How should one make sense of the malaise that currently sours public opinion in the countries of Europe, in Japan and North America? It reveals itself most saliently in tremendous electoral volatility as political parties are deserted for new formations and leaders. Consider the disintegration of Japan’s Liberal Democrats; the obliteration of Canada’s Progressive Conservatives; the populist appeal of Ross Perot; the attrition of the mainstream German parties for Greens on the left and xenophobes on the right; the willingness of voters in Poland and former East Bloc countries to vote for recycled communists; the Zhirinovsky phenomenon in Russia. Most recently Italian voters turned sharply toward the unconventional electoral formations of the Italian "Freedom Alliance": the refurbished neo-fascists, the plebiscitary fan clubs of television magnate Silvio Berlusconi, and the pugnacious regionalists of the Northern Leagues.

Elections provide only the most spectacular index of public impatience. Political leaders have found it difficult to follow through on laboriously negotiated national pledges such as Meech Lake, Maastricht or the North American Free Trade Agreement. Great breakthroughs become mired in complexity: How many outside Brussels still retain the 1992 vision of the European Community as a transforming venture? And social cohesion apparently frays at a level even more basic than politics. Citizens become uneasy at the noticeable presence of the foreign-born, worry about the burdens on welfare and the pool of jobs, and view imported mores, languages and religious manifestations as a threat to national identity. Casual resort to deadly force seems to have become more acceptable, whether among American gangs or German skinheads. Commentators point out, and everyday life seems to confirm, a general erosion of civility, which has taken on "an ideological edge."[1] Only a few years after Eastern Europeans sought to recover the autonomy of civil society, the quality of civil society, Western and Eastern, seems significantly degraded. No wonder that the common exhilaration that attended the collapse of communism has largely dissipated. How difficult it is today to recover the spirit of the crowds in Leipzig or Wenceslaus Square.

Do these manifestations mean that democracies, as some might propose, have become ungovernable? Are they more unruly? Certainly they are not in comparison to 15 or 20 years ago. There are probably fewer public demonstrations, fewer bombings, fewer assassinations, fewer strikes, more moderate wage claims than during the 1970s. (To be sure, the record may yet deteriorate further.) In the 1970s, too, critics discerned a crisis of governability. What they usually referred to, however, were excessive demands on the state and economy, as postwar growth deteriorated into stagflation. The crisis then was purportedly the result of "overloaded democracy," shortsighted mass pursuit of present entitlements at the expense of saving for the future. Whether or not this analysis is accepted for the 1970s, today’s discontents are different. Citizens do not so much confront their states with demands as they back away in disillusion. If there is a crisis, it is of a different sort.


The crisis of the 1970s tended to focus on issues of economic distribution. In the market arena wage earners and employers seemed locked in a struggle, over income shares, that inhibited productive saving and investment. In the political arena delegates for the same classes as well as pensioners, the military and other interests all struggled for government subsidies and benefits, a continuing tug-of-war then diagnosed by some as the "fiscal crisis of the state."[2] In the 1970s the vicious circle of declining productivity and employment, higher welfare needs and state expenditures as a share of stagnating income, persisting inflation, increased political contentiousness; wage militancy, lower investment and so on seemed impossible to break. State deficits persist in the 1990s, but in most Western societies a cap seems to have been placed on public claims on national income. Unemployment remains preoccupying in Spain, France, American cities and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the discontents of the 1990s do not manifest themselves preeminently as an economic crisis. An economic crisis is one in which poor economic performance, high unemployment, a decline in growth or an actual fall in output, sometimes a great inflation, imposes massive public hardship and dominates political debate. The market societies, at least to date, have learned to be less perturbed.

Neither does the disaffection of the 1990s constitute a political crisis, again with the proviso, at least not yet. Real political crises threaten civil war or dictatorship. They emerge when contending parties cannot resolve deep ideological differences and thus paralyze institutions. The French and Spanish Republics from 1934 through 1936, the Weimar Republic in 1923 and again after 1930, the United States in the late 1850s and perhaps in the late 1960s underwent political crises. The communist regimes experienced their own political crises at the end of the 1980s, and the lands of the former Soviet Union may have not yet emerged. (Whether ethnic conflicts over territory or political rights, as in Canada, the former Czechoslovakia, and of course the former Yugoslavia, count as political crises depends upon their mode of resolution, whether consensually or by force.) Whereas political crises often emerge out of intense party loyalties, the public mood under study here involves a profound distrust of traditional parties. Granted, the rejection of traditional party organizations can evolve into the emergence of fierce new loyalties. But the crisis today retains its pre-political properties. It is less conflictual, more rooted in a civil society (actually in structures that are less developed than civil society) that has become deeply distrustful of the state.

If it constitutes neither an economic nor a political crisis, how should contemporary public dissatisfaction be summarized? It is best described by the term "civic discontent" or even "moral crisis." Moral crises can help generate political crises, and they reveal characteristic economic symptoms even if they do not originate in economic causes. The economic manifestations involve distribution more than production: moral crises are nurtured by growing inequality of incomes, feverish and often conspicuous consumption and the frenzied pursuit of windfall gains in real estate and speculative finance. Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, for example, testify to moral crises, not economic ones.

"Crisis" is a strong and often overused term. Still, it is justified, for it signifies a precarious systemic state in which an organism or a society hovers between decomposition and a rallying of collective energy. Undergoing a crisis does not preclude a recovery of vitality, but it does suggest that the society and states that emerge after an extended period of turbulence shall have been transformed, not merely restored. One can understand more of what is currently at stake by contrasting two preeminent nineteenth-century analysts of crisis. Karl Marx, of course, believed economic crises to be deepening ineluctably before his eyes. They unfolded as the consequence of class conflict, restlessly stripping away all illusions about the power of capital, transforming political and property regimes in their wake. His conservative contemporary Jacob Burckhardt, however, remained preoccupied by a cultural degeneration (akin to what I mean by "moral crisis") that he ascribed to the advent of mass politics, the resort to militarism and the feverish pursuit of wealth. As Burckhardt wrote with foreboding in the 1870s, "The first great phenomenon to follow the [Franco-Prussian] war of 1870-1871 was a further extraordinary intensification of money-making. . . . Art and science have greatest difficulty in preventing themselves from sinking into a mere branch of urban money-making and from being carried away on the stream of general unrest. . . ."[3]

One need not share Burckhardt’s fear of democracy to grasp his premonitions of moral crisis after 1870: the force of mass upheaval, the spectacular international realignment, the rash of new fortunes, a renewed threat of anti-Semitism. Others would share these misgivings. A few years later the once-ardent national poet, Giosue Carducci, wrote scathingly about united Italy and the ugliness of its capital, now the site of clientelistic politics and real estate speculation. Italy was not the only country to be afflicted by a sense of historical decay and moral degeneration. In the Third French Republic one scandal after another agitated (or titillated) the public: the son-in-law of President Jules Grevy, it was disclosed, peddled the Legion of Honor out of the Elysée; the would-be developers of the Panama Canal thoughtfully placed a sizable number of parliamentary deputies on their payroll. In the United States rife corruption tarnished the administration of Ulysses Grant, the administration of New York City and the presidential candidacy of James G. Blaine. Germany underwent a plutocratic orgy during its brief Gründerzeit. All the nation-states constructed or reconstructed between 1860 and 1870 on the basis of popular nationalism seemed to be mired in networks of venality.

Political mobilization of the male population led apparently neither to a lofty democracy nor an austere liberalism, but to regimes based on manipulated public opinion. The instruments might be shameless patronage or rigged elections, entrenched by interparty agreement in Restoration Spain after 1874 or achieved by voting restrictions in Hungary and the American South. Given the discrepancy between the high ideals of liberalism and its shabby realities, it was no surprise that the generation of intellectuals after 1870 developed a new conservative sociology of politics. Its positivist theorists spared no effort to discredit democratic pretensions. William Graham Sumner borrowed from Darwin to criticize social reform. In Italy Gaetano Mosca updated Machiavelli’s political analysis, while Pasquale Turiello yearned for a regenerative war. In France Hippolyte Taine repudiated the French Revolution, and Fustel de Coulanges praised the collectivist vigor and ancestral cults of the ancient city. A generation later Georges Sorel and Vilfredo Pareto heaped disdain on soft-minded bourgeois humanitarians. Other critics of liberalism proposed schemes for technocratic governance by experts. They sought scientific social intervention, championed imperialism and worried about eugenic decay. They despised left-wing reformers as self-interested demagogues and yearned for authority. They envisaged military competition as calisthenic and invigorating, the "sole hygiene of the world." So much hope had attended the creation of the new nation-states; how corrupt and shabby they seemed to be turning out!


After having lived through its own Gilded Age in the 1980s, the United States should find the civic climate of the 1870s and 1880s familiar. Moral crises of democracy have since recurred periodically, in some cases localized, at other times across national boundaries. Dating them with precision remains difficult. Although they peak during the course of a decade or even more briefly, with their antecedents and ideological sequels they can take a quarter-century to play out completely. Not all characteristics need emerge simultaneously, and contemporaries often decry prejudice, corruption or other civic defects without discerning a systemic crisis. But symptoms were pervasive and deep enough to justify a diagnosis of moral crisis in Europe and the Western hemisphere during the 1870s and 1880s, in Central Europe in the 1920s and in Western Europe in the late 1930s, and during the past decade the West has at least created the preconditions for a new era of civic discontents.

Admittedly the typology remains imprecise. Critics will discern symptoms of decline in every passage of history, and jeremiads alone cannot substantiate the existence of a moral crisis. Insofar as they find a wide audience, they get taken as evidence for the conditions they denounce. The diagnosis of moral crisis is thus highly self-reflective. As such it is prone to exaggeration and must be invoked with caution. Still, one can go beyond cultural commentary to discern a profound shift of public attitude along three dimensions: a sudden sense of historical dislocation, a disaffection with the political leadership of all parties and a recurring skepticism about doctrines of social progress. Each of these developments tends to entail the others such that they hang together as a whole.

Moral crises, to consider the first dimension, are marked by a feeling of historical aftermath and disorientation. Intellectuals share a widespread perception that a great historical moment has been succeeded by a shabby era of routine transactions, poet W. H. Auden’s "low dishonest decade." There is a gnawing conviction that great causes have either been achieved ("the end of history") or betrayed; in any case they are over.[4] Public activity seems to amount to the street-sweeping required after a great confetti-strewn triumphal parade.

The sensation of letdown usually follows some supreme national experience. Italian and German unification, the American Civil War and other struggles of the era from the late 1850s to 1870 defined or renegotiated the nation-states of the West (and Japan). "We shall not succeed in banishing the curse that besets us, that of being born too late for a great political era, unless we understand how to become the forerunners of a greater one," wrote Max Weber in his inaugural lecture of 1895. So too, the First World War, with its grandiose claims of transforming states and international relations, could not but leave a later spiritual vacuum.[5] Participants often felt ignored and devalued. Latecomers shared a sense of missing out, the need to generate a new crusade or sometimes just to discredit the old one. In the aftermath of 1989’s collapse of communism, a similar feeling of anticlimax has succeeded initial euphoria.

In periods of moral crisis international politics no longer offers familiar principles and alignments. Not only have the great simplifying struggles passed, but the new issues are less clear-cut and harder to order using grand principles. Restructured nation-states change their relative power, and major countries have to negotiate predictable new coalitions, usually only after painful faltering and expedients. The new complexity encourages irresolution, which in turn bequeaths a sense of collective failure, as the years of appeasement sadly demonstrated. Whether the arguments for restraint and accommodation in the 1930s were well-founded or shortsighted, they left a corrosive feeling of inadequacy. Similarly, no matter how imposing the practical difficulties of intervention, most Western onlookers have felt soiled by their passivity during the ferocious assault on the Bosnian Muslims. High hopes for Europe seem hollow before this lack of capacity or volition. So they did after Ethiopia, the Spanish Republic, Austria and Czechoslovakia were wiped out in the late 1930s. Once undertaken, the struggle against Nazism helped to expiate and overcome the moral crisis of the late 1930s. What equivalent recuperation will be possible now is not at all clear.

Moral crises reveal, as their second dimension, a broad distrust of political representatives regardless of ideology. The moment of opportunity for the nonpolitical politician arises. In this respect the moral crisis might seem to constitute a reaction by civil society against its political class. However, the roots of distrust spring from more primitive resentments than civil society. They are tribal, not associational, and thus not to be identified with the process that East Europeans carried through in the late 1980s. The East European project involved reclaiming political activity through the empowerment of voluntary associations. The moral crisis involves a rejection of the nomenklatura or political class on behalf of territorial loyalities and idealized local ties.

One major expression of this distrust of elites emerges as a new impatience with long-tolerated patterns of corruption. Bribery and kickbacks, which had long been shrugged off or ignored as a transaction cost of public business, now become perceived as an intolerable symptom of decay. The press focuses on corruption, and trials and interrogations confirm the general distrust of political and financial leaders. Mani pulite ("clean hands"), the massive anticorruption drive in Italy, prodded a long-overdue scrutiny of the representational system. The Recruit scandal in Japan has shaken decades of unquestioned Liberal Democratic clan rule. Such upheavals can be constructive if they lead to durable reforms; often, they yield just a few spectacular trials and a brief housecleaning; in today’s circumstances they can amplify the revulsion against the political class as a whole.

Periods of moral crisis are marked most profoundly by seismic shifts in intellectual orientation and social thought. In this climate conservative critiques of mass politics tend to seem more persuasive, while ideologies of the left lose their credibility. Collectivist ideas and movements fragmented in the 1870s and 1880s. In our current era, Marxism flagged as a plausible ideology at least a decade before the communist systems collapsed. Intellectuals more generally abandon their commitment to ideas of progress and projects for equality. Again, complexity overwhelms. Reformers tire of difficult causes or become overwhelmed by contemplating the evils that have accompanied them. They see the French Revolution exclusively in terms of the Reign of Terror, socialism exclusively as the Gulag, the perception always insisted on by conservative critics, but now wearily acquiesced in by leading journals of opinion and intellectuals who had long sought to uphold distinctions.

Relatedly, there is a new stance toward historical knowledge as a form of public self-awareness. Historical writing is prized more for its narrative and evocative capacity and less for its explanatory possibilities. Practitioners renounce earlier (or later) social-scientific ambitions; they focus on the discipline’s elegiac mission. History today thus becomes the basis for a memory industry which seeks to recreate mood and feeling. Readers ask less analysis and more evocation. Landscape and place seem more compelling; the past, more viscous.

Responding to similar impulses, political and social analysts tend to abandon their earlier confidence in reform for an emphasis on social intractability. Social stratification earlier attributed to unequal opportunity seems far more difficult to overcome and is ascribed to more persistent categories. Classes harden into apparent castes; racial and ethnocultural distinctions are interpreted as the fundamental social reality, to be celebrated by some, taken as a challenge for policy by fewer, acquiesced in by more. The issue in each of these generalizations is not the truth or error of the analysis, but the recourse to it and the consequences that are drawn. Social stratification, criminality and violence seem so overwhelming that they require deep structural explanation. But in contrast to earlier periods of reform, fewer political leaders believe in institutional reform. More police and harsher sentences in the United States, limitation of asylum and residence rights in Germany and France, exemption of wealthier regions from the burdens of the poorer in Italy, all emerge as the counsels of realism.

Finally, ethnocultural generalizations yield to biological ones: distinctions are increasingly defined as genetic, and sciences emphasize the biological bases of behavior, including deviance. Professional anthropology, which started in the 1860s with an emphasis on the unity of mankind, evolved by the 1870s and 1880s into a study of the distinctions between higher and lower races. Today’s laboratory researchers announce that they have discovered the putative gene for alcoholism or homosexuality wending its insidious way through strands of DNA. Liberals are relieved that the burden of individual guilt can thus be mitigated, but sometimes fail to think through the ethical or policy implications of the alleged finding. Sociobiology is extended as a key to explain all human behavior. The issue here is not whether these contributions are sound or not; very few can resolve that question. But the interest in the experiments and the supposed results reflects a renewed skepticism about the possibilities for purposeful social reform, change that significantly enhances equality of outcomes. Today’s conventional wisdom is deeply conservative.

Some commentators here and abroad celebrate social pluralism as multiculturalism (German Greens are into multikulti) and urge going with the fragmented flow. Others lament the loss of a common civic allegiance and hope to reverse the current. Both stances recognize a sense of decomposition and the loss of a hitherto functioning civic myth. If societal divisions are presumed to be grounded in nature or in ancestral culture, neither side should be surprised that the only settlement of conflicting claims must ultimately be by force or territorial partition. Territory becomes the one adjustable variable, since society cannot overcome its biological or cultural diversity. And whereas territorial adjustment used to involve the conquest of irredenta from their foreign masters, now it involves civil war or negotiated secession. Sometimes the relatively disadvantaged want to renegotiate or dismantle the federal pact, as in the former Soviet Union, sometimes the relatively advantaged (the Lombard League), sometimes both (Alberta and Quebec, Slovakia and the Czech lands).

All these symptoms, it will be noted, involve changes in collective attitudes and psychology. The shifts in public mood may correspond to the discovery of real constraints. An intoxicating historical victory, 1865, 1871, 1918, 1989, may indeed bequeath an aftermath of quotidian politics and new resentments. Corruption and criminality may indeed have become more brazen; it may have attracted or recruited ethnic outsiders. Nonetheless, the perceptions and reactions constitute the crisis, not the phenomena in their own right. Societies make their peace with objective pathologies for many years and decades. The mafia extracts tribute, politicians get kickbacks, inequality remains. (Revolutionary crises, after all, occur not necessarily as inequality peaks, but when it becomes perceived as unacceptable.) A moral crisis indicates that patience has run out.

This observation leads to the final characteristic of a moral crisis: open-endedness. Moral crises, with their sense of collective disillusion, can generate heightened xenophobia, a surly distrust of institutions, a cynicism about politics, a resentment of elites. Societies can slip deeper into despair over ethnic or ideological pluralism. Surprisingly, however, a moral crisis can also provoke societies to recover the public commitments they earlier abandoned. Moral crises are grave, but not necessarily lethal, and if some have undermined liberal democracy, others have prompted, albeit belatedly, a renewed sense of civic mission. Under committed leaders, societies can seek to remoralize politics, to overcome legacies of corruption or entrenched patterns of racism or withdrawals into isolationism. The politics of resentment and of renewed moralization are both possible responses to moral crises of democracy, and sometimes they can follow each other.


Elements of moral crisis, if not the entire syndrome, recur periodically, from the disillusionment after Versailles to the resentments of the McCarthy era. Ultimately, however, the great international struggles of 1914 to 1989, the First World War, the struggle against Hitler and imperial Japan, the Cold War, subsumed or redirected the recurring impulses of moral crisis and political disorientation. The long war (a harsher view of what John Gaddis has termed "The Long Peace") imposed urgent political and military tasks on Western publics, justified activist state policies and imposed common ideological agendas.[6] The moral crises of democracy, in contrast, comprise a flight from politics, or what the Germans call Politikverdrossenheit: a weariness with its debates, disbelief about its claims, skepticism about its results, cynicism about its practitioners. It should not be surprising that the temptation to escape the political should revive as the discipline of the Cold War fades.

Disillusion with politics by the 1990s has undermined successive sets of expectations. Contemporary disaffection no longer focuses on the state’s claim to regulate economic activity, which was preeminently contested in the 1970s and 1980s. Marxists, social democrats and reformers of every stripe then underwent a chastening process of reeducation and emerged purged of their earlier confidence in the state. Confident young economists and editors assured them that the market could best allocate most collective as well as private goods: access to land, to resources, to the radio and television spectrum, to education. For now a minimal consensus has been reached on the primacy of markets with a continuing regulatory role for government. Skepticism about politics in the 1990s reverts instead to questioning the most basic task of government, that of assuring peace over a given territory on anything other than the most ethnically exclusive basis. Every country, in this vision of despair, tends toward a Volksgemeinschaft or toward hopeless civil strife. Samuel Huntington recently claimed in this journal that the West confronts a new conflict among civilizations, not easily overcome.

Must this somber a prognosis be accepted? What outcome should one expect from contemporary civic discontents? Moral crises do not necessarily doom liberal regimes, but they provide a powerful opportunity for political outsiders to capitalize on the perceived defects and corruption of "the system." Outside political entrepreneurs can combine several appeals: they claim to represent success in the managerial or commercial world where competence is really tested, they can mock the parasites "inside the beltway" or ensconced in legislatures and bureaucracies who have made a living out of public office, and they plausibly claim to transcend old partisan or class divisions in the name of an underlying national interest. This familiar rhetoric mingles accents of renewal and derision.

Electorates today remain poised between contending visions of political community. If the traditional parties that speak for reenergizing the public sphere can produce plausible and attractive leaders, they can channel public dissatisfaction into an era of renewed reform. This was the American outcome in the 1930s and the early 1960s, and I, for one, hope that the United States shall later be able to claim it was the result of the 1990s. Throughout this century, indeed through the nineteenth as well, reform coalitions periodically mobilized to open the political system, enlarge the boundaries of effective citizen participation, spread the benefits of economic progress. In each Western country, success required augmenting the normal constituencies of the left with the concerned electorate of the center. These coalitions worked for distributive change, for the reallocation of privileges and wealth and the expansion of public goods. But even these intervals of reform have been cut short either by war or by their own inner tensions. For the reformist coalitions tend finally, as they did by the 1970s, to result in a rash of social movements and contradictory economic outcomes that lose the reformers their centrist supporters. In the aftermath of these difficulties, former reformist and radical intellectuals repent of their earlier enthusiasm. They are literally de-moralized but now to the benefit, not of traditional conservatives as a decade ago, but increasingly of apparently diverse movements and political entrepreneurs: in the ex-Eastern Bloc countries, former communist apparatchiks reborn as national populists; in the West, vociferous regionalists and highly successful business and media leaders.


Does common politics unite such diverse challengers? Their common theme is that the average voter has lost control of the political and economic forces that control his life; parties in power have become absorbed only in perpetuating their tenure; outside peoples and abstruse concepts have achieved too great an influence. Identity, defined as the expectation of predictable relationships within a given spatial domain, familiar faces in familiar places, must be defended. The remedy is to realign a meaningful territory and political voice. If this is populism (the term is imprecise, but alternatives are difficult) it is territorial populism: the politics of turf in the broadest sense.

Territorial populists rally supporters in reaction to the fragmentation of social cohesion for which reformist policies are blamed. They claim to simultaneously fight for jobs at home, scrape away encrusted bureaucracies and overcome social fragmentation. Whether through xenophobic appeals, regionalism or a rejection of supranational economic commitments, they reaffirm the validity of a bounded political domain. They contest the perceived diffusion of decision-making to supranational authorities or offshore enterprises. They promise to restore a sense of identity and to repatriate decisions to a cohesive community on a familiar home territory. "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer" was once the most ruthless of such rallying cries; it expressed the most rigorously simplistic answer to the moral crisis of the post-World War I era. But every moral crisis generates territorial populism as a political nostrum. And sooner or later it tends to single out as deviant and subversive those groups on the ethnic territory that stand for complexity and alternative principles of solidarity: immigrant communities and vulnerable minorities, Jews, homosexuals and the old imagined conspiracies of Masons and intellectuals that seemed so insidious in Franco’s Spain and Vichy France. One can hear the echoes of this sad discourse even in present-day Italy.

In theory, territorial populism can remain tolerant and reformist, but it skids easily to what is thought of as the right. Familiar right-wing motifs tend to reemerge: an appeal to ethnic exclusiveness, the desire to reinvigorate the national unit, the contempt for the existing parliamentary class. American sociologists in the 1950s referred to a "new" right, but it is no longer new. Some of the contemporary territorial populisms, though not all, are reliably neo-fascist; they rehabilitate the records of the interwar fascist leaders; their participants threaten violence as a political recourse; they allow themselves the unbridled contemptuous language that was part of the fascist or Nazi repertory. These harsh tonalities of politics emerged in the first era of moral crisis during the 1870s and 1880s; they marked the language of Action Francaise, Austrian political anti-Semitism, Italian fascism and German national socialism; the contempt is heard among some of the ideologues of the Northern Leagues and National Alliance, and of course from Mr. Zhirinovsky. On the other hand are many leaders who eschew this violence, who modulate their appeals or who adopt the cracker-barrel wisdom of the down-home businessman or the flashy success of the modern media czar. They avoid authoritarian rhetoric, but appeal to a plebiscitary support for national salvation.

Fascism, recall, emerged as a specific historical movement in an adversarial relationship with an energized socialism and communist left, the foe whose success in 1917-18 helped trigger fascism’s own historical appearance, but with which fascism shared repressive attributes. The new territory champions arise in a moment of leftist exhaustion; they reject the complex multiethnic societies fascism also attacked, but they currently face no major ideological adversary. Just as the postwar years in Eastern Europe sometimes witnessed the phenomenon of anti-Semitism without Jews (or with very few), the current nationalism is a right without a left. Nonetheless, the fact that five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall one sees the spread of political formations so reminiscent of interwar nationalist authoritarianism remains one of the stunning surprises of post-communist history. And that some of the formations that openly admire the interwar dictators should be participating in governments in countries where these predecessors once ruled is doubly astonishing. A new right? Yes, but at the same time it is a retro-right.

Not every moral crisis deepens sufficiently for territorial populism to prevail. However, periods of moral crisis tend always to provoke such a coalition as an inherent component of their historical dynamic. The political effort to impose an imagined territorial cohesion is in fact a key indicator of such crises. This does not mean that the territorial populists will win in the long run; they may indeed represent hopeless responses to a resolute choice of complexity and cosmopolitanism. Pat Buchanan and David Duke enjoyed only evanescent celebrity status. So far support for the German right remains below 10 percent, as its successive avatars have since 1950. The Front National has given French citizens and observers a few frissons but has not gained significant parliamentary strength. In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt trounced the uneasy coalition of nativist populism in 1936, and President Clinton will presumably repeat this achievement in 1996. But no matter what the outcome, the contest cannot be fun. It touches ugly chords of prejudice, it raises nationalistic instincts that the West has not had to contend with for many decades, and it introduces an element of incalculability into each country’s public life and into the relations of nations with each other. During moral crises and their aftermath, the advocates of cosmopolitanism and compromise, pluralism and rationality are never in full control. Nonetheless, tenuous leadership is no mean achievement. It would be far more perilous to try to outbid territorial populists, for such a policy will always skid out of control.


To overcome a moral crisis is to rehabilitate principles of civic allegiance that look beyond the control of territory. If the United States is to serve as an anchoring force in global civil society, it must provide a plausible alternative vision to territorial populism abroad as well as at home. That means reaffirming commitments to civic inclusiveness, not just ethnicity; avoiding retreats into protectionism; encouraging common international projects and loyalties beyond ethnic or even cultural kinship. American policy should redefine the Wilsonian agenda that justified early U.S. ventures into great-power politics and whose concept of self-determination still remains so appealing, such that self-determination is separated from its original territorial focus. Such an approach cuts against the grain of contemporary micro-nationalism, but by the mid-1990s proposals for ethnic aggregation or the encouragement of multiple territorial loyalties are more urgent than disaggregation.

It is time for confederalism, cantonization and overlapping citizenship claims to receive more creative attention. Of course, the idea of encouraging confederal frameworks will appear utopian when warring ethnic groups are determined to seek exclusive territorial states. Nonetheless, frameworks for ethnic reaggregation, if only in regional economic institutions at first, will seem appropriate once again, and pressures toward reconstruction of units that are now merely battlegrounds will become pressing agenda items. As confederal structures reemerge, they might well include participants that are not drawn directly from the contested territory. The Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union have roles to play beyond their original purview in helping to organize such structures in Europe, and their delegates should play a role as continuing board members, as should U.S. nominees. The appropriate levels of aggregation and boundaries will be contested in every case. To grant every people its own sovereignty is not feasible, but they can have their representation, their cultural institutions, a share of the public purse and a delegation in international overarching structures such as an enlarged European Union, CSCE or analogous institutions that might be constructed elsewhere. Indeed, the formation and strengthening, the widening and deepening, of such institutional networks might eventually help democracies combat the anomie that has permitted indifference, tribalism and fragmentation to advance. This recovery will not be quick or easy; moral crises of democracy tend to be protracted and contagious. They will only be reversed by a commitment beyond borders and across frontiers.


[1] William Grimes, "Have a #%!&[email protected]$! Day," The New York Times, October 17, 1993, section 9, page 1.

[2] James O’Connor, The Fiscal Crisis of the State, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

[3] Jacob Burckhardt, Force and Freedom: An Interpretation of History, ed. James Hastings Nichols, New York: Meridian Books, 1955, a translation of Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, pp. 297-300, and pp. 256-300 more generally.

[4] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York: Free Press, 1992.

[5] Max Weber, Gesammelte Politische Schriften, 3rd ed., Johannes Winckelmann, ed., Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1971, p. 24.

[6] Compare G. John Ikenberry, "The Long War," Council on Foreign Relations discussion paper, and John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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