At the Tory Party's annual convention this past week, British Prime Minister Theresa May challenged her political party in ways which are relevant to US politics as well. Perhaps one of the most significant revelations of this political year is the realization that the American leadership class - the political elites in both of our political parties - are significantly out of touch with the concerns and aspirations of a significant portion of the American population. In particular, the political elites in each party have been shown to beout of touch with a significant portion of the voters whom we commonly call the "base" in each party.
The Prime Minister was addressing a conservative political party. So her comments may seem at first sight more especially relevant for US Republicans. - when the time comes for them to pick up the pieces of their presently fractured political party and forge ahead in a way that tries to address present and future realities. But I do think her message ought also to resonate with Democrats as well. Her critique of British political elites seems to me comparably applicable to American political elites in both of our parties. Thus, for example,
Too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means. So if you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff, an international company that treats tax laws as an optional extra . . . a director who takes out massive dividends while knowing the company pension is about to go bust, I’m putting you on notice: This can’t go on anymore. A change has got to come.
Of all this year's candidates, perhaps that sounds most like Bernie Sanders - or at least something Bernie Sanders could conceivably say when speaking about the consequences of globalization and free trade and something his hearers could readily respond to. But the underlying social problems May identifies afflict and concern a significant portion of Donald Trump's base as well - even if their adoption of the Republican party's more individualistic and non-communitarian language might tend to inhibit them from expressing their concerns in exactly this same form.
In talking this way, Prime Minister May seems to be burying the late Margaret Thatcher's infamous 1987 assertion that there is no such thing as society. In doing so, however, she can call up other and older European conservative traditions of a more communitarian character. That has always been more of a challenge for Americans - so addicted have we become to individualistic and non-communitarian language and ideas. Democrats may find it somewhat easier. "Stronger Together" is, after all a call for - or at least an evocation of - community. But the moral and cultural libertarianism of the Left, which has in recent decades successfully infiltrated so much of Democratic party assumptions, shares in comparable measure a good part of the blame for our society's present distress - along with the economic and social libertarianism of the Right, which has even longer and more decisively dominated and determined so much of Republican assumptions.
I have often cited the example of my father's boss back in the 1950s. He was the boss, after all, i.e., a small-business owner, and he was certainly richer than his employees. (He lived on Fifth Avenue. We lived in the Bronx.) But I can easily imagine how my father and his boss might have been able to engage in conversation and how they would have had much more in common in terms of world-view and moral and cultural values than would be the case today between members of the globalized elite (be they Democrats or Republicans) and the rest of society.. Somehow undoing some of that separation and restoring some semblance of cultural commonality may be our country's most pressing political challenge going forward.