Of Demagogues and Democrats

by A.R. Naraghi

20 January 2017

After stunning America’s ruling classes and the world by winning the US election, Donald Trump has been sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. The key to providing a coherent alternative to the Trump phenomenon is to recognise that he is neither a symptom nor disease, but a toxic reaction to something far worse. American voters are turning to a straw man because he represents the cure for the decaying political consensus, the core doctrine of neoliberalism that has reigned supreme in the minds of Western policymakers for over 30 years.

So now the breakdown is in plain view: a lack of genuine competing narratives is fuelled by the dramatic decline of trust in the elites. This disintegration has been happening in slow-motion since the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent fragmentation of faith in politics. Today, in the US, the average confidence in American institutions sits at 32%. In the US election, 42% of eligible voters didn’t vote at all. While, in the UK, during the Brexit debate, one common theme that resonated with people on both sides of the argument was the rejection of institutions and dismissal of their outsized influence. The Ipsos Mori annual index results found that a mere 25% of Britons trust journalists to tell the truth. Trust in politicians had dropped by six points to a dismal 15% this time last year. These revelations weren’t accidental.

It all began with the annihilation of industries that had once been sufficiently established to provide workers with dignified lives. The political whirlwind of the financial crisis, the illegal Iraq War, and the Vietnamization of the Middle East were real failures that undermined the legitimacy of elite institutions. As Los Angeles Times reporter Vincent Bevins puts it, “Since the 1980s the elites in rich countries have overplayed their hand, taking all the gains for themselves and just covering their ears when anyone else talks, and now they are watching in horror as voters revolt.” He goes on, “Both Brexit and Trumpism are the very, very wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to ask for 30 years.”

What has followed is a mounting anger and frustration with a political system discredited by utter failure, from Katrina to the unjust bank bailouts to congressional corruption to stagnant wages and diminished hopes. For decades, voters have watched the bipartisan political and cultural establishment wave away the notion that they were serving the interests of big donors rather than those they were elected to serve. The concentration of economic power has colonised politics. The efforts of governments are not focused on the plight of ordinary people but on defending the machine that is destroying them, what former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, termed “greater worker insecurity”, a powerful driving force for the U.S. economy.

The dominant neoliberal narrative  tells us that the market can resolve all social, economic, and political problems. Since Thatcher and Reagan came to power, this story has shaped our personalities, values, and common morality. It should be obvious that this system could inflict wider damage.

One deeply destructive outcome is the decimation of viable political alternatives. As Thatcher liked to say, “There is no alternative.” Never mind that the share of the UK’s economic growth enjoyed by the working class is now at its lowest since WWII. Reaganism and its legacy are still argued over to this day. What is certain is that the policies Reagan backed have become the consensus of Western governments and still dominate economic thinking.

This sharp rightward shift persisted under Clinton and Blair, both of whom emphasised the virtues of the financialisation of the economy, uncontrolled markets, and changing our social identity. While, after eight years of Obama presidency, we have not escaped the regressive Bush tax cuts. In Obama’s words, for the wealthy, taxation is the “lowest level in half a century”.

But today, their metalogical creed is starting to melt away. Its survival relies on extensive political lobbying, a militarised police force, the crushing of social movements, and the humanisation of corporate power. It depends on a legion of celebrities for mass distraction, the media, and PR firms to manufacture happiness on an industrial scale. They are devoting their energy to demonising minorities to preserve their failed orthodoxy.

The corporate powers, in a passive democracy, have a struggle on their hands. Somehow, they must persuade us that “what works” is actually working. But under perpetual economic depression, that claim is increasingly difficult to maintain. Imagine you’re one of the millions of unemployed 16-24 year olds with college degrees, condemned to a life defined by hopelessness, desperation, and anxiety. Older American workers have suffered three decades of flat wages. In the U.K., 17 million British adults have less than £100 in savings. Loss of opportunity and diminishing communities are creating a toxic brew in the form of an opioid epidemic and a sharp rise in suicide rates.

The political implications are clear. The combination of populist fury with the indifference of the political class to economic pain created a vacuum that Trump, Brexit, and the populist right were happy to fill. Indeed, populists on the right are feasting on the social democratic parties that embraced the neoliberal policies of austerity across Europe.

You can see the paradox. A large chunk of the Trump vote was rebelling against an establishment in love with neoliberalism. Yet, Trump’s “anti-establishment revolt” is culminating in a cabinet of billionaire executives with neoliberal impulses, which means that Trump has no clear and compelling alternative vision. The likely result is the further demolition of faith in politics and the fact-based society.

Unfortunately, the political class has learned little if anything from this dramatic political upset. In recent weeks, American establishments have already retreated to their insulated bubbles, shifting their focus onto groundless assertions about Russian involvement in Wikileaks’ Podesta emails. Infuriated by the rise of Trump, they refuse to examine any political shift outside of their comfort zone, an orientation certain to boost Trump’s narrative of the detachment of the elite. Wrapped up in their comfort blankets, they have failed to provide a viable opposition and shamelessly admitted that Clinton’s victory depended on concealing the truth. After all, the Democratic party establishment was not the victim of fabrication — but it did make winning virtually impossible for Bernie Sanders at every turn.

Incensed by the rise of Trump, they refused to take ownership of their own creation. But unless the technocratic elites reflect on their failures, their brand of politics has no future. Be sure: deep down, they know it themselves.

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