“We should have seen this coming”. What’s wrong with America? This is what’s wrong with America.

Posted: March 16, 2016 in Political musings, Popular Culture et al
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Not his time. But just maybe, it's time for us all to be very concerned.

Not his time. But just maybe, it’s time for us all to be very concerned.

In that curious vignette that seems to happen so often when politicians lose an election or end their careers, Marco Rubio finally managed to say something really important as he suspended his presidential campaign in a heartfelt speech on Tuesday night American time, after suffering a crushing defeat to Donald Trump in Rubio’s home state of Florida.

“America is in the middle of a real political storm, a real tsunami. And we should have seen this coming,” Rubio said. “Look, people are angry and people are really frustrated.”

While not mentioning Trump’s name, Rubio attacked the Republican frontrunner and called for a more inclusive party that’s “built on principles and ideas, not on anger, not on preying on people’s frustrations.”

“Tonight, while it’s clear that while we are on the right side this year, we will not be on the winning side,” Rubio said.

Rubio, as we have been saying for some years, is absolutely right. The Republican Party has been captured by a coalition of discontents, that first reared their head way back in the early 1960s, who reject the general consensus at the core of American politics that America is essentially a well-governed, mixed economy with a balance of private and public enterprise, and an internationalist outlook, a consensus that had held in place since long before the Second World War.

These discontents span a variety of motivations and types.

The new American revolution

On the one hand, we have the extreme free marketeers – the right wing small government libertarians that have made a virtue of damning central government as inevitably incompetent, if not corrupt, and for whom a Democratic administration is automatically to be opposed at every turn (even if it creates national gridlock) because the Democratic party believes in wielding Government’s levers of power, where the libertarians believe those levers should essentially be abolished.

libertarian-howlDriven by a tiny, minority economic view and a perfectionist view of what constitutes individual freedom, which purports to be as anti-Republican as it is anti-Democrats, but which invariably feeds support to the right in reality, they want nothing more nor less than a re-writing of the social and political compact for the American Republic, and all existing power structures are fair game.

Because of their fundamental opposition to both taxation and public expenditure, they find it impossible to even acknowledge, for example, that Obama has done a credible job of slowing the growth of public debt, and has been a fiscal conservative compared to previous administrations.

Nothing Obama could have done would elicit a cheer from them to balance their continual, canting scepticism. He could have run a Federal government surplus and they would complain that was merely gathering funds for future irresponsibility.

Instead, they argue fiercely that Government itself is the problem, which is always reduced in populist terminology to”Washington”, largely ignoring the huge levels of both public debt, and expenditure, by State Governments and local Government, for example. Because no one ever bothers to check the facts – and don’t even believe them when they are presented to them – the assumption is that their criticisms are valid, and they gain traction in the wider debate sphere even though they represent a tiny fringe movement as far as economic thinking goes.

The second major grouping are the “Tea Party” rightists, who ape the libertarian’s concerns about tax and spending but without any real intellectual rigour behind their position and really have no alternative to propose to the current system beyond wanting a tax cut and savagely cutting expenditure and – with a strong streak of Protestant work ethicism – assuming that everyone in sight is not working hard enough to improve their lot.

Politics.TeaParty-600x438Whilst enjoying common cause with the libertarians they are a distinct group because they are limited in their effectiveness by their essential incoherence: they have little vision of a future besides knowing in their bones that they dislike the present.

In America, this grouping is also overtly involved in two related but non-economic issues.

They are fervently pro-guns and pro-evangelical Christianity, and their religiosity is very often focused on their opposition to legal abortion. They are the hunters and shooters and the religious right organised into a loosely co-ordinated grassroots movement that is larger than the sum of its parts in publicity terms, but less effective as a co-ordinated organisational force as different parts of its base get turned on by different things.

The movement is also extremely American exceptionalist and internationally isolationist in its outlook.

Thus, these are people who simultaneously believe that America should not be involving itself in overseas wars, but should nevertheless be “kicking the shit out of” whoever opposes American hegemony at any one time.

The incompatibility of these goals, which go back to the later 1930s in their genesis, is never tackled. The same crowd that chants “USA! USA!” when an Osama bin Laden is killed will, in the blink of an eye, be waving its fists and bitching and moaning that their taxes are so high – a vast amount of which, of course, go to maintain America’s ludicrously bloated military services, but they perceive no irony in that – and they will also complain furiously that any American defeat is the result of a Government that doesn’t know what it’s doing, instead of a perfectly natural and concomitant price to be paid for endless overseas adventurism.

In short, the Tea Party is a badly organised and illogical anti-politics populist front.

hate

The third group are what we call the “Ultra Anti Democrats”. These people are not just anti the Democratic Party, or even anti the conservative central managerial structure of the Republican Party, but they are anti the very concept of American democracy as it functions now. For them, their view of the American dream is that it has turned, emphatically, into a nightmare.

In effect, they have simply lost faith entirely in the efficacy of the system to address their woes.

And their woes are essentially (a) we have no job, (b) we can’t afford the lifestyle dream we have been sold, (c) we are disconnected and unsupported, (c) other people get all the benefits, we get none, (d) politicians are lazy, feckless, untrustworthy and corrupt, and (e) we’re “mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more”.

The worldwide appeal of populism

Importantly, in order to understand precisely what “we should have seen coming”, we need to examine these people. This latter group of voters transcend traditional party dividing lines, and they are simply not amenable to a fractured and incompetent central governmental system seeking to mollify them.

They are very largely working class, poorly (not tertiary) educated, they have rarely (if ever) travelled outside their home area, (and certainly not overseas), and they only consume media that plays to their frustrations.

And there’s one simple reason why they are not amenable to mollification.

Their complaints are very often justified.

(We will return to this point further down the article.)

The danger is, of course, that this complete disgust with the status quo makes them ripe pickings for any populist politician without a core plan to fix things for them, but with a good understanding of what ails them, and the ability to translate that into easily-consumed slogans. And indeed, if they can deliver those slogans in a strangled and muddled syntax that emphasises their outsider status, then so much the better. “Look!” says the lightning rod candidate, “I am as incoherent as you are! Vote for me!”

We can see this “anti intellectualism” and “anti politics politics” being repeated all over the world, in the popularity of parties (and most importantly, individual leaders) that seek to leverage the discontent without addressing the causes of it, and entirely careless of the long-term effect of doing so.

Piero Ignazi divided right-wing populist parties, which he called “extreme right parties”, into two categories: traditional right-wing parties that had developed out of the historical right, and post-industrial parties that had developed independently. He placed the British National Party, the National Democratic Party of Germany, the German People’s Union and the former Dutch Centre Party in the first category, whose prototype would be the disbanded Italian Social Movement; the French National Front, the German Republicans, the Dutch Centre Democrats, the former Belgian Vlaams Blok (which would include certain aspects of traditional extreme right parties), the Danish Progress Party, the Norwegian Progress Party and the Freedom Party of Austria in the second category.

Right-wing populist parties in the English-speaking world include the UK Independence Party, Australia’s One Nation – although that has now mainly been supplanted by a consolidated hard right faction in the ruling Liberal Party, just as UKIP have been outflanked by concessions made to Eurosceptics in the British Conservative Party – and New Zealand First.

And in the ultimate irony, the success of the anti-austerity Syriza party in Greece is an example of the exactly similar phenomenon on the other side of politics.

The role of immigration in this movement

Importantly, especially in the historical context, most of these parties have an overt or coded anti-immigration stance. It is the one core strand that unites and binds nearly all populist movements.

They blame someone else for the mess. And immigration (or the demonisation of a minority group) is the easiest target of all, because immigration is both the least understood economic factor in our societies and simultaneously one of the most easily noticed.

trump muslims

If there is one thing that unites the Tea Party supporters and the Ultra Anti-Democrats it is that they are furious about immigration, and anti-immigrant rhetoric excites them to fervour. “Look at these immigrants taking our jobs!” they cry, “Chewing up our welfare payments, living in our houses, not speaking our language!”, and on and on it goes.

Make those immigrants from a non white Anglo-Saxon background – call them “Muslims”, for example – and the rhetoric becomes almost unstoppably powerful.

American.Muslim.girl_.flag_.face_picThis has always been how fascism happens, from the slaughter of the Hugenots in France in 1572, through to the murderous fascist, statist regimes of Stalin, Mao and Hitler. Someone else is always the cause of the problem.

In social studies, “Othering” is the term used by some to describe a system of discrimination whereby the characteristics of a group are used to distinguish them as separate from the norm.

Othering plays a fundamental role in the history and continuation of racism. To objectify a culture as something different, exotic or underdeveloped is to generalise that it is not like ‘normal’ society.

Europe’s colonial attitude towards Africa and the Orient exemplifies this.

It was thought that the East, for example was the opposite of the West; it was feminine where the West was masculine, weak where the West was strong and traditional where the West was progressive. By making these generalizations and othering the East, Europe was simultaneously defining herself as the norm, further entrenching the gap.

Africa in its turn was violent, tribal, feckless, disorganised, and uncivil where Europe was the opposite. (Precisely what the Africans thought of the tribal nature of Europe as demonstrated in, for example, 1914-1918 was never asked, of course, but we digress.)

Much of the process of “othering” relies on imagined difference, or the expectation of difference. Spatial difference alone can be enough to conclude that “we” are “here” and the “others” are over “there”. Imagined differences serve to categorise people into groups and assign them characteristics that suit the imaginer’s expectations.

But the problem with anti-immigration rhetoric, of course, apart from its inherently nonsensical nature, is that it is based on an essentially flawed economic model.

Because as the OECD have noted:

Labour markets

 Migrants accounted for 47% of the increase in the workforce in the United States and 70% in Europe over the past ten years.

 Migrants fill important niches both in fast-growing and declining sectors of the economy.

 Like the native-born, young migrants are better educated than those nearing retirement.

 Migrants contribute significantly to labour-market flexibility, notably in Europe.

The public purse

 Migrants contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits.

 Labour migrants have the most positive impact on the public purse.

 Employment is the single biggest determinant of migrants’ net fiscal contribution.

Economic growth

 Migration boosts the working-age population.

 Migrants arrive with skills and contribute to human capital development of their receiving countries.

 Migrants also contribute to technological progress.

Understanding these impacts is important if our societies are to usefully debate the role of migration. Such debates, in turn, are essential to designing policies in areas like education and employment that maximise the benefits of migration, especially by improving migrants’ employment situation.

This policy mix will, of course, vary from country to country. But the fundamental question of how to maximise the benefits of migration, both for host countries and the migrants themselves, needs to be addressed by many OECD countries in coming decades, especially as rapid population ageing increases demand for migrants to make up shortfalls in the workforce.

The great failure of politics in America today (and elsewhere) is that no one has had the political will to address the legitimate complaints of the disenfranchised, but with facts, and with ideas.

For example: if one is living in a sector of the economy, or a geographic location, with mass unemployment – say 10% or greater – then one has a perfectly legitimate complaint that the “system” isn’t working. Not for them, at least.

unemployed

One of the basic roles of any governmental system must be the provision of a balanced, stable economic environment that provides enough work to satisfy the essential needs of the mass of the people. But employment is a stubborn problem to fix as it relies on expanding the economic activity of the state.

Ironically, this is one reason that fascist governments immediately embark on grandiose public works spending to create employment – it is to satisfy the hunger of their natural supporters for work and wages. Such Governments invariably rely on either conquest or domination of other societies in order to fund such largesse, or the forced exploitation of natural assets by the underclass, as nothing else fills the financial gap. Coming soon to your neighbourhood – the Trump Highway to nowhere.

Basically, such regimes either eventually invade next door, or send their population down the mines.

How much more durable, and effective, it would be to explain to the un- or under-employed that immigration actually boosts economic activity (the studies are virtually unanimous and incontrovertible) and they they, too, will benefit from this growing of the overall pie.

The problem is, those arguments are somewhat esoteric, and the mass of politicians simply do not attempt them in a media environment where a mindless soundbite and appeal to prejudice works faster and possibly better, and where those in the media demonstrate the same inability to understand the thrust of the argument as the public does.

The elite thus fails to make the case against populism, and as night follows day, populism invariably sweeps it aside.

So much for jobs and immigration. Let’s return to the Ultra Anti’s list of complaints.

(b) we can’t afford the lifestyle dream we have been sold,

(c) we are disconnected and unsupported,

(c) other people get all the benefits, we get none,

(d) politicians are lazy, feckless, untrustworthy and corrupt, and

(e) we’re “mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more”.

It’s very easy to see, again, how the elite genuinely have failed this group.

Until the 1960s, the expectation of what constituted a “happy” life – a fulfilled life, a successful life – was much more limited in its horizons than since the social revolution that swept the world in that decade. The growth of consumerism in the sixties, matched to the new ability of TV to emotionally communicate the rewards of luxury and comfort, has vastly up-rated our view of what is both valuable and normal. We should all be tertiary educated. Every family member must have an automobile. The home must be crammed with every possible labour-saving device. Holidays should be regular and fully-catered. We should all live way past our previous life expectancy with premium health care and comfortable, funded retirement. Entertainment, both in-home and out-of home should be continuous and constantly improving. And so on, and so on.

consumerismSome commentators and candidates have called this “the American dream”, or “Morning in America”, or various other platitudes. Very few – and certainly no successful ones – have had to courage to say “You know what? We f****d up. We didn’t realise that we couldn’t keep endlessly expanding the size of the economy. You need to get used to the idea that you might not be able to get everything you want handed to you on a plate. You might not be able to afford it. Times have changed.” In fact, quite the opposite. The media elite, aided and abetted by their supine acolytes in politics, constantly promote and celebrate ever more garish celebrity lifestyles, which are held up as an example of what can be achieved. When it proves entirely impossible for “ordinary people” to mimic those lifestyles, even minimally in some cases, they completely understandably become restless and disenchanted.

The elite thus fails to make the case against populism, and as night follows day, populism invariably sweeps it aside.

Disconnected and unsupported? They certainly are.

We no longer live in villages where people know our business and we know theirs, and people rally round in times of trouble or distress. Most people dont even know their neighbours’ names. And expenditure on Government’s attempts to create “community” through social services, healthcare and other levers are the very first “soft” items to be stripped from spending budgets.

detroit

We have an entire underclass now cast adrift from support that we thought – wrongly – would always characterise a “modern” society. The state was expected to step into the breach and “help”, where previously communities would have done it for themselves. It did, partially, for a while, but inefficiently, and expensively. Our staggering inability to attune Government activity (at all levels) to the legitimate aspirations of ordinary folk is a failure that all politicians, of all political skews, need to “own”. It’s not excessive for people to expect their kids to go to school in buildings that aren’t falling down, where they are protected and safe, and where they achieve a minimum level of development. It’s not unreasonable to want to live in a town with properly maintained roads and pavements, where one sees a tree from time to time, where the very fabric of society is not crumbling around us. And it is completely fair to assume that if one falls through the cracks of life – whether in terms of health, or marital discord, or violence, or financial – then SOMEONE will be there, not to offer a handout, but a hand up.

Instead, we demonise the underclass and provide it with fewer and fewer ways of fixing things up for themselves. Not only do we not offer a hand up, we surround all activity to address personal or communal disconnectedness with such a mind-numbing and stultifying collection of rules and regulations that even if people want to help themselves, they can’t. Not unsurprisingly, the people rail against such an arrangement, and those in power ignore their pleas.

populism

The elite thus fails to make the case against populism, and as night follows day, populism invariably sweeps it aside.

Someone else gets all the benefits? Well, there is benefit fraud, to be sure, and a sensationalist media does an excellent job of publicising it.

But in reality, benefits are set at a much lower level than people realise (even in the benefit-rich societies of Western Europe, and certainly in America and Australia) and benefits are generally handed out parsimoniously and sparingly. What is truly sickening is that politicians find it easier to go along with the “unmarried mother with six kids lives in a penthouse on your taxes” stories than they do to make one very simple point – without a social support structure, people cannot get back into work, cannot fix their addiction problems, cannot successfully re-enter the community having paid their debt to society in prison, cannot deal with mental illness, and a hundred other barriers to full participation, without a bit of judicious guidance and help.

The result of that guidance and help – just as the result, for example, of a healthier and better educated society – is greater productivity. Greater wealth to go round. Why does not one frame the discussion of social support in those terms? You tell us. In our view, simple cowardice is the answer.

The elite thus fails to make the case against populism, and as night follows day, populism invariably sweeps it aside.

organisedcrimePoliticians are lazy, feckless, untrustworthy and corrupt? Well, that’s half the problem, right there, isn’t it? How can anyone seriously argue that they are not, when time after time they are clearly shown to be exactly that? The complaints of the governed against the mindless yahoo-ism, corruption and rank incompetence of those we elect to rule us are bitterly and utterly justified.

The great tragedy is that many politicians are well-meaning, hard-working, and “clean”. But in continually demonising them (as we just did, right there, and be honest: your head was nodding, too) we make it impossible to see through the fog of despair that clouds our opinion of their performance and their motives.

The elite places no pressure on itself to perform more creditably. To speak more plainly, To deal more honestly. To resist baleful external influences more firmly. Just as one example, whenever campaign finance reform is seriously mooted in America it is simply howled down. Corporations are people, remember. They have rights. No responsibilities – except to their stock holders – but they have rights. Pffft.

The elite thus fails to make the case against populism, and as night follows day, populism invariably sweeps it aside.

Faced with no leadership worth the name, the people are very, very angry indeed at the turn of events. And those who would exploit that anger are in the ascendancy, flirting with an increasingly rabid populace with terrifying disregard of the consequences of unleashing their anger on the very institutions of society, and our fellow citizens. Our response should be evidence-based, principled answers to the legitimate concerns they have. Instead, we are flinging up barricades and passing out scythes and pitchforks.

Morning in America? More like a deeply darkening dusk. And those with torches to mark our way back from the brink are too cowed to light them.

Quite right, Marco Rubio. You should have seen this coming. But you – along with your cynical, power-hungry colleagues – tried to ride the wave rather than break it up. To mix our metaphors, you grabbed a tiger by the tail, and now it’s well and truly turned back to bite you.

So thanks for your words – finally – but also, frankly, shame on you.

It’s not morning in America. We just hope it’s not goodnight.

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Comments
  1. gwpj says:

    Well said Yolly. Thanks for saying what you have here. and sharing it.

    Like

  2. underwriiter505 says:

    All three of the groups you describe certainly exist. All three of those groups are largely, if not completely, made up of people who have been voting, for decades or for as long as they have been old enough, against their own best interests. Even if one manages to understand why (which is generally not pretty), how does one counter this in any meaningful way?

    I do think I should point out that there are Evangelical Christians who are NOT right wing, and who are appalled by the right wing sucking up of others who wear the same label. (Some of us resort to locutions such as “Christianist,” “Right Wing Supply-Side Christians,” or even “Dominionist,” which is possibly unfair sometimes, though not to Ted Cruz and his father, who are proud to be Seven Mountains Dominionists.) Examples would be Jim Wallis of Sojourners and other who write and/or blog for Sojourners, Dr. Barber in North Carolina, and this guy, “Jim the Evangelical Pastor”: https://www.reddit.com/r/SandersForPresident/comments/3l4khz/transcript_of_biblical_argument_for_bernie_by_jim/

    This is certainly not the United States I grew up in – and yet – horrifyingly – it is; I just didn’t see it. Sorry to be jumping around topics, but that’s how my mind is working now.

    Like

  3. Nora Swanson says:

    Stephen, ever thought of running for office? You are the brightest bulb I’ve seen so far. I am also increasingly worried about election theft. The stakes are high enough,and things have looked more and more squirrely since FL 2004.

    Like

  4. 5 cents says:

    So “we” should have seen this coming! So should have countless entrenched regimes in the course of history. Usually, it takes copious bloodshed to effect a major course change. Especially in a society so diverse as ours in the USA. But maybe the establishment political class of all persuasions will be simply too soft to defeat the forces of economic populism this time. Time will tell. I’m on the side of change, at 80 years of age. Both Sanders and Trump may be able to bring better balance to the flow of wealth and opportunity in our economy.

    Like

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