Hey Everyone!! :-)
I've been thinking about the way things have been going in politics, lately, and I wanted to share my thoughts with you. And hang on, because this will be a long one. Mostly, I'll be talking about US politics, because that's what I'm most familiar with, but I'll touch on elections in a couple of other countries too. I may be completely off base in my analysis of the international political situation because, frankly, I just don't know a whole lot about politics outside the United States. So, if you live in one of the countries I mention and you think I'm wrong, I'd be very interested in hearing a clarification from you in the comments. :-)
To me, it seems as if there are a couple of general trends that are on the upswing in politics. Namely, I think there's a trend towards economic populism that's on the rise, and I also think there's a trend towards nationalism and/or isolationism that's on the rise. In some ways, these two trends are competing with each other. But, in a way that I personally find disturbing, they also sometimes seem to combine to work together.
The tendency for economic populism and nationalism to combine forces seems, to me, to have happened in three recent elections. First, there was Brexit, which, from what I understand, was in large part an example of the electorate saying "fuck you" to the establishment. If I understand the situation correctly, and as I said I very well may not, the Tory party in the UK has been using austerity measures to redistribute the wealth from the majority to the minority elite. They have privatized services which were once public, including the national health services, and they have made it harder for regular people to thrive.
The Tories have been able to do this, in large part, because the Labour Party took a neo-liberal turn a while back and stopped representing the workers of the UK. And, so, many people who used to vote Labour either stopped voting or voted for a different party. If I'm correct in this analysis, then it's very similar to what happened in the US, with the Republicans taking the role of the Tories and the Democrats taking the role of the Labour Party. But I'll get into that later.
So, if I'm right, then Brexit was a bunch of regular people looking at the establishment elite and saying, "Oh, yeah? How you like them apples?" combined with people who are genuinely bigoted and nationalistic, and who just want to keep immigrants out. But these are two very different kinds of voters. Being fed up with austerity economics and wanting fair treatment for the poor and middle class is not at all the same as believing you are somehow inherently superior to other people. Yes, it's possible for the same people to hold both political positions, but it certainly isn't a given. They are two entirely separate matters.
And I think the voters in the UK proved that many of them don't agree with a nationalistic ideology when they voted in such great numbers for the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. They didn't give Mr. Corbyn the majority, but they did grow the party's influence rather substantially, if I'm correctly following the way the UK Parliamentary system works. I'll get into why I think there was some progress, even though it didn't go quite far enough, later.
To me, this election seems like an indication that Brexit was more of an instance of some people jumping on the bandwagon of isolationism because it seemed to be going in the same direction as populism at the time. Which is why, in my estimation, the tendency for these two trends to move together is dangerous. Because people who are taking an economic beating because the wealthy elite are cheating the system tend to get angry and frustrated. And angry, frustrated people don't always look carefully enough into what seems to be a solution. And sometimes that solution has strings attached that those people don't necessarily want to get tangled in.
Another recent election where, it seemed to me, there was an effort to combine nationalism with economic populism was in France. To be honest, I know even less about French politics than I do about UK politics, and I know almost nothing about UK politics. So, again, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong about this. But, from my understanding, the race between Macron and Le Pen was another example of establishment vs anything-but-establishment.
Now, fortunately, the French people were savvy enough to see through the trap that a Le Pen Presidency would have been. And, from what I understand, Macron isn't quite as bad as the neo-liberal politicians in the US. But he's no Melenchon, either. Melenchon, like Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, did much better in the election than establishment wisdom would have suggested was possible, but he didn't quite make it over the tipping point. Again, I'll get to why I think truly populist candidates are falling just a little short of the mark, later.
Which brings us to the third recent example of this trend, the 2016 US Presidential election. Unfortunately, many of my fellow Americans weren't as wise as the French, and they allowed themselves to be taken in by an empty suit with some false promises. To be fair, as I mentioned before, things are a little worse here in the US than I think they are in much of Europe in terms of how the working class is treated. And the neo-liberal Democrats are a little farther to the right than I think the centrist parties in the UK and France are. Also, due to the way the US election system is set up and a decades-long, largely unopposed effort by the Republicans to gerrymander the voting districts in pretty much every single state, the actual will of the people as represented by the popular vote did not prevail in that election. But, still, it shouldn't have been a close enough race for those factors to have mattered as much as they did. In short, we should have known better.
To be perfectly clear, Donald Trump is absolutely not a populist in any way, shape, or form. But he ran as one in his Presidential campaign. Since taking office, Donald Trump has done nothing except raise taxes on the middle class, cut services for the poor, and fill his administration with Goldman Sachs executives, Big Oil tycoons, and pro-corporate lobbyists. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a populist. He's a conman who duped a large portion of the American electorate into thinking he cared about regular people and our problems, but his actions prove clearly that he couldn't give a shit less about average Americans.
What allowed the Cheeto In Chief to pass himself off as a populist was the fact that his opponent was Hillary Clinton, the poster child for the establishment status quo. Hillary Clinton, in the best of times, would be a horrible candidate. She's the co-founder of an American political dynasty that is synonymous with pro-corporate neo-liberalism and selling out the interests of the working class to benefit the donors. In the political climate of the 2016 election, she was a disaster. She had two things, and two things only, in her favor. First, and most importantly, she wasn't an inexperienced, ignorant, science-denying, openly bigoted, neo-fascist like Donald Trump. And, second, she would have been the first woman US President. Obviously, neither of those factors was enough to win her the election.
So what happened in the 2016 election that made Hillary Clinton so uniquely bad as a candidate? Well, quite a few things, actually. First, against all odds, the Republican Party put forth a candidate who was a true political outsider. Again, Donald Trump is absolutely not a populist, but he isn't a DC regular, either. He didn't have the blessing of the powers that be. Like Brexit, he was, and to a certain extent remains, a "fuck you" to the establishment elite. And like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump is very much a "cutting off their noses to spite their faces" by those who voted for him. Because Donald Trump is doing nothing good for the working class voters who were trying to send a message to those in power.
So how did this criminal joke of a candidate get to be President? Again, he ran against Hillary Clinton, who was despised by many before she even announced her candidacy for President. She has a long history of playing dirty politics and switching allegiances when someone gives her a big enough check. She then did herself no favors by refusing to declare a firm position on many important issues, and by taking the conservative position on the issues she did declare on.
And then there's the Democratic Socialist in the room, Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders came way the hell out of left field (pun intended) and took the entire country, especially the political establishment, by surprise. You see, unlike Trump, Bernie is an actual populist. He has been fighting for the cause of working people for the last fifty years, in one capacity or another. And his arrival on the national political scene showed the American public what we've been missing. He showed us what a principled politician can do when they devote themselves to making our lives better. He showed us what we could have if we are willing to fight for it. And you know what? We liked what we saw.
Unfortunately, due to a number of circumstances, which I'll address shortly, Bernie didn't get the Democratic nomination. Which left Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the only two candidates with a realistic chance of becoming President of the United States. And, again, that populist -- in this case faux-populist, but still -- trend combined with that nationalistic trend to put the Swamp Thing In Chief in the Oval Office. Because people who never would have voted for Trump on the basis of his nationalistic rhetoric were willing to give him a chance on the basis of his populist promises. Well, that, and the fact that voting for him was a big middle finger to the establishment. Which is why combining these two trends is so dangerous.
So, why didn't Bernie win the primary? Well, again, there were a number of reasons. First, is name recognition. Before the 2016 primary, Bernie was a relatively unknown Senator from Vermont. Unless you were extremely well-versed in American politics, you probably had no idea who he was. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was a political juggernaut. Love her or hate her, everyone in America knew who she was. Former First Lady, former NY Senator, former Secretary of State, she had a long, well-known history in the political arena. And, at least in US politics, name recognition makes a big difference. A lot of people aren't all that well informed about politics, so when they vote, they just vote for the name they know.
Then there was money. Unlike Clinton, Senator Sanders didn't accept corporate or big-money donations, which meant he had a much smaller war chest when it came to campaigning. That didn't matter so much once people got to know who he is, but it did matter at the beginning of the primary. The mainstream media compounded this problem by refusing to cover Bernie Sanders's campaign until the grassroots movement propelled him to such fame that to continue to ignore him would have been ludicrous. Even then, the mainstream political pundits did little more than disparage him. There were also some dirty tricks and, frankly, outright fraud committed by the Democratic Party leadership to help Hillary Clinton cheat her way to victory.
All these factors combined to make Bernie Sanders's path to the Democratic nomination virtually impossible. But, in spite of all those obstacles, he managed to win 23 states and 46% of the vote. Not bad for a man who almost no one knew about two years ago. So, how did that happen?
Well, that brings us back to those trends I mentioned, populism and nationalism. Now, Bernie is clearly not a nationalist, so he isn't riding that wave. But he is a populist. A real one. With a long track record both in and out of politics of fighting for regular people and against oppression by the powerful. And much of the American public, on one level or another, recognizes that and sees the value in it.
You see, as the title of this post implies, I think the electorate in America, and possibly in the other countries I mentioned as well, but I don't know, has been asleep. And now that giant, or that bear, or that lion, or whatever metaphor you'd like to use, is waking up. It's a slow process, and one that may reverse itself before it's over, but it's real and it's happening.
Like many animals that wake after a long hibernation, the voters of this country are a little discombobulated. We, as a group, are a bit confused, a tad disoriented, and a little clumsy as we stagger from our place of slumber. Because of this, we may stumble a bit. We may be a little slow to react. And we may be fooled into going in the wrong direction for a time. It's possible that we might even turn around and go back to sleep. It's a delicate, uncertain time. We're a nation in flux, which is a dangerous state of affairs when you're talking about a nuclear super power.
But, as of right now, we are woke and we are moving. That movement is happening in fits and starts, as is evidenced by the large but somewhat unfocused protest marches that have been occurring all over the nation; by the primary challenges to more and more establishment candidates, many of which have fallen short, but which are getting closer and closer to putting populists in public office, and some of which are even starting to pay dividends; and by the slow but growing dissatisfaction with the current administration as evidenced by the polls. At this point, real, meaningful change seems to hinge on getting all the disparate parts of this lumbering animal moving in the same direction in a coordinated manner.
And that, my friends, is where the danger lies. Bears are dangerous when they first wake up from hibernation. Why? Because they're hungry. Right now, people are realizing how badly they've been fucked over and they are angry. They're looking for someone to blame, which is probably why nationalism and populism seem to combine so easily. It would be really easy for a convenient scapegoat to become a focus for that anger. In fact, those in power would probably encourage such a trend, because it would take the pressure off them to actually change and enact policies that might cost the rich a few bucks, but would make life better for the majority of people.
As I see it, there are three possible places where the current political situation in the US might lead. The first, which I don't consider likely at this point, is for people to go back to sleep and for the status quo to be maintained. I don't think this is likely for a couple of reasons. I think there are too many people who are too angry for this to be a realistic expectation. But, more importantly, I think we've reached a tipping point where the status quo is no longer sustainable.
As has been a well-understood axiom in politics since Roman times, the secret to keeping a populace pacified is panem et circenses. As long as the majority of people are fed and entertained, they'll pretty much let the power structure do what it wants. Now, anyone who pays attention to US politics knows we've got the circuses more than covered. But the inequality in wealth distribution has gotten so pronounced that there are just too many people who either don't have enough bread or who are close enough to the margin that they fear not having enough bread. That's an untenable situation for any political system. In other words, something's gotta give.
Which brings us to the second option, war. This is where the scapegoating might come in. I'm not sure if this method of change would take the form of civil war or revolutionary war but, either way, I think it's a bad idea. The thing is, the anger that could boil over into war isn't bad in itself. It's justified. And if we are willing to be honest with ourselves about where the problems actually come from, it can be the fuel that we need to make the necessary changes. But we need to remember that fuel is, by its very nature, volatile, and so needs to be handled carefully and in a way that controls its effects. We don't want this bumbling beast to turn and start snapping at people just because they happen to be there. We need to be careful to channel our energy into non-violent methods of effecting change.
Whether or not we'll be successful in our efforts to direct the means by which we bring the needed changes about will depend on many factors, not the least of which is how those in power respond to the growing movement. If they try to lock this lion in a cage until it starves, chances are it will turn into a raging monster that rends the bars from their mooring and devours everyone in its path. That's a problem for many reasons, both moral and practical. Violent change is inherently unpredictable; you never know what the end result will look like. In order to build something stable and useful, you need to start from the ground up, with foundations. Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo, knocking things over, never built anything; he only caused destruction.
And that leads us to the third option, peaceful political revolution, which is the outcome I favor. How do we make this happen? Well, first, we resist the impulse to choose easy scapegoats. There may be specific individuals who are culpable for some of the problems in our society, but it's really the system that needs to be changed. The people involved are mainly just a byproduct of the corrupt system. That doesn't mean that we don't punish criminals, but we do so as a civilized society, with due process, courts, and trials. Not as a howling lynch mob.
Keeping in mind that it's the system that is the real problem, it becomes easier to focus our efforts to effect change. We need to put principled people who want to help their fellow citizens in positions where they will be able to make changes to the system to fix it. That's not a fast process. It's not showy or dramatic. But it will work if we are persistent and organized. And the end result will be a lot more useful to us than a smoldering ruin.
The practical side of that is elections. First, primary elections, then general. We need to take this lurching animal and help it find its balance. Then, once we've gotten ourselves organized, we need to focus on specific policies and elect candidates who support the policies we want. The establishment will fight us on this, so we've got to use our justifiable anger to fuel our determination to win, but not allow it to ignite and cause us damage. That will take discipline and strength of character, but I have enough faith in the American people that I think we can do it.
Remember, there are a lot more of us nobodies than there are rich and powerful people. If we work together and stand up for each other, one election at a time, we can change the face of politics in this country. Quite literally. And by doing so we can win the fight without ever having to fight the war. Now doesn't that seem like a goal worth organizing behind?