Sorting Out the Nationalists, Losers and Back-Row Kids

Simple terms no longer describe our political differences.

If only it were that simple.

Photographer: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

In June 1789, after King Louis XVI of France grudgingly recognized the authority of the new National Assembly and ordered his supporters among the aristocracy and clergy to join it, the members of Team Louis took seats on the right side of the meeting room at Versailles. The commoners itching for change (and a few like-minded aristocrats such as the Marquis de Lafayette) sat to the left of the presiding officer. With that, the great political divide between left and right was born, and it has held up for more than two centuries. 1

The political developments of the new millennium, though, have been putting some strain on this taxonomy. A new breed of politician has come to prominence that is often described as “far right,” though it seems a strange term for people who support the welfare state and, in some cases, gay rights and women’s equality.

As a result, thinkers, writers and politicians have been coming up with new terms for the political divide. I’ve been collecting them for a while, and thought it might be useful to share a few:

Jihad vs. McWorld. This was political theorist Benjamin R. Barber’s formulation, made in the pages of the Atlantic way back in March 1992. “Just beyond the horizon of current events lie two possible political futures,” he wrote. One was “a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation and civic mutuality.” The other was “one McWorld tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce.” Barber, who died last week, deserves tons of credit for his prescience, but his labels seem a little too specific and extreme for everyday use. Nobody’s going to talk about jihadist-vs.-McWorldist rivalries in the White House. (Same goes for Tom Friedman’s “Lexus” vs. “olive tree,” only more so.)

Globalists vs. nationalists. People do in fact talk about rivalries along these lines in the White House. Allies of White House chief strategist and self-described “economic nationalist” Steve Bannon reportedly call top economic adviser Gary Cohn “Globalist Gary” behind his back and refer to him in text messages with a globe emoji. This is clearly a taxonomy with both descriptive power and staying power. It does seem unfair, though, to the alleged globalists -- many of whom can argue with justification that they’re nationalists, too, just more sophisticated about how to pursue national aims than the self-proclaimed nationalists are. 

Cosmopolitan vs. tribal. This describes the same basic divide as the first two, and it uses familiar terms. But as Ross Douthat argued pretty convincingly in the New York Times last June, it misses the reality that most of today’s “cosmopolitans” are actually just members of another tribe: “a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call ‘global citizens.’”

Somewheres vs. anywheres. Yet another attempt to capture the same dichotomy, this comes from veteran British political thinker David Goodhart’s new book “The Road to Somewhere.” The anywheres, Goodhart writes, have “portable ‘achieved’ identities, based on educational and career success which makes them generally comfortable and confident with new places and people.” The somewheres, on the other hand, “are more rooted and usually have ‘ascribed’ identities … based on group belonging and particular places, which is why they often find rapid change more unsettling.” I like this one because it describes the divide in a clear way that nonetheless allows for respect and understanding between the two sides. Which means it’ll never catch on, of course.

Populists vs. elites. Both of these are usually wielded as a way to brand opponents as beyond the pale. This is odd, given that both words would appear to have positive connotations. (Imagine Nigel Tufnel asking, “What’s wrong with being popular?”) Populists are politicians who make contradictory and unrealistic promises to gain public approval -- but almost every politician does that to some extent. Elites are powerful people who live lifestyles and think thoughts different from regular folks -- but that’s often true of their critics as well. Last week, for example, National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre declared that “America’s greatest domestic threats” were “academic elites, political elites and media elites.” But what do you call a guy with a graduate degree who earned more than $5 million in 2015 running the 146-year-old interest group where he rose up through its lobbying ranks? A member of the political elite, that’s what.

Winners vs. losers. It’s a phrase I’ve heard again and again from economists and people who listen to economists (this particular version is from British economist Gavyn Davies): “The gains from globalization can only be defended and extended if the losers are compensated by the winners.” This may be right, but it sounds awful: “There was this game called globalization and, well, the better team won. But here’s some universal basic income for you!” I’ve got to think resentment of this language explains some of the appeal of President Donald Trump’s incessant claims to be “winning” at this or that. My Bloomberg View colleague Noah Smith has suggested replacing “losers” in this context with “victims.” That makes some sense, although if it also means rebranding “winners” as “perpetrators,” things could get ugly.

Urban vs. rural. In the last U.S. election, big metropolitan areas went for Hillary Clinton, rural areas and small towns for Donald Trump. Economic success has also been breaking down along these lines; right now almost all the growth in the U.S. economy is occurring in large metropolitan areas. Similar divides are apparent abroad. But few other affluent countries have anything like the vast rural expanses of the U.S. -- and the modern nationalist/populist/somewhereist movement in the Netherlands got its start in the country’s second-biggest city, Rotterdam. So clearly it’s not all about country folk vs. city folk.

Front-row kids vs. back-row kids. This is the formulation of Wall Street-quant-turned-roving-journalist Chris Arnade, who spent much of last year hanging out in off-the-beaten-track places talking to whom he came to call “back-row kids.” This is mainly about education: People with college degrees experience the world in a much different way from those without. Which has always been true, but there are so many people with college degrees now that it’s become an important economic and political divide. Lots of other people have noticed this divide and given it other names. In her soon-to-be-released book “White Working Class,” law professor Joan C. Williams goes with “working class” and “professional-managerial elite.” Social scientist and controversialist Charles Murray, in his 2012 book “Coming Apart,” divided things between “Belmont” (after an affluent Boston suburb lousy with educated professionals) and “Fishtown” (after a white working-class Philadelphia neighborhood). This had the disadvantage of being both obscure and, given that Fishtown has since filled up with hipsters, confusing. One could also just go with college-degree vs. not, but I like Arnade’s front-row vs. back-row because it captures attitude as well as educational attainment. Donald Trump and his kids have all gone to top-notch schools, but I’m guessing they (with the possible exception of Ivanka) didn’t sit in the front of the room and raise their hands a lot.

Authoritarianism vs. liberal democracy. Populist/nationalist elected governments in Hungary and Poland have taken an authoritarian turn, and populist/nationalist politicians elsewhere (including the U.S.) have promised things that only a regime that doesn't respect freedom of expression and human rights could deliver. There’s also been a disturbing trend in public attitudes all over the Western world away from tolerance and support for democratic political institutions. But populist/nationalist parties have also played reasonably constructive roles in the pluralist political systems of Denmark, Finland and Switzerland. Back-row somewheres don’t have to be fascists (or communists, or bigots).

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Yes, the meaning has sometimes shifted (those earliest French leftists, for example, were very pro-free-market, while many of the nobles on the right were not), and political scientists have long argued that the left-right continuum is too simplistic to capture the full range of political attitudes.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

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Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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