Thursday, November 03, 2016

Populism, anti-populism and neoliberalism

Defenders of rule by Big Money are understandably alarmed by populism. And some of them are particularly concerned to keep left-leaning constituencies from indulging it, and so are trying to stigmatize the whole idea of populism as rightwing populism.Former Chilean Finance Minister Andrés Velasco writes in The Anti-Democratic Heart of Populism 10/27/2016, "Populism rests on a toxic triad: denial of complexity, anti-pluralism, and a crooked version of representation."

Velasco's column relies heavily on the argument of Jan-Werner Mueller, whose polemic against populism I discussed in a recent post. And Velasco's recommendation for democratic parties consist of exortations for better marketing practices and these policy reforms:

Leave delegation to complex technical matters. Take advantage of modern technologies to bring other choices – particularly those having to do with the fabric of daily life – closer to voters. Tighten campaign finance laws, regulate lobbying better, and enforce affirmative-action measures to ensure that representatives are of the people and work for the people.
Those "complex technical matters" in the neoliberal view include just about everything to do with trade and economic policy. But let's throw a bone to the unwashed masses by passing some cosmetic reforms to campaign financing and lobbying until the proles calm done and accept their fate.

There is a diagnostic component required to make this approach sound plausible. Its advocates have to deny that stagnant or declining economic conditions have anything to do with the growing popularity of populist political campaigns in Europe and the US.

Here it's important for people trying to understand this realistically to remember we need to walk and talk at the same time.

Economic insecurity produces political discontent. Those who find themselves in an extremely comfortable position are eager to thwart the development of any potential majority coalition that might have a serious desire to disturb that contentment by requiring the wealthy to pay more taxes, or denying their businesses the right to do whatever they want to do, no matter how much harm it may do to the larger community.

So there are a lot of approaches to doing this. In the United States, at least since the 1844 Presidential election ("Tippecanoo and Tyler, Too"), even politicians eager to do the bidding of the monied interests knew they had to make it sound like they cared about the needs of the common people. And if potential popular coalitions against those interests could be divided or distracted by other villains, so much the better. So in the antebellum South, fear and hatred of blacks kept many whites devoted to a political and economic order that did not have their interests as the first priority. Railroad interests were happy to have native workers focusing on their hatred and fear of immigrant labor instead of agitating against the misdeeds of the robber barons.

And, of course, a foreign enemy serves that purpose very well, too, along with providing profit opportunities for the armaments industry and the military-industrial complex more generally.

So it's a fact of life that voters have a variety of pressures, opinions and influences that affect their political choices and political participation, or lack thereof. And hard times create an opportunity for demagogues to link substantive grievances like the lack of jobs to subjective hatreds against minorities, foreigners, or women. And to promote the political equivalent of quack medicine.

Since the late 1960s in the US, leading political commentators have tended to take a perspective that minimized the role of white racism in particular among voters supporting conservative causes. It was considered thoughtful to wonder about the "alienation" and hurt feelings of such voters, while treating racism or religious bigotry as secondary matters about which it was better not to be judgmental. Now in the 2010s, that same vague approach is still popular among popular writers and even some academics.

Bob Kuttner takes a look at several recent books grappling with this complex of issues in a long review essay, Hidden Injuries of Class, Race, and Culture The American Prospect 10/03/2016. At the end, he repeats a statement of Lyndon Johnson, "If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice that you’re picking his pocket." And Kuttner adds:

Martin Luther King Jr. often observed much the same thing. “The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” King said from steps of the Alabama Capitol, following the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.”
During the 2016 Presidential election, there has been no end of quibbling among progressives about the role economic discontent is feeding Trump's rightwing support. Is it really that? Or is it that Republican voters just hate black people and/or immigrants and/or women and/or Muslims? Are Trump supporters deceived, or are they "deplorables"?

We'll have lots of exit polls to analyze a week from now. But I don't think that is a hard question to understand. It becomes so if we frame it as a simple one.

The suspicion of the labor left and the nationalist right over corporate-deregulation "trade" treaties is nothing new. We saw that split on full display back in 1993 in the debate over NAFTA ratification. So it's easy enough for me to believe that there are some actual swing voters who would vote for Trump as a protest against the deregulation "trade" treaties. And for whom his racism and xenophobia or misogyny are not terribly objectionable. Or maybe distasteful but not bad enough to override the anti-regulation-treaty sentiment.

But it shouldn't be a conceptual problem to recognize that as well as to understand that for the vast majority of habitual Republican voters, those prejudices and bigotry are not objectionable at all. For a great many voters, White Identity is simply more important than better economic opportunities for a lot of voters.

But even for them, we shouldn't simply disregard class or immediate economic issues as affecting their attitudes, either. Identifying with the wealthy and successful is often a part of personal ambition. If you want to be part of an exclusive country club, Republican political opinions and associations are likely to make you fit in better with that crowd than Democratic, left or populist ones. For some people, voting for the Democrats would be a personal embarrassment, an admission of lack of ambition and gumption in life. The one think about Jefferson Davis that I find remotely sympathetic is what his future wife Varina Howells of a Whig family wrote her mother after meeting him, "Would you believe it, he is refined and cultivated, and yet he is a Democrat!"

The actual ways in which economic pressures translate themselves into individual political decisions can also be complicated. But to pretend they don't exist is unrealistic. And often connected with an ideological agenda.

Project Syndicate has been featuring various pieces on this set of issues. Anatole Kaletsky (Pensioners and Populism 10/28/2016) marshals several arguments for the populist-appeal-has-nothing-to-do-with-economics appeal. For instance:

For starters, most populist voters are neither poor nor unemployed; they are not victims of globalization, immigration, and free trade. The main demographic groups behind the anti-establishment upsurge have been people outside the workforce: pensioners, middle-aged homemakers, and men with low educational qualifications receiving disability payments.
And none of these groups feel economic stress?

His other arguments are similarly weak. The ideological point for those who want to discredit populism is that there is no need to address inequality or the damage done by deregulation and privatization or other aspects of neoliberal dogma as a way of address populist discontent. He concludes by hoping the Brexit vote will be a fluke and the high point of populist political manifestations in the West. Or at least Europe. That way, he hopes it will be "the last gasp of an aging generation that tried to impose its nostalgic parochialism on an increasingly cosmopolitan younger generation, but succeeded in only one unfortunate country."

Joschka Fisher also tries to write the whole thing off as a no-nothing throwback movement by people who just don't understand that There Is No Alternative to the neoliberal dystopia (How Much Europe Do Europeans Need? Project Syndicate 11/02/2016):

... the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing global recession are widely, and justifiably, seen as a massive failure on the part of the “establishment.” Anti-elite sentiment continues to erode intra-European solidarity and mutual trust, and the EU has become mired in a prolonged bout of slow growth and high unemployment.

Across the West, a general feeling of decline has taken hold, owing to the shift in global wealth and power toward Asia. ... Worldwide, there is growing discontent with globalization, digitization, and free trade, accompanied by a slow shift toward protectionism. Europeans, in particular, seem to have forgotten that protectionism and nationalism are inextricably linked – one cannot be had without the other. ...

As always, when fear runs rampant in Europe, people seek salvation in nationalism, isolationism, ethnic homogeneity, and nostalgia – the “good old days,” when supposedly all was well in the world. Never mind that the bloody, chaotic past was anything but perfect. Nationalist leaders and their supporters today are living in a “post-empirical” reality, where the truth and experience have no purchase.
I can't help but notice Fisher's comment that voters are "justifiably" viewing the financial crash and Great Recession as a failure of the Establishment parties. Sadly, a key period in that collective failure in Germany was the neoliberal turn of the red-green coalition government in which he served as Vice Chancellor Foreign Minister (1998-2005) as the Green Party leader.

Also at Project Syndicate, though, Joe Stiglitz recommends the very approach that the neoliberal advocates trying to discredit the whole concept of populism are trying to discredit (How Trump Happened 10/14/2016):

There are two messages US political elites should be hearing. The simplistic neo-liberal market-fundamentalist theories that have shaped so much economic policy during the last four decades are badly misleading, with GDP growth coming at the price of soaring inequality. Trickle-down economics hasn’t and won’t work. Markets don’t exist in a vacuum. The Thatcher-Reagan “revolution,” which rewrote the rules and restructured markets for the benefit of those at the top, succeeded all too well in increasing inequality, but utterly failed in its mission to increase growth.

This leads to the second message: we need to rewrite the rules of the economy once again, this time to ensure that ordinary citizens benefit. Politicians in the US and elsewhere who ignore this lesson will be held accountable. Change entails risk. But the Trump phenomenon – and more than a few similar political developments in Europe – has revealed the far greater risks entailed by failing to heed this message: societies divided, democracies undermined, and economies weakened.

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