As the Nevada caucus results came in, you could feel a great disturbance in the discourse. A thousand establishment voices cried out in terror all at once. Chris Matthews compared Sanders’s victory to the Nazi blitzkrieg of France in 1940. “Teflon Bernie: Why is it so hard to beat a guy who backed the Sandinistas?” queried an absolutely normal New York Times headline. On every channel, there was a mainstream media commentator, or a soon-to-be-out-of-work think tank representative posing the question, clearly and distinctly: “How can Sanders be stopped?” But there was one voice that was rather different. Not just as if it had read a different set of results, but as if it inhabited a different space-time. That was the voice of Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Mayor Pete was there to make it clear that should the Democratic Party establishment decide to go nuclear, he was the counterinsurgency candidate to make it happen. The alternative world he offers a desperate establishment is that of Macronism—and a truly nightmarish scenario.
As the famous line from Antonio Gramsci runs, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a variety of morbid symptoms appears.” An interregnum is precisely what we’re in. And “Macronism,” one of the center’s “morbid symptoms,” can appear a dangerously attractive cure. From the state of the Democratic primary so far, it seems to be a poison pill that party and media elites are more than happy to swallow rather than face the alternatives.
When Emmanuel Macron acceded to the French presidency in 2017, he initially embodied a kind of aesthetic progressivism—young, exciting, with occasional nice words about diversity—to a center-left audience truly disturbed by the emerging movements of the right, but without the radical social and economic transformation the left understands to be necessary. His MO has cohered—or, perhaps, congealed—into a readily identifiable stratagem cum politics. To those elements of capital uncomfortable with the turn to the far right, Macronism promises business as usual but in a calmer environment. To get there, though, it emerges like a fully evolved Pokémon: a more muscular, energized, and powerful version of “the vital center” for the 21st century. With its very own “liberal authoritarianism,” it attempts to diffuse the threat posed to the status quo by democracy. With a strategy of political demobilization, discouragement, and disenfranchisement, by legal means, gray areas, and ideological heavy lifting, Macronism promises to protect and extend the economic and social realities of the past 40 years and beyond. Macron himself was elected with the worst voter turnout since 1969.
Macronism may not be particularly popular (nor does it appear to be doing well by any other measure), but that is precisely the point. At its heart, it’s about perpetuating the minoritarian rule of the center instead of facing economic contradictions it cannot countenance, ecological catastrophes it cannot address, and social grievances it cannot assuage. The legitimation crisis may roll on, but the center gets to live another day.
The most easily identifiable—although far from the only—avatar of American Macronism is Pete Buttigieg. Like Macron (42), Buttigieg is young (38) yet unthreatening to the status quo. Like the French president, the former McKinsey consultant is the living, breathing embodiment of the “résumé candidate.” Like Macron, Buttigieg employs an electoral pitch almost comically vague—except on a few key issues—but wraps it in a blend of elusive and evasive political pablum and allusions to academic erudition without even the slightest commitment to actually articulating or elucidating something meaningful.
But beneath the shiny veneer, Macronism is about that doubling down on decades of demobilization, discouragement, and disenfranchisement. Macron managed to turn one of the tiniest electorates in French history into a full grip on government. Many of those who could not bring themselves to pull the lever for him were not his stalwart ideological enemies but the very poor, working-class, immigrant Muslim, and black French voters who faced the most direct implications of a Marine Le Pen government but could no longer bear the forced choice. The Macronist playbook was on full display as early as the Iowa caucus: The Buttigieg campaign spiked the final Des Moines Register poll on dubious grounds, declared a carefully worded victory before any actual numbers had come in, and finally, requested that the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) halt the arcane state delegate election process just as the “satellite caucuses” were coming in, overwhelmingly for Sanders.
This year, for the first time, the IDP set up satellite caucuses, partially as reforms instigated by the 2016 Sanders campaign, to accommodate people who are otherwise excluded: who work difficult hours, have accessibility needs, need to caucus in a language other than English, and so on. The satellite caucuses overwhelmingly serve working-class communities, people of color, immigrants, poor people, and the disabled. By stopping the satellite count (under the guise of raising procedural concerns), the Buttigieg campaign told a vast swath of mostly new voters: Your votes do not matter. They will never matter.
Macronist strategy here goes far beyond political machinations in one state election. Increasing political participation in the 2018 election cycle and in 2020 thus far, is due, in part, to excitement. (Remember, 2016 had the lowest turnout of an American general presidential election since 1996.) New enthusiasm is coming not only as a reaction to Donald Trump and the increasing consolidation of minoritarian Republican political rule, but also through the possibility of real political options even within the narrow band of the American electoral system. That is: actual, radical change. As the mid-century political scientist E.E. Schattschneider put it, “The excitement of the conflict communicates itself to the crowd. This is the basic pattern of all politics.” Excitement spreads; former spectators become new actors; conflict is broadened; politics becomes possible. But Macronism simulates excitement for the select few while suppressing it for the vast majority.
This aspect of Macronism doesn’t appear to be working out so well so far. With a stunning 40.5 percent of the popular vote in Nevada, the Sanders campaign outperformed the already favorable polls. As it had been in New Hampshire, turnout was historically high, and the Vermont senator’s campaign was propelled by precisely those elements of the American majority Macronism is supposed to keep at home. Still, the Buttigieg campaign persisted—not only declaring a kind of faux victory but again trying to undermine the votes, particularly in this case of Latinos who had turned out in record numbers (but not at all for Mayor Pete). His campaign has already filed challenges to fight for second with Joe Biden, who may have many, almost innumerable faults, but does have some modicum of support from voters of color.
There could be no worse time or place to be contemplating these kinds of politics. Unlike France, the United States is the world’s preeminent military power—by leaps and bounds. Buttigieg embraces American empire with a particular intensity. And empire embraces him back. In December, more than 200 foreign policy and national security officials signed a joint letter backing Buttigieg. While all major Democratic candidates with the exception of Sanders hold conventional US national security views, Buttigieg has distinguished himself in boosting ideas of the goodness of American military power, the savvy of counterinsurgency, and the wisdom of unlimited security intelligence. In interview after interview, he commits to the US national security establishment full tilt, calling for ramp-ups “to fight near-peer enemies,” increased belligerence against China and Russia, and support for CIA drone warfare—alongside conspicuous silence on a stunning range of politically sensitive foreign policy issues.
Buttigieg’s quintessentially “national security” focused framework is perhaps most disturbing when it comes to the question of climate. He shares with all Democratic candidates, save Sanders, a vision of the United States as profitably exporting green tech to developing countries and firmly enforcing American intellectual property, stymieing the speedy global circulation, adoption, and local control that real climate commitments would entail. But he unites these climate positions with the reality of American empire. As he so frequently and precisely phrases it, climate change is “the security challenge of our era.” Like much of the US national security establishment, he understands climate change primarily as a question of “national interest” and “threat multipliers.” A commitment to business as usual in more ways than one means a world of increasing conflict and destabilization. It is what the UN has started calling “climate apartheid” that an American Macronism is preparing for. Buttigieg is the candidate most enthusiastically auditioning to be its commander in chief.
Yet the former mayor hardly holds a monopoly on this peculiar political formation. Macronist strategy is building on the United States’ already pervasive and varied tactics of voter suppression. It’s Harry Reid nonchalantly entertaining the idea that a brokered convention that overturns the popular will might not be that bad. It’s Mike Bloomberg maneuvering for second-ballot positioning or king-making. The primary is far from a foregone conclusion only three elections in, but make no mistake that floating these trial balloons is intended to test how well the nuclear option will land. If Americans can’t be forced to elect a Macronist, are we at least willing to accept one?
The United States is already the least democratic of nominally liberal democratic states in the world, with more checks against popular sovereignty, popular influence, and popular power than any other. American political strategies are already built on top of a constitutional framework designed to allow as little popular participation as possible while still claiming a degree of public legitimacy. American Macronism, if in power, could rely, much as the Trump administration has, on the courts and ever more aggressive voter suppression strategies without much actual institutional change. But to get a Macronist formation into power, the Democratic Party would not only be stymieing the future in its left, and suppressing the formal participation of the majority of its own constituents; it would be shredding its last pretense to being an even vaguely liberal, democratic institution in an even vaguely liberal, democratic country. It would also be saying loudly what it has already been saying quietly: Better to lose to the right than give in to the left. It would be confirming the historical scenarios and the contemporary survey data that indicate that the center is more hostile to democracy than any other part of the political spectrum.
Currently, it seems highly improbable that either Buttigieg (or Bloomberg for that matter) will actually win the voting part of the Democratic primary—but slowing the process may be enough. By embracing the possibilities of a minoritarian Buttigieg (or any other similar) nomination, at or within a Bloomberg-dominated convention, the Democratic Party has, for anyone who still needed convincing, shown the lengths to which it is willing to go. The time has come not only for those who consider themselves in any way “progressive” or even just “democrats” to say no to any Macronist options. To choose even a chance of not only defeating Trump but also further democratizing America. To choose economic and ecological sustainability over “climate apartheid.” Harry Reid may casually claim that a brokered convention that subverts the popular will is “not the end of the world.” But he’s really only talking about the Harry Reids of the world, not the rest of us. Macronism is the nuclear option for a center that is willing to farcically paraphrase another, earlier moment in French history, and say, if all else fails, “Better Trump than Bernie.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post misstated the percentage of Sanders’s victory in Nevada. The post has been updated to reflect the correct percentage.