Does the United States enjoy a resilience advantage over European democracies? During the long months of the Trump administration, I have been clinging, if with diminishing fortitude, to the conviction that our constitutional system and democratic institutions will shield us from the worst. So it was at least a bit reassuring to hear former British prime minister Tony Blair observe that he is more bullish about democracy in the United States than in Europe.
“Our challenges over at our side of the water are just as great, if not greater,” Blair said during a visit to The Post on Thursday. “You have a resiliency in your institutions that will pull you through.”
There was, admittedly, a bit of straw-grasping in my response to Blair’s assessment, and he wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence when asked to elaborate. “I might be completely wrong by the way, but I just feel with America that you’ve got sufficient checks and balances within your system,” Blair said. “My experience of America is that it usually works its way through its problems. I may be completely wrong” — there he goes again! — “but if you look at the European situation, it’s less clear to me that the same sort of resilience is there.”
Oh well, comparative resilience is better than none. Sure, there’s reason to worry. The Republican Congress has proved exquisitely spineless. The independent judiciary may be fleeting, as Trump, so often incompetent in execution, efficiently stocks the courts like so many trout ponds.
Still, as Blair went on to point out, the United States is enjoying a strong economy while Europe struggles with “structural economic issues,” including the unresolved Brexit. Similarly, he noted, the U.S. immigration debate, however poisonous, looks mild by comparison with the European divide.
To listen to Blair is to be reminded of a different, almost antiquated, pre-populist moment, when Blair in Britain and President Bill Clinton in the United States pursued a middle-ground, Third Way approach to bridging the left-right divide. The past few years have witnessed the transatlantic emergence of populist energy on both ends of the political spectrum and the hardening of tribal identities. So Blair’s self-description as an “unashamed globalizer,” his assertion that “the West is about values and not just about interests,” and, most of all, his argument that it is imperative to “reignite the center ground of politics” carry — for me, anyway — a mournful undertone.
Can this strategy still work — or is it a fusty artifact destined to be dismissed as Clintonian triangulation rather than practical problem-solving? What would it take, given the current fractured, angry state of our politics, to arrive at the point of cross-partisan, middle-out cooperation? Are we condemned to go through years, if not decades, of tribal battles before it becomes politically safe to try, again, a more sensible approach? Is that even possible, in an age of instant interconnectedness?
In Britain, after all, what Blair describes as a “changed Labour Party” is led not by Third Way Blair but by the far more radical Jeremy Corbyn. In the United States, the Republican Party of Reagan and ideas has deteriorated into the party of Trump and ego, while the Democratic Party is in the nascent stages of its own ideological and generational transformation.
“On the activist side, it’s going to be a fight,” Blair said. “Sometimes I wake up and think, ‘It’s all going to be all right,’ and sometimes I think, ‘No, the world is going to have to experience this before it understands it’s a bad idea, the whole populist thing.’
“But we’ve got to rehabilitate the politics of building bridges,” he continued. “If you’re with the Democrats here, you’ve got a choice: You can stack up your votes . . . and hope that our votes overwhelm their votes. . . .
“My strategy would be to work out not why the people who may turn out for the rallies and lead the chanting vote in that way. But there must be independents that voted this way, so what was motivating them? . . . If you don’t build those bridges, then your activist base just keeps getting reinforced.”
The merits of bridge-building in public life should not be a debatable proposition; the politics of it should not necessitate rehabilitation. Whether we can restore any capacity to forge consensus will also help determine whether Blair is correct about our national resilience, comparative or actual.