One of the few things uniting America and Europe these days is the deepening rift within their societies. Two crucial elections are coming up, in France this May and in Germany this September, and it’s high time we assess this dangerous cleavage. It’s not “us versus them.” It’s “us versus us”: an intra-Western clash of ideologies.
That clash pops up in different ways, but it is fundamentally about what world the citizens of the West would rather live in. Call it a “Lennon world” versus a “Bannon world.” Neither is sustainable.
The Lennon world is that of the liberal cosmopolitans, summed up in the John Lennon song “Imagine”: “Imagine there’s no countries,” he sings, “a brotherhood of man.” The Bannon world is the opposite: a place of walls and rules, run by uncompromising strongmen.
To the extent that in American cities and large parts of Europe, at least, Lennon world is already a reality, advocates of a Bannon world are the revolutionaries. As its eponym, President Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, explained, “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Nowhere is this split playing out as clearly as in Germany, where a rising Bannonist right has positioned itself against both the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right Christian Democrats, both of which tend toward a version of the Lennonist worldview. Unlike in France, here the center left is robust; unlike in the United States, here the center right has no interest in co-opting, or being taken over by, the far right.
Of course, Germans have also learned from the American and British experiences in 2016, a crucial lesson being that it’s a mistake, politically and morally, to discount the entire far-right voting base as “deplorable.” A compromise must be found, not only to win in September but also to govern afterward.
So what is that third, middle way? To get an idea, one first needs to sketch out the conflicting worlds of Lennons and Bannons.
Lennonism has several key principles. First, borders are an artificial concept. Every human is a citizen of the world, and it is a universal right for anyone to live wherever he or she wishes to.
Because individuals enjoy the right of free movement, the same has to be true for the free movement of goods. Free trade benefits all nations who take part. It furthers wealth and transnational network building and, therefore, peace.
Lennonists also believe that internationalization is inevitable. While some citizens may have concerns about ever-closer international cooperation and shared sovereignty, once they realize the benefits, their political loyalty will follow suit. The elites just need to try harder to convince the fickle ones, because they don’t know enough about the mechanisms governing today’s interconnected world.
When it comes to matters of faith, Lennonists believe that religion must not separate humanity, and that Islam is a religion of peace. It has to be seen as strictly separated from Islamism, a political concept. And of course, a Muslim ban is a blatant violation of human rights.
The role of women is likewise an important sticking point. One prevailing social border is the “glass ceiling”: Men have become so used to exercising political, economic and cultural power that they don’t recognize their own hegemony. That’s why feminism remains a legitimate and necessary emancipation movement.
Finally, the European Union is the greatest expression of all these principles, and the vessel for moving them forward. Anyone who attacks the union, therefore, attacks peace, progress and wealth.
Bannonism positions itself as a response to these principles, but it’s more than that. It sees borders as a prerequisite for nations to exercise their paramount right to define who defines them and how they express their cultural identity. The free movement of people is not anathema, but it has to be weighed against this interest.
The same rule applies to the free movement of goods. Free trade is O.K., as long as it isn’t an end in itself and it benefits the country in question.
Like Lennonism, Bannonism is more or less secular, though it makes more room for Judeo-Christianity. Where it differs, though, is in its belief that Islam is not a religion, but rather an aggressively anti-Western, intolerant and illiberal ideology bent on global conquest. It follows, then, that a ban on Muslim immigration is justified.
But Bannonism is also a critique of Lennonism. It holds that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the liberal elites forgot about the legitimate interests of the nation-state. That same belief keeps blurring the differences between men and women, and confused equal rights with equality. Feminism, Bannonists believe, is a polarizing ideology built on the hallucination that Western societies are still patriarchies and men are the enemies of women.
Needless to say, for Bannonists, the European Union embodies everything that is wrong with the current state of the West. Brussels keeps its member states and citizens small and weak, instead of making them great and free.
The financial crisis that began in 2008 should have offered a chance to seek common ground; instead, the two sides each retreated into tribal thinking, demonizing the other as either racist or naïve.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who will seek her fourth term this fall, has made it clear that she wants her country to avoid the crises that this intra-Western clash produced in Britain and the United States. Indeed, one reason she’s running is to stand as an antidote to Trumpism: “We don’t want to hate each other, we’d rather like to discuss, discuss like democrats,” Ms. Merkel said in the first interview after her decision to mount a campaign. “The question is, ‘What can I do for the cohesion of such a polarized society?’ ”
Her answer is not quite clear yet. What is clear is that, in the Social Democratic contender for her office, Martin Schulz, she has finally found a worthy rival, setting up a campaign that could become precisely the conversation Lennonists and Bannonists need to have. Mr. Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, has cast himself as the typical little man (he proudly notes that he didn’t graduate from high school), and pledged that he wants to make Germany a fair society again.
The Trump effect is obvious: Pushed by the populist right, Germany’s political debate is opening up, with the two establishment parties no longer vying for the same safe space in the political center. Rather, they are identifying other political spaces, still in the mainstream, from which they can appeal to a broader range of voters.
Expect three things over the next months: a harder line from the government on illegal immigrants to contain the effects of Ms. Merkel’s open border policy; a debate on a way to repair the social and economic rifts created by Europeanization; and a refocusing on a part of the electorate that feels left behind by a public debate that has dealt too much with issues like gender and too little with pressing problems like housing shortages.
What both Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schulz agree upon is that they have to enhance a feeling of national belonging without resorting to antagonistic or nationalistic “Germany first” rhetoric. A little dose of identity politics could, by the way, also help offer young Muslims a more attractive psychological home than the one on sale from political Islam.
So while Brexit, President Trump and the European far right will continue to cause waves, we can also see the emergence of a new, promising dialogue from the center: an attention to inequality and injustice at home, and a real commitment to shoring up the lives of those who feel left behind — even at the cost of progress toward internationalist goals.
Hillary Clinton may have failed at exactly this point, allowing the Bannonists to take hold in Washington. But that’s the beginning of the story, not the end. The next chapter will play out in Germany.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.