Posts Tagged ‘populism’

kennedyIn recent times, we have seen an upsurge in a rejection of the status quo and the success of populism, overwhelming the accepted norms of political discourse. The litany of events is very obvious … Erdowan in Turkey becoming progressively more authoritarian, the election of Syriza in Greece to oppose the EU-imposed austerity, the British public voting (albeit narrowly) for “Brexit”, the near-defeat of the Liberal-National coalition Government in Australia, the ascent of a virtual fascist to the Presidential run off in Austria, the likely ascent of the far-right National Front in France to a run-off in the coming French elections and the inability of a left-centre candidate to even make the frame, the rejection of Prime Minister Renzi’s attempt to rationalise decision-making in Italy leading to his resignation, the likely future success of the ultra-right in Holland, and above all, the election of businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump to the most powerful position in the Western world, President of the United States.

In reality, this trend can be traced back even further, to the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union (although this was also a more complex situation than mere discontent with the failures of the incumbent power structures). It could also be argued that the ultimate example is the steady move towards a command-capitalist model in China, with attendant liberalisation – creeping, at times reversed, but inexorable in its trend – of the media, of criticism of Party officials, and of the material expectations of a growing middle class. Indeed, in unleashing the forces of capitalism on Chinese society, Deng Xiao Ping can be said to have headed off a more dramatic and cataclysmic change in China.

When people are asked why they are participating in these quiet (or not so quiet) electoral revolutions they invariably answer with comments like “I am just sick of all of them”, “I am tired of the status quo, we need someone to shake things up”, “Politicians have failed us”, “We need someone to fix things up.”

The danger, of course, is that the people wreak major changes based on their discontent, without necessarily taking the time to consider whether those changes are what they really want. Fed a diet of rubbish and lies by both the media and their political leaders they simply cannot work out what is true or not, and therefore fall back on their gut instinct. And their gut instinct is that they are being badly led – which they are.

This is emphatically not to say the people are stupid – not at all. It is simply to note that in their desire to punish the under-performing elite they place rational decision-making of what might come next as secondary to their desire to give the establishment a damn good kicking. They argue, if questioned on precisely this point, that “it couldn’t be any worse”.

Winston ChurchillThe fact that it could, definitively, be much worse, is ignored because of the same anger that created the switch to populist idols in the first place.

Churchill’s warning that “democracy is the worst form of Government, it’s just better than all the others” is forgotten as the public elevate people who do not essentially subscribe to democratic ideals to run their democracies, with as yet untested outcomes.

In Russia, for example, the putative glasnost and perestroika of the Gorbacev era has now been thoroughly replaced by the quasi-fascist rule of Putin and his cronies, with uncertain outcomes that could be argued to threaten peace in Europe, at least. The Brexit vote at a minimum calls into question the “Union” part of the European Union, which is now on the nose throughout most of the EU, and the great dream of a peaceful, co-operative Europe that transcends mere trade freedom seems to lie in tatters. We might also note Churchill’s prescient remark that “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” People used to understand the limits of Government to “fix things”. No longer, it appears.

How did it come to this?

It is important to see this collapse of the ruling consensus as more than any desire to attend to this particular problem, or that, because the matters creating the angst vary from theatre to theatre.

Unquestionably, above all, the refugee flood around the world (and not just from the Middle East, at all) has created great tensions – great fear of “the others” – because it has happened at a time when the world seems to be collapsing into an ongoing conflict between the West and extremist Arabist/Muslim sects. But when massive population shifts occurred immediately after the Second World War there was considerably less social angst about an inflow of refugees, although by no means was there none, as any of the Italians, Greeks, Albanians and others who were shipped en masse to Australia (and America, and Canada) can attest. But it produced no mass revolution against the status quo. As recently as the late 1970s, huge inflows of refugees from the communist takeover of Vietnam produced barely a ripple of protest. So something different is happening here.

Unquestionably, economic uncertainty is playing its part.
The lost of traditional jobs has devastated some areas,
and not been replaced withtightrope anything else. That politicians seem unable or unwilling to recognise and successfully the problem is a staggering failure. During the 1930s, a huge “whole of Government” effort in some countries prevented the compact between the governing and the governed from breaking down altogether. The “New Deal” in America being the best and most successful example. But the mass unemployment caused by the breakdown of capital in that decade led inexorably to World War 2 and all that meant. That Western politicians can look at societies with 50% youth unemployment, can gaze on as we witness the wholesale collapse of traditional industries, can make mealy-mouthed contributions when someone brings up the obviously inadequate funds to support the aged and the ill, and yet imagine that such a cataclysm could not occur again? This is the ultimate desertion of responsibility.

It seems to us that the world is experiencing a “perfect storm” of fear – endlessly beaten up by politicians and the media – at precisely the same time as politicians are struggling, and usually failing, to come to terms with the stresses and strains created in economies by “instant” international banking (which can change the dominant rules of a market in seconds), globalisation (which has led to the wholesale demise of “old” industries in the established economies), a series of scandals that imply that our political leaders are little more than a series of ever-hungry pigs with their snouts so deep in the trough that their eyes can’t see anything over the top, and, and this is critical, a failure of leadership.

On the one hand we have the populists, with their broad brush stroke slogans, their breathlessly simple solutions, and their fellow travellers that constantly beat the drum praising the perspicacity of their chosen flag bearer. Only he (or she, in the case of Marie le Pen) have the strength and vision to ram through “the change we need”. And like parched wanderers in the desert, the people turn inevitably to the promise of relief. Tongues hanging out for any water, no matter how brackish.

But this is just a mirage of “we can fix it”. It’s a big lie. A big con. So big, indeed, that people swallow it, because surely no-one could be so ruthless, so uncaring of the effect they are having, so roguish in their pursuit of power, as to promise relief with no real idea of how to deliver it. But they can. As Stalin so chillingly said, “one man’s death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”. The same hideous calculation is made by the populists when they promise change they cannot deliver, and solutions that are paper thin in their analysis.

But what has the response of the liberal democracies, the “ruling elite”, been to this challenge? It has been to bury themselves in perpetual over-intellectual obfuscation, to sneer at the populists as if they do not represent a threat, to blithely fiddle as their Rome burns. It has been to bleat “but we are doing our best”, when Blind Freddie can see that their best is woefully lacking. It is to lock themselves in their ivory towers – towers made of parliamentary walls, and TV studios, and offices – and to make little or no real attempt to explain to the people why they are doing what they are doing, and that is assuming they are doing anything much, at all.

How has this situation been allowed to persist?

The reasons are many and various, but in our view they come down to this:

THE FIVE GREAT FAILURES

The failure of vision

Politicians are no longer driven by a desire to create better societies – to serve their people – but by careerism. There is no doubt that no one succeeds in climbing the slippery pole without a strong streak of self-regard, but until the relatively recent past politics was still full of people whose primary, over-riding motivation was the betterment of their electorate, and more widely, humankind. There were more “enthusiastic amateurs”, drawn from all walks of life, chock full of useful experiences. To be sure, they never turned their noses up at the perks of office, nor the thrill of handling the levers of power. But at the core was a desire to conserve what was good, and to develop what was promising, and – based on evidence – to eschew what was failing. It is highly questionable whether that still applies to most politicians today – certainly those of reach the top of the heap – and the people smell the rot with absolute accuracy.

The failure of honesty

It is now a dispiritingly long time since any politician, anywhere in the West, dared to say “Actually, we’re not really sure what to do”. And yet, in huge swathes of decision making, it is perfectly clear that our leaders do not know what to do. The pace of change, and the relentless news cycle, is leading them to pretend they know what they’re doing when they really don’t. In vast areas of public policy – balancing the structural changes in economies, achieving unanimity on climate change, reducing the proxy conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, preventing a new Cold – or Hot – war, it is plain they are thrashing about, confused and dispirited. And yet, turn a camera and a microphone on and they act like Mastermind contestants with all the answers.

This has two linked effects. Firstly, it destroys trust, when it becomes clear that the assurances and calming words are so much hogwash. Second, it removes responsibility from the public to be part of the solution to intractable problems, leaving them reliant on blowing up the entire system when they are – inevitably – disappointed, as they had no part in devising the solution, and no ownership of the outcome.

The failure of communication

Politicians seem to no longer be able to phrase their goals in simple language, without succumbing to the temptation to reduce everything to focus group-led slogans.

It would be hard to think of a single major Western politician – with the possible exception of Angela Merkel, although her days may well be numbered – who still has the required “common touch”, although Justin Trudeau in Canada is undoubtedly a standout exception – and he, it should be noted, is of the left, and is an intellectual, thus giving the lie to the assertion that all this change is merely a revolt against “left intellectualism”.

A politician like Churchill, for example, could be autocratic, even waywardly so, but he never forgot the absolute need to take the people with him. Perhaps in war-time this need is more obvious. But in the recent past – much as we disagreed with some of her policies – a politician who widely admired Churchill – Margaret Thatcher – also had the ability to communicate broad themes in a popular way, while making changes that many argue were long overdue in Britain despite being sometimes achingly difficult.

Where are the democratic politicians who offer us soaring rhetoric, yet rooted in common sense, to enliven and inform civic debate? Certainly Obama offered the soaring rhetoric, but outside of campaign mode he so often failed to return to those heights, and was too often hidebound by a toxic combination of an obstructive Congress, a swingeing economic crisis, and his own innate conservatism.

The cupboard is depressingly bare.

The failure of thought

The West, in particular, but by no means exclusively, is failing itself. The essence of democracy is free, vibrant and deep debate, the development of philosophy, the parsing of solutions. One of the inevitable results of the dumbing down of Universities – through the diversion of their funds increasingly to commercial “applied science” rather than humanities such as literature, politics, and philosophy – even theology – has starved our system of thinkers. The problems we face are massively complicated, yet those who used to work diligently behind the scenes in thousands of “thinking hives” are increasingly no longer there, and no longer contributing. Political parties are increasingly less full of thinkers and increasingly full of yar boo sucks partisans. Where political thought across the political divide was once welcome and respected, now it is virtually unheard of. While politicians of different ilk may well be friendly “behind the scenes”, for them to acknowledge the thoughts of an opponent as having value, of being worthy of consideration, is apparently political death. Little wonder the public don’t trust them, faced with such ludicrous and childishness obstinacy.

The failure of media

Our media organisations have become helplessly addicted to the brief, and the sensational.

Whilst this was always true of the tabloid media, it is now true of all media.

The people they employ are largely intellectual pygmies, and in television in particular they are in the job because they look good and can follow a producer’s brief.

Across all types of media, they don’t scare the horses, because they rarely ask any hard questions. Hard questions require that the journalist has knowledge and the politician can address that knowledge intelligently, taking whatever time is required. Neither is true, and anyway there is no time.

There are exceptions, to be sure, but they are very few and far between, and becoming more so. The success of the series “Newsroom” showed the public’s deep desire for a form of journalism that is principled, erudite and independent. But of how many journalists today can those three qualities be said? And increasingly, anyway, mainstream media is being over-taken by social media, where the provenance of any story is impossible to divine, and where the impact is so transient that clear nonsense is forgotten almost as soon as it has trended, but not before it has added to the dominant zeitgeist, whatever that may be. If we are in the era of “post truth politics” – a terrifying concept in itself for admirers of democracy – then the most brutal criticism of all must be levied at the media – all of the media – that simultaneously tolerates and encourages the situation.

So what’s to be done?

It may indeed be way too late to close the stable door after watching an entire herd of horses bolting in all directions. Or to mix our metaphors, we may all be just a bunch of well-boiled frogs who should have acted to redress the decline a long time ago.

Yes, we will be accused of being pessimistic because it appears “our side” of politics is currently losing, and we will also be accused of succumbing to conspiracy theories.

In fact, we confidently expect we will be today’s Cassandra, doomed to wail on the battlements while all around mock us.

But in our view, the first step in redressing this danger – the danger of the collapse of modern liberal democracy – is to acknowledge the problem and seek to persuade others to address it. Others, we note, regardless of their native political bent. This is a task for all of us, whatever our political persuasion.

As we do not have the influence to turn the ship around on our own, we simply point to the mounting evidence, and suggest the general shape of a solution.

It will take a mighty effort to reverse the trends outlined here. But as Horace said 2000 years ago, “A journey, once begin, is half over.” To begin this journey, we have to agree that there is a problem, yes?

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If you want to understand the Trump phenomenon, just look back 50 years.

Barry Goldwater was an American politician and businessman who was a five-term United States Senator from Arizona (1953–65, 1969–87) and the Republican Party’s surprise nominee for President of the United States in the 1964 election.

Goldwater is the politician most often credited for sparking the resurgence of the American conservative political movement in the 1960s. He also had a substantial impact on the future libertarian movement.

Goldwater badgeGoldwater was a touchstone for the wilder vestiges of the conservative tendency in the Republicans – very much the precursor of today’s Tea Party insurgency: not so much in terms of its politics, but in terms of its rejection of “the way things are done”, and annoyance at the tacit agreement in major policy planks that had hitherto existed between both major parties.

Goldwater rejected the legacy of the New Deal and fought through the conservative coalition against the New Deal coalition.

In a heavily Democratic state, Goldwater became a successful conservative Republican and a friend of Herbert Hoover. He was outspoken against New Deal liberalism, especially its close ties to unions which he considered corrupt.  Goldwater soon became most associated with union reform and anti-communism: his work on organised labour issues led to Congress passing major anti-corruption reforms in 1957, and an all-out campaign by the AFL-CIO to defeat his 1958 re-election bid.

save americaHe voted against the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, but in the fevered atmosphere of the times he never actually charged any individual with being a communist or Soviet agent.

Goldwater emphasised his strong opposition to the worldwide spread of communism in his 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative.

The book became an important reference text in conservative political circles.

Goldwater shared the current Trumpian disdain for central government and immigration. (Although it should be noted that Cruz and Rubio have also moved to harden their position on immigration, it is Trump who has made it a current touchstone for the current Republican Party with his populist and incendiary language, especially in the South.) His “Save America” theme had a populist edge that we see strongly reproduced in the apocalyptic pronouncements of the current front runners.

 

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But Goldwater was no mindless demagogue. He was more circumspect. In 1964, he ran a conservative campaign that emphasised states’ rights. The campaign was a magnet for conservatives since he opposed interference by the federal government in state affairs. Although he had supported all previous federal civil rights legislation and had supported the original senate version of the bill, Goldwater made the decision to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

His stance was based on his view that the act was an intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of states and that the Act interfered with the rights of private persons to do or not do business with whomever they chose. In the segregated city of Phoenix in the 1950s, however, he had quietly supported civil rights for blacks, but would not let his name be used publicly.

All this appealed to white Southern Democrats, and Goldwater was the first Republican to win the electoral votes of all of the Deep South states – South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana – since Reconstruction (although Dwight Eisenhower did carry Louisiana in 1956).

He successfully mobilised a large conservative constituency to win the hard-fought Republican primaries and in doing so became the first candidate of Jewish heritage to be nominated for President by a major American party.

He swept aside the Republican Party’s anointed son, wealthy philanthropist and liberal four-term Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, in the first such example in the modern era of the Republicans failing to have “one of their own” confirmed against an insurgent, although some would argue that Ronal Reagan was a similar example.

At a discouraging point in the 1964 California primary campaign against Barry Goldwater, his top political aide Stuart Spencer called on Rockefeller to “summon that fabled nexus of money, influence, and condescension known as the Eastern Establishment. “You are looking at it, buddy,’ Rockefeller told Spencer, ‘I am all that is left.” Rockefeller exaggerated, but the irretrievable collapse of his wing of the party was underway. His despair finds its echo in the current desperation of the Republican organisation and establishment at the increasing likelihood of a Trump nomination this year.

But in what may well be a precursor to Trump’s national election performance should he secure the Republican nomination in 2016, Goldwater’s vote on the Civil Rights Act proved devastating to his campaign everywhere outside the South (besides “Dixie”, Goldwater won only in Arizona, his home state), and the Democrats won states they did not expect, like Alaska, contributing to a landslide defeat for the GOP in the general election in 1964.

Trump’s offensive remarks about Latinos may now cruel him in exactly the same way – Latino voters are now a key constituency that appear currently ironed-on supporters of the Democrats, and it’s one that that the Republicans must appeal if they are to have any chance of winning nationally. With their enthusiasm for “small business” and entrepreneurism the Latino community should be fertile territory for the Republican Party. That they are clearly not is a measure of how desperately far behind the eight ball the Republicans currently are with their populist campaign.

Goldwater’s conservative campaign platform ultimately failed to gain the support of the electorate, but he didn’t just lose the election to incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, he lost it by one of the largest landslides in history, bringing down many other Republican candidates around the country as well.

The Johnson campaign and other critics successfully painted him as a reactionary, while supporters praised his crusades against the Soviet Union, labour unions, and the welfare state. This, however, mainly piled him up support with people who would support a Republican candidate no matter what, (an effect that has been seen in election losing performances by the Labor/Labour parties in both Australia and the United Kingdom in recent years) and may even have lost him crucial support with conservative working class voters who didn’t want their bargaining power reduced.

His defeat, however, and the Republicans swept away with him, allowed Johnson and the Democrats in Congress to pass the Great Society programs, and a large enough Clinton or Sanders win in November would similarly embolden the Democrats to continue with the cautious reform programmes instigated under Obama in health, possibly focussing on making further education more affordable than it is currently. Such an outcome would be seen by many who are alarmed by Trump’s rise as deliciously ironic.

On the other hand the defeat of so many older Republicans in 1964 also cleared the way for a younger generation of American conservatives to mobilise which contributed to a growth in the party’s influence.

goldwater reaganAlthough Goldwater was much less active as a national leader of conservatives after 1964 his supporters mostly rallied behind Ronald Reagan, who became governor of California in 1967 and the 40th President of the United States, in 1981.

Indeed, with Reagan’s accession to the Presidency, with an emphasis on low tax and low spending rhetoric (which was not followed through in office) one can argue that Reagan was Goldwater’s legacy to America.

Reagan also successfully brought the evangelical Christian movement into the mainstream Republican fold in a move which continues to resonate to this day, especially in the candidacy of Ted Cruz. However that move also offended more moderate Christians, some Roman Catholics, and secular independents.

(As an aside, Trump’s record would hardly endear him to today’s religious conservatives, except for his decisive rejection of Muslims – interestingly his thrice-married history has its echoes in the rejection of Nelson Rockefeller, who was damaged by his divorce and re-marriage – but then again, if he is the nominee where else can they go? To what degree the religious right falls in behind Trump or simply stay home out of a lack of enthusiasm could also be an important factor in the Republican’s overall result.)

Goldwater, for all that he was a precursor to the anti-establishment Trump, was a man of some gravitas. In particular, unlike Trump, who avoided being drafted in the Vietnam war and has been criticised for doing so, he had a proud and distinguished military career.

With the American entry into World War II, Goldwater received a reserve commission in the United States Army Air Forces. He became a pilot assigned to the Ferry Command, a newly formed unit that flew aircraft and supplies to war zones worldwide. He spent most of the war flying between the U.S. and India, via the Azores and North Africa or South America, Nigeria, and Central Africa. He also flew “the hump” over the Himalayas to deliver supplies to the Republic of China.

Following World War II, Goldwater was a leading proponent of creating the United States Air Force Academy, and later served on the Academy’s Board of Visitors. The visitor center at the USAF Academy is now named in his honour. As a colonel he also founded the Arizona Air National Guard, and in a move that goes to his more nuanced attitudes to race than some, he would de-segregate it two years before the rest of the US military. Goldwater was instrumental in pushing the Pentagon to support desegregation of the armed services.

Remaining in the Arizona Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve after the war, he eventually retired as a Command Pilot with the rank of major general. By that time, he had flown 165 different types of aircraft. Goldwater retired as an Air Force Reserve major general, and he continued piloting B-52 aircraft until late in his military career.

Meanwhile, with his successes on “Super Tuesday” behind us, The Trumpinator rolls on seemingly unstoppably. We are on record as saying we didn’t think he could secure the nomination, but like many others it appears we completely under-estimated the populist rejection of “Washington” that he represents on the right (echoed by the success of Sanders on the left), and we now we suspect we were wrong.

We still find it hard to believe, but the Republican Party now appears to be entirely in thrall to an anti-establishment far-right insurgency that is essentially, at its core, simply “anti” politics and not in the slightest interested in serious policy outcomes.

It is perfectly fair to say that any one of dozens of idiotic pronouncements Trump has made would see him disqualified from holding high office in any other democratic Western country in the world, but the right in America seem to have wilfully suspended disbelief in their visceral hatred of the “liberal”, centralising, “socialist”, “Statist” conspiracy that they see represented by the Democrats and alsi now by many in their own party. However at the Wellthisiswhatithink desk we do confidently believe (and fervently hope) that this most “dumbed down” of Presidential campaigns cannot ultimately prevail.

Like Goldwater, Trump and his clumsy and oft-expressed bigotry may merely usher in another crushing Democratic victory, which would, surely, be the ultimate reward the GOP receive for abandoning good governance in their obtuse Congressional obstructionism against Obama, and in fleeing the centre ground by refusing to confront the Tea Party with better and more timely arguments and greater political courage.

Of course, Trump would never agree with us. In fact, no doubt, he would flip out one his standard insults, to cheers and applause from his acolytes.

 

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If you, like us, were starting to feel left out by not having been personally insulted by this obnoxious populist just head to The Donald Trump Insult Generator.

Hours of innocent fun for all the family.

See also “Trump. The man who got memed.”