Autumn and Its Discontents
In the days ahead, I'll be writing a regular column for 'The Hindu', one of india's major newspapers. The editors have been very generous (even in this age of shrinking newspaper space) to give me freedom to explore and write about stuff that I find of interest. I'll continue to share those pieces here as well. Below is a piece I wrote on the eve of a new administration taking charge in Washington D.C. under the leadership of Donald J. Trump. This was published here, January 20th' 2017.
In the second volume of Ian Kershaw’s monumental biography on Adolf Hitler, there is a throwaway description of Nazi electoral strategy: “The appealing counter-image of national rebirth”. This promise to dust away historical humiliations is a political stratagem that has launched numerous electoral campaigns since 1933-34 when Hitler came to power. What makes these refrains of renaissance ominous sometimes is that nostalgia for national glory is entwined intimately, like a strand in a double helix birthing identity, with vilification of select groups. In our times, we have seen this logic unfold starkly in Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Implicit in the deployment of such a vocabulary is an effort to create hierarchies that rank which diversities within the collective are to thrive, which to be subsumed, and which to be squashed, in service of the state.
Sea change in attitudes
Since the 1960s, when ethnic quotas on immigration to the U.S. ended, American elections have been occasions to ask public-spirited questions on the nature of citizenship. Similar questions were asked in the 19th century when the Irish, Italians, and other “non-whites” from southern Europe arrived. These questions seek to answer concerns such as who belongs in America, what is the nature of that belonging, what is guaranteed by the American state to its citizens, and so on. The answers thrown up in the hurly-burly of election campaigns to these questions are rarely cogent or perfumed by refinement, but they nevertheless draw with great fidelity the contours of collective attitudes, fears, and aspirations.
By and large, for much of its history since the 1960s, the content of American citizenship has widened over time and offered more opportunities to residents (even non-citizens) to flourish as individuals. To this end, over the past 60 years, there have been improvements in the protection of voting rights for minorities, equal pay for women, legalisation of same-sex marriage, environmental preservation, consumer protection, decriminalisation of children of illegal immigrants, and so on. Acts and amendments that have relied on human reason to reduce human suffering.
Legal precedents that show while America is far from a perfect nation, it is as Barack Obama said in 2008, a “perfectible nation”. In 2016, however, Donald Trump’s election victory depended on large swathes of American voters (majority white, some non-whites too) who have become suspicious of the very same institutional structures and vocabularies that had allowed this historic expansion of the protections and guarantees offered by the state. That this recognition of the changing moods of the American electorate proved difficult for political pundits and, particularly, for the Clinton campaign is evident. But why exactly they did miss this sea change in attitudes, particularly since 2012 when Mr. Obama was elected by a majority of voters, is still not well understood. In parts, this may be because of a managerial understanding of the nature of politics that has become prevalent.
The waning of liberalism
Since World War II, democratic politics has become most visible as an effort to taper over social schisms, to legislate out examples of intolerance, and to ameliorate historic wrongs. Much effort has gone to ensure that these resentments don’t burble up, far less explode into the open like in the Balkans during the 1990s. After the messianism of the pre-World War II era, the politics that followed began to speak the language of bureaucratic incrementalism which allowed for discontents to be calibrated, bribed, and managed.
By and large, this approach is successful when social stresses aren’t extraordinary. The presence of a social safety net — not just in a financial sense, but also on familial, community, and identitarian grounds — allowed for more and more individuals to buy into the idea that if they patiently wait in line, pay their taxes, and jump through the hoops, their turn at self-improvement will arrive. The result of this implicit coda of civic agreeableness is that the accompanying politics and the very act of being political acquired a vocabulary of gradualism. Politicians swore by a creedal faith in accumulative dynamics of progress. The apotheosis of this attitude towards politics — call it pragmatic liberalism, if you will — has been President Obama, who sought to restore America after the foreign policy and financial catastrophes of the George W. Bush era. He was successful, more than anybody expected in 2008 when he was first elected, through an inspired mix of personal integrity, hard work, and the charisma to market his achievements.
Yet, a key requirement for pragmatic liberalism to succeed is that it relies on the state’s capacity to ensure resource redistribution and the efficacy of delivery mechanisms. Since the 1980s however, the institutional capacity of governments in America has gradually hollowed out via defunding (“starve the Beast”, said arch privatisers). Any question of downward redistribution was deemed illegitimate, even as income inequality continued to rise. The consequence is that the originary promises of liberalism — equity and efficiency — progressively needed more and more spectacularly gifted advocates to sell its promise and potential during election time. Without which, liberalism is seen as having failed to deliver. All the while, what followed are critiques: from incendiary radio and TV hosts who froth apoplectically to deeper, and thus all the more radical, readings that seeks to delegitimise the entire liberalism project itself.
Thus we find influential right-wing ideologues of Western decline, like the Russian public intellectual Alexandr Dugin (with his growing set of admirers among the White Nationalist movements in America) blame liberalism’s universalist tendencies to usurp and colonise cultures in the name of egalitarianism and progressivism. The enemy, in this interpretation, is not only transnational capitalism and its representatives (which also conveniently comports with historic tropes of anti-Semitism), but also the very language, methods, and civic attitudes that have allowed liberalism to thrive. Thus, culture is instrumentalised to demarcate boundaries between the porous beliefs and real lives of peoples who belong to different nations. For a long time, this right-wing authoritarian populism (or the left-wing supranational bureaucratism of the European Union variety) has had little purchase in American politics. The cataclysms of the credit crises in 2008, however, began to change all that.
Words that resonate
The state, even the ostensibly all-powerful American state, suddenly found itself unable to imagine the consequences of letting millions of working adults fall by the wayside, except in terms of statistics such as unemployment figures and GDP growth. Politicians, trained in decades-old languages of subcommitees and judicial hearings, suddenly found themselves unmoored from what people now sought from politics: an argument for coherence in an age of multiple incoherences.
In such circumstances, successful politics — or, more accurately, a successful election campaign in the age of cable TV and social media — transmogrifies from reason-based discourse to an exhortation of group solidarity that promises to help the individual build a carapace to re-situate themselves in a wider society. Mr. Trump’s talent was to find the words — howsoever wild, inaccurate, and often untrue — that rebelled against these commonplace political mantras of ‘globalisation’, ‘NAFTA’, ‘privatisation’ et al which had traduced middle- and low-income Americans into economic pawns instead of seeing them as members within a social grouping. Ironically, while Mr. Trump’s harangues mirrored the very opposite of the language of hope and solidarity that Mr. Obama conveyed in 2008, both of them treated politics as something transcending policy prescriptions and technical fixes. They sought to articulate a form of group solidarity. For Mr. Obama, that group was ever growing, multiracial and multicultural; while for Mr. Trump it was situated in mid 20th century America, largely white, and monocultural.
That the world’s most powerful democracy, when given a choice to roll the dice in an election — to choose between progressive bureaucratism of the Clintons and indignant nationalism of Mr. Trump — chose the latter ought to tell us that when societies feel depleted, the demands made of politics and political vocabulary undergo a radical change. Mr. Trump, like any successful television personality with his ear to the ground, understood that better. Politics, he cynically bet, was resentment repackaged as show business. He won.