Who is ‘us’?

By some important measures, the boundaries around whom we accept as part of “us” are particularly rigid at the moment. 

ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS
FRENCH PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN POSTERS FOR THE 11 CANDIDATES COMPETING (MARINE LE PEN’S IS 2ND FROM L.) ARE DISPLAYED NEAR NICE, FRANCE

Much of politics today comes down to the question of who gets to be “us.” That’s always been true, of course. Politics is about creating one “us” that is bigger than the other guy’s. It’s about finding ways to reach across the countless definitions we have of ourselves (black, Jew, male, rural, etc.) to find at least one common denominator for collective action.

But by some important measures, the boundaries around whom we accept as part of “us” are particularly rigid at the moment. 

For example, 50 years ago, a far greater share of Americans registered as Republicans or Democrats, but for many it was not such a concrete part of their identity. They would often “swing” to vote for candidates of other parties. Their “us” wasn’t just “R” or “D.”

Today, while more people register as independents than as Republicans or Democrats, their behavior is actually much more partisan. Independents don’t act like independents; they act like stealth Republicans and Democrats. Swing voters are virtually an extinct species. Increasingly, folks from the other party are “them.”

Which brings us to French presidential candidate ­Marine Le Pen.

Rigidly defining “us” is the core element of her political identity. In her cover story on Ms. Le Pen, Monitor staff writer Sara Miller Llana writes, “Le Pen’s stance on national identity – preventing more foreigners from coming in and diluting what it means to be French – resonates as much as any issue with her followers.”

In some ways, it makes sense for a national politician to define “us” along nationalistic lines. She is not, after all, courting votes in Zimbabwe. 

But why do such strains of nationalism wax and wane? How has she pushed her National Front party further than her legendary father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, ever did? Why did the British vote to leave the European Union? Why did Donald Trump’s “America First” triumph?

The answers are numerous, multilayered. But one of the simplest comes from the Bill Clinton-era adviser who said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

The Western economic story of the past 30 years is the rise of economic inequality. The West’s wealth is spread far less evenly than decades ago. When Le Pen talks to former miners in Metz, France, she is talking to the losers in the French economy. When Mr. Trump appealed to rural voters in the United States, he rode their discontent to victory. Research shows that political polarization in the US has mirrored income inequality – with both rising dramatically from post-World War II lows.

The sense that one is losing economically is corrosive. Add to that a sense that others are getting ahead and it can seem as if the world’s playing field is tilted without recourse. It entrenches all the lines of “us” and “them” more deeply. It is fuel for politics that divide. And in that way, it makes the hard task of governing even harder. Fairness is the fuel for an enlarged “us,” and it finds footing for grander expression when we first embrace the prosperity of our neighbors close at hand.

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