Why is right-wing populism surging while left-wing populism lies moribund?
Historically, we know how right-wing populism advances. Economic malaise coupled with liberal paralysis. When the economy sucks, workers are ripe for appeals against scapegoats. Immigrants, minorities, woman and queers are all fair game when times are hard. Witness Europe’s experience since the 2008 financial crisis, when the EU’s turn towards austerity has led to the reemergence of home-grown fascism across the continent.
In this milieu, right-wing populism is the flip-side of neoliberal market freedoms that our elite have embraced for 40 odd years. For the political class and corporate media, however, this racism or sexism or xenophobia is simply the result of “deplorable’s” being deplorable as if the bi-partisan governance that fronts for the oligarchs, bears no responsibility for the consequences of four decades of neoliberal rule.
Here in the US, the Democrats co-invented identity politics to defer blame for the consequences of their policies. If they cared about combatting racism and xenophobia, none of the Democratic Party establishment would be considered for public office. Watching the DNC move heaven and earth to squash Bernie’s campaign while promoting Biden’s, it’s apparent that Talleyrand was on to something when he remarked about the Bourbons, “they have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.”
If the Democrats truly wanted to defeat Trump, they have a clear path to victory via Bernie Sanders. But placating their corporate donors is their first priority, not carrying out the will of the people. As far as the DNC is concerned, it’s more important to squelch the Progressive wing of their own party than to oust the current administration.
Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — e.g. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism’s ills, rather than capitalists — will win back those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate.
Why hasn’t the Democratic Party heeded this truism? In, Listen Liberal, Thomas Frank demonstrated that the Democratic Party has transformed into the party of wealthy professionals who prefer the Democratic Party to be left on social issues but right on economic issues. The party elite see these wealthy folks as part of the party, and don’t want to nominate a candidate who accurately sees them as class enemies.
The party’s leaders see themselves as the left wing of capital — supporting social policies that liberal rich people can get behind, never daring to enact economic reforms that might cause rich liberals to have to pay more taxes. Hence, the establishment seems intent on anointing the centrist Democrats of capital, who push liberal social policies and neoliberal economic policies.
This is why identity politics are all the rage with wealthy liberals.
With identity politics, there is no such thing as collective action. By shifting the burden of responsibility to individuals for their own power and wellbeing, identity politics has been able to disenfranchise huge segments of the electorate and sell us on a political action that’s harmless to the ruling elite. Identity politics shift the burden of change to the individual, just like the advertising industry uses manufactured problems, like bad breath, or body odor, to sell us products. We can celebrate our identity all we want, there’s even a product they’ll sell us to magnify our differences. Or to herd us into our own self reinforcing enclosure of highly-individualized feeds, where market-approved talking points are slipped through paid ads and recommended content.
I could care less if a leader is a man or a woman, black or white, straight or gay, or a transexual. All I care about are policies that aid the vast majority of Americans and make our lives better. Ultimately, it’s the policies and incentives behind them that shape our leaders rather than their skin color or sexual orientation. For instance, liberals thrilled at the election of Barak Obama, a brilliant and charismatic African-American senator, who promised Hope and Change. Of course, he provided neither and his election appears now to have been one big con, propelled by marketing.
At the time, many Americans were anticipating that Obama would initiate a crackdown on the “banksters” who had knowingly rigged the economy out of short-sighted greed. However, Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury, Tim Geithner, believed that foaming the runway with American homeowners for Wall Street’s crash landing was the proper response. Meanwhile, it was clean getaway for the “banksters”, who’ve been made whole due the Fed’s quantitative easing policies and are now more powerful than ever. The whole exercise was the opposite of FDR’s Pecora Commission, which investigated the causes of the 1929 Wall Street crash and subpoenaed high profile bankers to testify.
Well-run societies don’t need heroes, and the way to keep terrible impulses in check isn’t to dethrone antiheros and replace them with good people. As we’ve seen, replacing George W. Bush with Barak Obama did not suddenly transform America. Nor did the election of Donald Trump suddenly make America great again.
It’s all about the policies.
Better policies, please.