Is it true that 21st century western politics is no longer about embracing the future but about walling ourselves off from it?
Yes, says Sweden’s former prime minister Carl Bildt, in his diagnosis of the Austrian Narrow Squeak, which is to sat the narrow defeat of the far right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer.
No, says Paul Begala, politics can never really be about the past. Mr Begala, a US Democratic Party strategist, CNN political commentator, was formerly a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign in 1992 and counselor to Mr Clinton in the White House.
Mr Bildt writes in The Washington Post of the messages resonating in the valleys and on the plains of rural Austria during the election campaign: The Muslim hordes are at the gates; Brussels is just bureaucracy, trade is treason, and the United States is aggressive and alien.
Mr Begala, however, refers to Donald Trump’s ongoing campaign of smears against Hillary Clinton and her husband. The Trump smears are about events that happened more than 20 years ago. Mr Begala argues that politics really can’t be about the past because the electorate will not accept that. “I was taught by the Master,” he writes in admiring reference to Bill. “Two of Clinton’s Laws of Politics apply here: Campaigns are about the future, not the past. Campaigns should be about voters’ lives, not politicians.”
So it’s Bildt vs Begala. Who to agree with?
Both are, in a sense, yesterday’s men.
Both are wedded to a politics that recognizes ideological cut and thrust (and political evasion, obfuscation and evolution of posture). Today’s grievance-led and identity-driven mud-wrestling is a different ball game altogether.
But both Bildt and Begala may have a point. There is, within a section of the population, both in the US and Europe, a yearning for a golden (and possibly imagined) past. There is a fear of tomorrow, at least on the part of those who have been around long enough to remember yesterday.
Mr Bildt writes: “While the politics in the past was about different ideas about a better future, this is about bringing protection against change and a future that many fear will be even more different. Previously you won elections by saying that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. These forces are promising to bring back a yesterday that they portray as better than the tomorrow they see coming.”
Equally insightful though is Begala’s big bet on the future. “I am betting heavily that voters of all ages want a president who will fight for them; who will fight to level the economic playing field for them; who will fight to reform our dirty campaign finance system; who will fight to save our planet; who will fight to ensure full equality for every American, no matter who we love or which bathroom we use.”