The great polarization
Many people in Europe had put the champagne on ice ready to celebrate the end of Erdogan’s reign. So the result of the first round of Turkey’s general election was a surprise to many: not only did Erdogan come out on top (though with a smaller share of the vote: 49.5%, vs. 52% in 2018) but his AKP party and nationalist allies retained control of parliament. For the time being, then, there will be no major change in Turkey’s political direction and the country will, geopolitically speaking, continue to be an ambiguous power whose autonomy is rooted in its status as a pivotal country.
But whatever the final outcome, the results of the first round invite us to reflect on the mistakes analysts keep making when estimating people’s appetite for democracy not just in Turkey but in Western countries. Remember, Trump wasn’t supposed to win. Brexit wasn’t meant to happen. Why these mistakes? Should we give up hope of understanding why they keep happening? Or should we sort out what’s true (like the surge in Turkish democracy, with 89% of the electorate turning out to vote and opposition parties managing to pull together) from what looks very much like skewed judgement and our own biases (particularly our difficulty understanding the appeal of autocrats)? This issue of biases must be factored in to our methods of analysis if we’re to avoid the sort of gross oversimplification that leads to mistaken assumptions about which scenarios are more or less likely to play out.
For example, take the idea that voting for anti-establishment parties and ageing autocrats is purely a product of cronyism, propaganda and vote-rigging. That all happens, to be sure, but on its own it’s not enough to explain the results. Above all, there’s a real risk of minimising the extent to which populism has found its way into the very DNA of democracies, whether liberal or illiberal. The populist vote is now a conviction vote, which means one populist can easily replace another: personality matters less than radical opposition expressed through aggressive verbal codes (in his study of pre-war political regimes, Umberto Eco singled out the simplification of language as one of 14 early signs of fascism1).
Another stubborn Western bias is the persistent idea that people who seemingly vote against their own economic interests must be acting irrationally. Whether in the case of Turkey or Brexit, the liberal homo economicus has a very hard time understanding that homo politicus might be the driving force behind voters’ choices. It’s clear that Erdogan is partly responsible for high inflation in Turkey, fuelled by a heterodox monetary policy under which rising prices lead to interest rate cuts. He’s also responsible for the economic and institutional entanglement that explains why emergency intervention in the wake of the February 2023 earthquake was so ineffective. Why, then, did a majority of Turkish people vote for him again, including in regions laid waste by the earthquake? Let’s take a couple of sideways steps to try and understand these choices, not by describing the specific characteristics of Turkish voters – that ground has already been amply covered – but by trying to identify some general themes that are also common to other countries: themes that ultimately surface whenever an election result surprises us. In particular, there are two deep-seated trends that prevent bipartisan consensus from forming while fuelling the crisis of democracy and geopolitical fragmentation. These trends feed mistrust, then misunderstanding, then violence. Between countries and individuals.
Polarisation: a fundamental obstacle to political renewal in democracies
The first trend is political polarisation. The historical dimension of this phenomenon2 – inflated by social media and which isan early warning sign of potential insurrection – is at the root of a “loss of truth”3 which, moreover, is digested differently depending on the type of regime (in democracies, the breaking of common bonds; in totalitarian regimes, the construction of a fantasy world). As long ago as 1961, Hannah Arendt foresaw all this as signalling a global crisis of modernity4. Shortly before his death in 1975, Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini published a still famous article on the “disappearance of the fireflies” as a metaphor for the erosion of culture by a society of mass entertainment, foreshadowing today’s polarised thinking. So this phenomenon is by no means new: Trump and his ilk are not just the causes but also the result. In fact, it’s precisely this polarisation that acts as a fundamental obstacle to political renewal in democracies and allows autocrats room to manoeuvre. It’s this polarisation that’s creating a political and geopolitical crisis of confidence. This is very apparent in Turkey, riven in two by multidimensional divides exploited by all manner of demagogues: political, religious, educational, ethnic and social issues have steadily widened the chasm between rural Islam – which has sometimes genuinely benefited from Erdogan’s reforms, especially during his first ten years in office – and an urban, westernised Turkey (with Istanbul and Ankara both held by the opposition). Just like in France, the United Kingdom and the United States, the long-invisible radical opposition between the centre and the periphery is becoming apparent5, thanks in particular to movements like France’s “yellow vests”. Joe Biden was on the money in his State of the Union speech when he used the word “invisible” in reference to the suffering of the middle class6.
In fact, polarisation is not unique to Turkey: in the United States, it has created such a divergence in values between Democrats and Republicans that any possibility of compromise has all but evaporated – except when it comes to China, on which there is bipartisan agreement. Polarisation has now become more of an identity-based issue of friends versus foes7: you don’t negotiate with the “other”, you destroy it. That’s the difference between an enemy and an adversary, as theorised by Carl Schmitt. Hence the Governor of Arkansas’s response to Biden’s speech, in which she spoke of a culture war. In reality, US institutions have long been paralysed by polarisation: fewer laws are passed, fiscal risks are mounting (the debt ceiling), administrations struggle to make new appointments and judicial power – also polarised – is increasing. Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci called this an “organic” crisis: a crisis of legitimacy in which a ruling class has lost the consent of the lower classes. “It is no longer leading but only dominant”, he writes in his Prison Notebooks. “The death of the old ideologies takes the form of scepticism with regard to all theories.”
From there, little by little, polarisation takes hold in a society: America’s middle class “doesn’t like the poor”, since progressives “have lavished attention on them […], devising social programs targeting them”8. Misunderstanding has also deepened between the middle class and the ruling class, resulting in a widespread mistrust of everyone, exacerbated by ingrained thinking in education, work and leisure. We live in segregated social groups that prevent us from understanding the other – not because we refuse to but because our blind spots prevent it. Sociologists have shown how the uncultivated and ill-mannered Homer Simpson has replaced 1950s film icon Marlon Brando as the embodiment of the American worker. Paradoxically, it seems to be the Democrats that have the most difficulty understanding the working class: a long, drawn-out process has cut the party off from its blue-collar base and produced a Democratic elite of university-educated libertarians9 and a neglected rump. While progressives focus on equal rights and ecology, blue-collar workers feel abandoned. In Turkey, opposition candidate Kemal Kiliçdaroglu lost his status as “Turkey’s Gandhi” by engaging in astonishing manoeuvring with ultra-nationalists in an attempt to bridge the polarised divide.
The rejection of the West combined with the synthesis of Islam and nationalism
Which brings us to the second deep-seated trend. Fundamentally, the real winner from the first round of voting in Turkey is the synthesis of Islam and nationalism Erdogan has spent years promoting. Evidence of this can be seen in the success of third-placed candidate Sinan Ogan (5.3% of the vote), who has rejected all talk of negotiating with the Kurds and demanded that Syrian refugees be repatriated. This synthesis becomes even more powerful when combined with a rejection of the West that has been quietly at work to geopolitically polarise a chunk of the global population. In Turkey, people are also voting for the leader best able to establish the country as a regional power. What we are seeing, then, is a profound crisis of Western – let's say American – soft power that will influence the shape of the future political and economic landscape, the continuing appeal of the “American way of life” notwithstanding. For example, how realistic is it to believe that America will preside over a new hegemonic cycle when a chunk of the world’s population hates it? How do you get Western middle classes, who distrust elites, and the populations of less advanced countries, who distrust the West, to accept a new economic consensus cooked up in Davos or at a G7 summit? But what can be done about all this? As French historian Fernand Braudel noted back in 1963 in his Grammaire des Civilisations, even if the world can accept “industrial civilisation” exported by the West, nothing suggests that the rest will successfully be exported. On the contrary, “civilisations will remain differentiated for a long time to come […]. Historians will have no hesitation in being categorical on this point.” Civilisations, wrote Braudel, are collective spaces, cultures, societies, economies, religions and mentalities. Consequently, “any civilisation is loath to adopt a cultural object that calls into question one of its own deep structures”. As French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss pointed out, “there’s no civilisation worthy of the name that doesn’t hold some things in disgust. But rejection only comes after a long series of hesitations and experiences.”
Bearing all this in mind, the West’s image needs to be slowly repositioned to take account of growing demands from the Global South for a rebalancing between the centre and the periphery, this time between countries10. But these remain difficult issues for Western analysts to get to grips with: where does the right to civilisational difference end and human rights begin? And, above all, how can we not hear in these debates the unfortunate echo of another war, when in 1914 Thomas Mann’s ardent nationalist speeches defended a Germany he saw as protecting his Kultur against a civilisation which, in his opinion, diluted traditional values. Those may have been different times but the words are very much the same.
- Umberto Eco, Reconnaître le fascisme, Grasset, 1995
- See the work of Zygmunt Bauman and Pierre Rosanvallon.
- Myriam Revault d’Allones, La faiblesse du vrai, Éditions du Seuil, 2018
- Hannah Arendt, La crise de la culture, 1961
- Christophe Guilly, La France périphérique. Comment on a sacrifié les classes populaires, Éditions Flammarion, 2014
- Piotr Smolar « Dans son discours sur l’État de l’Union, Joe Biden se pose en bienfaiteur des oubliés », Le Monde, 8 February 2023
- See surveys by Pew Research
- Joan C. Williams, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, Harvard Business Review Press, 2017
- Thomas B. Edsall, Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power, Basic Books, 2006
- See the work of Immanuel Wallerstein