TPP protesters
Credit: Stop FastTrack/wikimedia commons

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor in the Business and Society Program at New York University, has an interesting and valuable essay in the The American Interest about the different ways in which nationalists and globalists experience growing diversity and multiculturalism. It’s really addressed to multiculturalists, not as a rebuke to their values exactly but as a warning to go slow to avoid producing a right-wing backlash strong enough to lead to a kind of fascist counterrevolution.

What’s missing from the piece is a recognition that a good chunk of the so-called globalists are in favor of a multicultural society but still strongly opposed to free trade. It’s almost as if he didn’t notice all the anti-TPP signs at the Democratic National Convention. Yet, opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership was probably the most visible policy position among the rank-and-file in Philadelphia, which explains why both Clinton and Sanders have come out against it in more of a visceral than a nuanced or fact-driven way. On the left, anyone who wishes to discuss the TPP is actually least likely to brook any debate about the details. Any evidence of anything less than deep moral opposition to TPP is immediately suspicious, possibly fatally so for a politician. When the Republicans did a post-2012 autopsy on why they lost the election, they noted that young people wouldn’t listen to a word Republicans said about the economy or anything else if they didn’t relax their opposition to gay rights. Something similar has happened on the left on free trade.

This seems a pretty basic failure of Prof. Haidt’s piece, but that doesn’t mean that reading it isn’t a good investment of your time. He does better at explaining how nationalists think and under which circumstances they become enraged and dangerous. He does an excellent job of explaining how multiculturalists make a mistake when they ascribe simple racism as an adequate explanation for this backlash. And his prescription (for the benefit of a healthy multicultural society) to go slow and let people digest demographic change in manageable chunks, is compelling despite the temptation to see it as an appeasement of reactionary intolerance.

I often mused along these lines when considering how the country would respond differently to a Sanders or Clinton nomination and presidency. If incrementalism is dissatisfying, it is also less provocative. If close to half the country is in a state of apoplexy about the new reality where Barack Obama can easily win elections on the backs of a young and diverse slice of the electorate, then maybe proving to them that the left can elect an anti-capitalist, secular Jew from Brooklyn with no identifiable religious belief would be like pouring gasoline on a fire. Should the left care about the consequences of a fire like that, or is avoiding it an act of cowardice and kowtowing to bigots? Yet, maybe even having our first woman president is enough to move things into a full-blown cultural conflagration.

What I’m fairly confident about is that there is a fire and that it is dangerous. If, like the National Forestry Service, leaders can keep this fire at a slow, controlled burn, we should all be okay. But, as Prof. Haidt explains, if the cause of the fire is continuously misdiagnosed and it is carelessly fed with more tinder, we could see more than a backlash. We could see the fascist right come to power.

Status quo conservatives are not natural allies of authoritarians, who often favor radical change and are willing to take big risks to implement untested policies. This is why so many Republicans—and nearly all conservative intellectuals—oppose Donald Trump; he is simply not a conservative by the test of temperament or values. But status quo conservatives can be drawn into alliance with authoritarians when they perceive that progressives have subverted the country’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political actions (such as Brexit, or banning Muslim immigration to the United States) are seen as the only remaining way of yelling “Stop!” Brexit can seem less radical than the prospect of absorption into the “ever closer union” of the EU.

Again, this is all complicated by the trade issue and jobs. When the Globalists lose the left on trade, they lose the power and deference to implement their immigration policies in the bargain. Going slower on immigration isn’t so much a choice as a fact in those circumstances. If the nationalist right needs to see that their fears are being respected, so, too does the multicultural left need to see that their concern about income inequality is being addressed. These are pieces in the same puzzle, and things will continue to come apart if wise leadership doesn’t emerge that can keep both balls in the air at the same time.

And I speak about leadership because it’s basically hopeless to argue with the right about the merits of multiculturalism or with the left about trade. They don’t need to be convinced because they cannot be convinced. What they need are leaders who can navigate them to a new social and economic order that works better for them that what we have now. Those leaders, if they are to be effective, will not be ideologues from either side, but visionaries who can see a broader picture and guide a truculent and terrified Congress to make the right decisions.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at