The Establishment Strikes Back?
We've been reading about how both Brexit and Trumpism are part of a reaction based on fear and loathing against elites and their policies that have left masses of people economically and socially insecure. But I hadn't read the perspective from the elites until yesterday when someone sent me a post at Foreign Policy by James Traub. At first I thought it was a parody. But it wasn't. If Traub is accurately representing the elites, they have a very different perspective than the conventional wisdom that is somewhat sympathetic with displaced and threatened workers. Train seeks to get to an explanation of why "today’s citizen revolt-- in the United States, Britain, and Europe-- may upend politics as nothing else has in my lifetime. In the late 1960s, elites were in disarray, as they are now-- but back then they were fleeing from kids rebelling against their parents’ world; now the elites are fleeing from the parents. Extremism has gone mainstream. One of the most brazen features of the Brexit vote was the utter repudiation of the bankers and economists and Western heads of state who warned voters against the dangers of a split with the European Union. British Prime Minister David Cameron thought that voters would defer to the near-universal opinion of experts; that only shows how utterly he misjudged his own people." So what about the rise of Trumpism, which he refers to as a day of reckoning for America? "If Donald Trump loses, and loses badly (forgive me my reckless optimism, but I believe he will) the Republican Party may endure a historic split between its know-nothing base and its K Street/Chamber of Commerce leadership class."
[C]hunks of parties from the left and right of center could break away to form a different kind of center, defending pragmatism, meliorism, technical knowledge, and effective governance against the ideological forces gathering on both sides. It’s not hard to imagine the Republican Party in the United States-- and perhaps the British Conservatives should Brexit go terribly wrong-- losing control of the angry, nationalist rank and file and reconstituting themselves as the kind of Main Street, pro-business parties they were a generation ago, before their ideological zeal led them into a blind alley. That may be their only alternative to irrelevance.
The issue, at bottom, is globalization. Brexit, Trump, the National Front, and so on show that political elites have misjudged the depth of the anger at global forces and thus the demand that someone, somehow, restore the status quo ante. It may seem strange that the reaction has come today rather than immediately after the economic crisis of 2008, but the ebbing of the crisis has led to a new sense of stagnation. With prospects of flat growth in Europe and minimal income growth in the United States, voters are rebelling against their dismal long-term prospects. And globalization means culture as well as economics: Older people whose familiar world is vanishing beneath a welter of foreign tongues and multicultural celebrations are waving their fists at cosmopolitan elites. I was recently in Poland, where a far-right party appealing to nationalism and tradition has gained power despite years of undeniable prosperity under a centrist regime. Supporters use the same words again and again to explain their vote: “values and tradition.” They voted for Polishness against the modernity of Western Europe.
Perhaps politics will realign itself around the axis of globalization, with the fist-shakers on one side and the pragmatists on the other. The nationalists would win the loyalty of working-class and middle-class whites who see themselves as the defenders of sovereignty. The reformed center would include the beneficiaries of globalization and the poor and non-white and marginal citizens who recognize that the celebration of national identity excludes them.
Of course, mainstream parties of both the left and the right are trying to reach the angry nationalists. Sometimes this takes the form of gross truckling, as when Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking to regain France’s presidency, denounces the “tyranny of minorities” and invokes the “forever France” of an all-white past. From the left, Hillary Clinton has jettisoned her free-trade past to appeal to union members and others who want to protect national borders against the global market. But left and right disagree so deeply about how best to cushion the effects of globalization, and how to deal with the vast influx of refugees and migrants, that even the threat of extremism may not be enough to bring them to make common cause.
The schism we see opening before us is not just about policies, but about reality. The Brexit forces won because cynical leaders were prepared to cater to voters’ paranoia, lying to them about the dangers of immigration and the costs of membership in the EU. Some of those leaders have already begun to admit that they were lying. Donald Trump has, of course, set a new standard for disingenuousness and catering to voters’ fears, whether over immigration or foreign trade or anything else he can think of. The Republican Party, already rife with science-deniers and economic reality-deniers, has thrown itself into the embrace of a man who fabricates realities that ignorant people like to inhabit.
Did I say “ignorant”? Yes, I did. It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them. Is that “elitist”? Maybe it is; maybe we have become so inclined to celebrate the authenticity of all personal conviction that it is now elitist to believe in reason, expertise, and the lessons of history. If so, the party of accepting reality must be prepared to take on the party of denying reality, and its enablers among those who know better. If that is the coming realignment, we should embrace it.