In a column featured on our homepage, E. J. Dionne uses W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” to help explain the surprising popularity of Donald Trump in this country and the rise of far-right and far-left political parties all across Europe. Here’s the first section of the poem, the part that Dionne discusses:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And here’s Dionne:
The line invoked most—“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”—is irresistible. It’s always tempting to assume that the side we oppose brings vast reservoirs of demonic energy to bear against our own sad and bedraggled allies.
The other oft-quoted verse comes four lines earlier, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” This sentiment comes back again and again, at times of stress when Establishments seem to be tottering and when moderate and conventional politicians find themselves outshouted and outmaneuvered.
We are definitely in for another “Second Coming” revival, and Donald Trump is the least of it. The center is under siege all over the democratic world.[...]
Political Establishments worthy of the name and middle-ground politicians who care about more than power understand the dangers of a Yeats moment—to social harmony, to tolerance and, if things go really badly, to democracy and freedom. The next decade will test whether the political classes of the world’s democracies are up to the challenge.
Is this right? Yes and no. Dionne’s first observation is a good one: Yeats's line about the worst being full of “passionate intensity” does give politicians and pundits a golden tongue with which to lick their wounds after defeat. They may have lost a debate or an election, or sunk to the bottom of a poll. But at least they are not the worst, and anyway every dog has its day, including the loudest-barking cur.
Still, if Dionne is right about the source of the poem's appeal to Beltway insiders, I think he's wrong about its message. When Yeats wrote that "the centre cannot hold," he was not thinking of political "centrists" or the established political class; he meant the social center of gravity that keeps a country from disintegrating. The unity of any social organism—church, state, or political party—is constantly threatened by centrifugal forces (“turning and turning in the widening gyre”). At certain moments in history those forces can tear a country apart, and Yeats believed he was living at such a moment in Ireland's history. When he wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity," he did not mean that the centrists or moderates of the Establishment lack all conviction while dangerous radicals are full of passion, as Dionne seems to suggest. If a careful reading of the poem itself weren't enough to prove this, the poet's political record would be. For Yeats was never exactly a moderate in his opinions and affiliations. He did caution against the dangers of political zeal, but what he objected to was less the zeal than the politics. His mad old men knew "a Helen of social welfare dream, / climb on a wagonette to scream." Prose translation: If you are a Helen, you have better things to do than campaign for some social or political cause, however worthy it might be (for example, you can sit in a castle while men go to war over you and write poems about your beauty). Yeats's own political inclinations were inchoately reactionary. He believed in a kind of aristocracy of the spirit and looked down his nose at the masses and their elected representatives. He was no centrist.
Why is this important?
First, because “The Second Coming” is too good a poem to be known mainly by its misappropriations. And second, because, pace Dionne, the biggest problem we are facing in America and Europe today is
not that responsible centrist political elites have yielded ground to dangerous ideological extremists. Donald Trump may or may not turn out to be dangerous, but he is not exactly an ideologue: the rickety trapdoor that passes for his platform combines leftwing trade protectionism, rightwing xenophobia, and non-partisan, sub-ideological chauvinism. Bernie Sanders may be an ideological extremist relative to the other Democratic presidential candidates, but he is hardly dangerous. On the contrary, a Sanders presidency might be a very good thing for this country, as even Dionne might concede. Not, of course, that Sanders has much chance of being elected.
As for those radical leftwing European politicians who make Sanders look like a moderate—Jeremy Corbyn, for example, who may become the next leader of the British Labour Party—they look extreme only because many of Europe’s established socialist and social-democratic parties are no longer socialist or social-democratic in anything but name. They are paid-up subscribers to the neoliberal pensée unique, still sometimes called the Washington Consensus but better described as the transatlantic consensus, being as entrenched in Brussels as it is in the Beltway. This is the consensus Margaret Thatcher spoke for when she announced that there was no alternative to her government’s program of deregulation and privatization. It is the consensus that is now suffocating the Greek economy in the name of discipline. Today, the debate between center-right and center-left parties in Europe is not about whether to privatize public assets or cut welfare programs, but about what to privatize and how much to cut. The center has not held but drifted steadily rightward. The real problem for centrists is not that they are failing to stand their ground against passionate extremists. The problem is that the ground is shifting under their feet—subterranean historical pressures, pent up for years, were released by the 2008 financial crisis—and the centrists are losing their footing.
Yeats did not believe that "the worst" was synonymous with "the extreme," and neither should we. Small-d democrats must be committed to procedural compromise—that is the only way for a democracy to proceed. But there is no reason to assume, a apriori, that political wisdom always lies halfway between two diametrically opposed ideologies. Virtue may be a mean between opposite vices, but truth is not always the mean between opposite errors. And, as Pope Francis has recently reminded us, the best solution to some problems may be a radical solution. Political circumstances may put it beyond reach, but that fact should not keep us from acknowledging that a (for-now) politically impracticable policy is nevertheless the most rational one. Centrists are always insisting on the importance of "realistic goals," by which they mean goals determined by considerations of probability. But it isn't our goals that need to be "realistic" in this sense, only our expectations.