight. In an unsuccessful attempt to steal back some thunder from two rival parties and reassert the importance of his political project, Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon tweeted a photo of himself this week wearing a shirt that said, “Neither woke, nor duplessiste. Indépendantiste.” The provincial Liberals, meanwhile, traditional standard-bearers of the federalist cause, have stayed out of the fray altogether. Their only slight involvement in the squabble came when Mr. Legault sneeringly referred to them as one of two “multiculturalist” parties in the National Assembly.
The lower profile of Quebec’s once-dominant parties, and the issue that animated them for decades, is the result of a sea change that has sidelined the traditional debate about sovereignty in favour of lower-stakes skirmishes about immigration and ethnic diversity. The shift dates to around 2007, according to Frédéric Bérard, a political commentator, doctor at law and course instructor at the University of Montreal’s law school. It was then, he said, that the question of “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities came to the forefront of political life in the province.
Quebec has since been roiled by successive controversies around that theme, from the question of whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear the niqab at citizenship ceremonies to the outrage that greeted a debate moderator’s question during the recent federal election campaign about Quebec’s “discriminatory” religious-symbols law.
These issues have emerged, not coincidentally, amidst the long-term decline of the Parti Québécois. Sensing the withering of its traditional goal of an independent Quebec state, the PQ embraced a program of aggressive secularism and the integration of immigrants into the francophone mainstream as an alternative form of national self-assertion, Mr. Bérard said. “It’s less trouble to ban a veil than to have a referendum on independence.”
Although Quebec’s identitarian shift had local causes, it also happened in parallel with a move away from traditional definitions of left and right worldwide. Culture and identity have replaced economics as the main vectors of politics in much of the West, said Mark Fortier, a sociologist and publisher (as well as the author of a book about reading the work of Mathieu Bock-Côté, one of the main exponents of anti-wokeism in the mass-market Journal de Montréal newspaper).
If “les wokes” vs. “les Duplessistes” seems like a tempest in a Québécois teapot, then, it may be part of something bigger. Consider Brexit in the U.K. and the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S., Mr. Fortier said.
“It’s not just in Quebec … It’s the Quebec version of a phenomenon that traverses all liberal democracies.”
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