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I went to Lille in northern France a few days before the first round of the French presidential election to attend a rally held by the socialist candidate Francois Hollande. It was a depressing experience. Thunderous music pulsated through the ugly and poorly heated Zenith convention hall a few blocks from the city center. The rhetoric was as empty and cliche-driven as an American campaign event. Words like “destiny,” “progress” and “change” were thrown about by Hollande, who looks like an accountant and made oratorical flourishes and frenetic arm gestures that seemed calculated to evoke the last socialist French president, Francois Mitterrand. There was the singing of “La Marseillaise” when it was over. There was a lot of red, white and blue, the colors of the French flag. There was the final shout of “Vive la France!” I could, with a few alterations, have been at a football rally in Amarillo, Texas. I had hoped for a little more gravitas. But as the French cultural critic Guy Debord astutely grasped, politics, even allegedly radical politics, has become a hollow spectacle. Quel dommage.
The emptying of content in political discourse in an age as precarious and volatile as ours will have very dangerous consequences. The longer the political elite-whether in Washington or Paris, whether socialist or right-wing, whether Democrat or Republican-ignore the breakdown of globalization, refuse to respond rationally to the climate crisis and continue to serve the iron tyranny of global finance, the more it will shred the possibility of political consensus, erode the effectiveness of our political institutions and empower right-wing extremists. The discontent sweeping the planet is born out of the paralysis of traditional political institutions.