Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Great Comeuppance

Poetic Justice with bad hair

The conservative shuffle over to populism has finally broken into a run.  Unending economic hardship and liberal cultural triumph have torn the white middle class away from their neglectful conservative masters.  While those affluent overlords were swooning over no-capital-gains-tax fantasies and drinking themselves deep of Social Darwinist ideological purity, their downscale cousins were weathering decades of lowered wages and lowered expectations.  The America those workers knew, that sustained them and valued them, has been dying, and they’ve become desperate for a solution.  Now a large section of the supposedly conservative base supports a candidate who has argued for raising taxes and lowering pay for the rich, who opposes free trade and cuts to social welfare programs, and who condemns the influence of money in politics.  Donald Trump is what happens when the interests and sensibilities of such a large constituency are consistently ignored, marginalized and disdained.   Trump is the blowback from conservative failure.

Conservatism has always had a troubled relationship with its own base.  Modern American conservatism began in the 1950’s as a small intellectual movement that coalesced around National Review magazine, which argued over such things as whether the great British conservative Edmund Burke supported tradition per se, or as a means to protect ordered liberty.  They wrote homages to the British ruling class and Generalissimo Franco’s enthusiastically Catholic fascism – hardly positions likely to garner widespread support in a country with such a small-d democratic political culture.  Their anti-welfare-state positions gave them ready-made supporters among the rich and the business community, but little more.

So they went shopping for a constituency.  Their first lucky break was McCarthyism.  The conservatives were staunch anti-communists (opposed to socialism in general and Stalinism in particular) and they were quite happy to support a demagogue who accused liberal Democrats of being Soviet spies.  But McCarthyism was about more than overblown fear of communist subversion, it was also a movement of small town working whites against supposedly unpatriotic Northeastern establishment technocrats.  It was the first stirring of right-wing populism since the decline of the Father Coughlin and the America First crowd in the early 40’s.  That is, it was a base of support conservatives could use to attack the New Deal.

But McCarthyism collapsed and the conservative movement had to keep shopping.  This time they found a more reliable constituency: segregationists.  Opponents of civil rights shared conservative hostility toward the liberal federal government, and conservative’s natural deference to traditional social hierarchy meant they had no compunction about throwing their intellectual heft behind an explicit defense of white supremacy.  In the internal Republican fights of early 1960’s they supported Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a thoroughgoing conservative who forged an alliance of business interests and segregationists by strongly denouncing both the New Deal and civil rights legislation.  By the time Goldwater had become the Republican nominee in 1964, the ideology of modern American conservatism had hardened into implacable resistance against the three main threats to traditional American order: international communism, the welfare state, and racial integration.  Conservatism was now an alliance of the capitalist class and white supremacists, held together by a program of resistance to the federal government.

As the 1960’s progressed and liberation movements sprung up for not just blacks, but for women, Latinos, gays, etc. conservative opposition to racial equity broadened into opposition to all egalitarian social movements.   Shrewd Republican politicians like Nixon and Reagan rode white middle class resentment of those movements all the way to the White House.  The segregationists became the Moral Majority, then the Conservative Coalition and, finally, the Tea Party; but they were always the same rightward-leaning portion of the white working and middle class base, afraid of social change and looking to conservative politicians to halt it.

To achieve political influence and power, conservatism turned itself from a genteel ruling class intelligentsia into a broad populist movement.  But it sold its soul to do so.  It chose expediency over intellectual integrity, and it consistently appealed to the darker impulses of its base.  As the situation called for it, it invoked the threat of Stalinist feds, shiftless Negroes, family-hating feminists, child-molesting gays, welfare bums, union thugs, etc.  It portrayed liberals as snooty, condescending, feminized aristocrats, sipping lattes, nibbling French cheese, disdaining working class values and wasting working class tax dollars on undeserving populations.  Conservatism excused, justified, and encouraged the worst American instincts, and thereby undermined its self-proclaimed project of moral renewal.  It became gutter populism.

Gutter populism in the service of cynical capitalism, that is. In policy, conservatives stuck to reducing the social safety net, de-regulating the market, and allowing the unobstructed flow of capital, goods, jobs and workers around the world.  The cliché has it that conservative politicians promised the base they would protect traditional family values while all they were really interested in was free-market economics.  That’s true of course.  Reagan made the decision early in his presidency to prioritize undoing the New Deal, not the Sexual Revolution.  But it’s not just that conservative office-holders fought half-heartedly against abortion while fighting like demons for upper-end tax cuts; it’s that they pursued economic policies – free trade, relaxed immigration, social insurance privatization, de-unionization that working people generally oppose!  And working people haven’t been too crazy about the results of those policies: stagnating wages, the replacement of high-paying manufacturing jobs with low-paying service jobs, the immiseration of small-town and rural America.  At the end of the day, conservatives gave them nothing.

To keep working whites in their electoral coalition, conservatives had to do two contrary things: keep the populist fires of resentment and paranoia burning high, but keep them from spreading over into resentment of the rich.  They called a market-friendly healthcare plan socialism; they warned of death panels; they questioned the first black president’s religion and birthplace – all to frighten and anger the base.  They insisted the terrible liberal threat justified the most ruthless tactics – shutting down the government, undermining the government’s credit, stonewalling all compromise – and condemned as insufficiently conservative anyone who dissented.  And all the while they denounced resentment of the rich as envy, progressive taxes as class warfare, reliance on social insurance as irresponsibility, and the slightest trace of pragmatism or moderation as profoundly un-American.

Needless to say, it’s not easy to both intensify and contain populist passion.  Eventually, something had to give.  In theory, conservatives could have directed economic policy more toward middle class interests, as many reformicons have been urging.  But no, that would have undercut the central premise of American conservatism, that individual wealth results from the highest personal virtue.  And for a long time it seemed that thoroughgoing ideological conservatism was spreading and consolidating among the white middle class.  Tea Party activists sure made a good show of hating government programs.  But no, both the traditional populism of American whites and their own real and pressing material interests made genuine widespread conservatism improbable. We are led to the startling revelation that a great deal of the conservative base has never really been conservative.  In particular, they never accepted the notion that what is good for the rich is always good for the rest of us.  It turns out they hate Wall Street as much as they hate Washington and Harvard and Hollywood.  This has all been a terrible shock to the conservative chattering classes.  After spending decades indoctrinating the rubes, firing up their hatred of the liberal establishment and the cultural establishment and the Republican establishment, those rubes now direct that hatred, ironically enough, at their real enemies, those alleged conservative masters themselves!  Working whites have stopped pretending to be conservatives, they’ve stopped fooling both the conservative movement and themselves, and they’ve gone home.

To be precise, they’ve come to the realization that American elites don’t really give a damn about them.  Conservatives promised American unity, prosperity and peace, all while inviting jobs overseas, allowing banks to crash the economy, and invading a country that posed no threat to us.  They carelessly discarded American jobs, American prosperity, American lives, and – maybe worst of all – American promise.  The sold it all for a few extra points on the Dow.

But liberals haven’t done much better.  Conservatives may have had ulterior motives for accusing liberals of elitist condescension, but that doesn’t mean they were wrong.  Since the time of Jefferson and Jackson, American populism was generally a phenomenon of the left, i.e. regular people fighting against exploitation by a rich and powerful elite.  But American populism ruptured in the 60’s when the Civil Rights movement put liberals and working whites at odds.  This is the part of the story we didn’t mention above: conservatives were able to attract large number of whites in the 60’s and 70’s because liberals were so willing to let them go.  At first liberals had tried to turn economic populism for whites into economic populism for everyone.  But many whites resisted full racial equality and began voting for thoroughly conservative politicians who, as we noted, were quite happy to profit from white resentment.  Liberals abandoned the project of broadly shared prosperity and instead focused on cultural emancipation for everyone who wasn’t a straight, white male.  That emancipation was and is a tremendously worthwhile goal, but excesses in pursuit of that goal further alienated the white working class that until then had been the heart of the liberal base.  Liberals and whites walked away from each other, each convinced the other had shown itself to be unworthy of friendship.

We still live amongst the wreckage of that Great Rupture.  Race, as always in American life, has poisoned everything.  Post-60’s liberals, twisted round by white guilt, abandoned sober color-blind integration for the romance of black nationalism and multiculturalism.  They rejected the heroic and hard task of assimilating blacks into the American mainstream and settled instead for the cheap tokenism of affirmative action.  That is, they chose sanctimony over results.  And, crucially, they condemned all dissent as abject racism.  They so over-reacted to rampant racism, militarism, fundamentalism and patriarchy that they started to wonder if there was something dark lurking at the heart of American culture.  They became suspicious of patriotism and religion and the military per se, and even of the American people themselves.  They adopted a host of problematic cultural attitudes – post-patriotic, post-religious, post-color-blind, post-gender – that were unpalatable to middle America.  They still pushed for programs to help workers – universal healthcare, family leave – but they came to culturally mistrust the very people their economic policies were designed to help.  And after a while they even abandoned those policies.  Many became New Democrats like Bill Clinton, promoting privatization and free trade and curtailing government programs.  They rejected American culture from the left and pro-worker policies from the right.  They became caricature anti-populists.

All these concerns come together perfectly on immigration.  This is one issue on which conservative and liberal ideologues agree: the more immigration, the better.  Conservatives are happy to remove constraints on the labor market, and consequently drive down wages and benefits.  And their free-market dogmatism prevents them from seeing the economic injury caused by flooding the market with cheap labor.  To them, resistance to immigration can only be motivated by the lazy and irresponsible desire to avoid honest competition, and nothing matters more to a conservatives than allowing competition to prove one’s moral worth.  Meanwhile, liberals are eager to prove their humanitarian virtue by rejecting any American immigration policy that might particularly benefit Americans.  Their love for the foreign poor blinds them to the damage done to their own countrymen.  Indeed, their cosmopolitan detachment protects them from any pedestrian concerns about American workers or – grab the smelling salts! – American culture.  To them, resistance to immigration can only be motivated by racism, and nothing matters more to liberals than proving they’re not racist.  Conservatives have no consideration for American workers as workers, but liberals have no consideration for them as Americans. 

And working people of all races are starting to understand that the people running the country are not looking out for them.  Indeed, when you consider the takeover of American politics by rich donors, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that almost nothing constrains elites from pursuing policies that actively hurt working people.  And history and ideology have conspired to leave working people, and working whites particularly, with no responsible leadership.  Both conservatives and liberals pretend to be populists during election time, and liberals even make half-hearted attempts to help working people; but there is no political movement that fights for the interests of American workers as American workers.  Indeed, elites would condemn as vulgar and unrespectable any politics that was both patriotic and pro-worker.

This is where the white middle and working classes finds themselves.  Liberals have abandoned them to the gutter populism in which conservatives have so cynically invited them to indulge.  And behold the result: Donald Trump, the genuine gutter populist!  Decades of gutter populist propaganda, combined with genuine economic pain, and good old-fashioned Puritan paranoia have left working whites bitter, angry and desperate.  Many of them are still right-wing populists, fearing blacks and feminists and gays and Muslims.  That hasn’t changed just because they now perceive the damage that conservative policy has done them.  That’s why they should gravely worry us.  And following Trump won’t exactly improve that.

Looking for a real leader
But they love Donald Trump because he perfectly speaks to their fear and desperation.  He shares their deepest instincts: that it’s regular working Americans who make America prosper, that America is strong and good and our standing in the world should reflect that, that economic and political elites have been ignoring those first two points, and at their peril.  Unfortunately, he also shares their darker instincts: that America is morally superior to every other country, that regular Americans are the best people in the world, particularly straight, white, Christian, male breadwinners.  He’s been rightly called the American id, the strutting embodiment of all those impulses.  But part of the reason his shtick works so well is that he’s little more than id himself!  He lacks a coherent ideology or set of policies because all he has are those nationalist instincts and a gigantic, monumental, indestructible faith in both them and himself.  He’s not just looking out for working white people, in cultural sensibility he is them, but independent and strong enough to fight like hell.  He’s not just a genuine gutter populist, he’s a determined gutter populist.  They delight in his irrepressible contempt for decent propriety.  He’s the cocksure naughty boy, breaking all the rules, smirking as the children cheer, and sneering at the grownups who try to shame him.  He is the national will to tear everything down and dance on the rubble.

We may even see – God help us! – President Donald Trump if enough independents feel sufficiently marginalized and desperate.  But it need not have been this way.  It’s conceivable – isn’t it? – that  we could have had a constructive and enlightened populism, one that picked itself up out of the gutter and fought for the interests of all American working people.  Or does the damnable intransigence of racial hostility make that impossible?  Both conservatism and liberalism, in their current forms, have eagerly exploited and exacerbated that hostility.  Neither is capable of addressing the current crisis, which is at bottom a crisis of political imagination.  Both are too rigid, too wedded to blind and implausible ideologies, too comfortable in their institutional power, too removed from the realities of American life.  They fight their petty, scripted battles over the heights of American society, while the foundation rots beneath their feet.  They have become irrelevant.

It’s unclear where working whites will go now.  They broke with conservatism when they came to understand that the system cannot be indifferent; it can only work for them or against them.  That is, they now know – in their experience and in their bones – that their economic condition is a function of more than just their own actions.  When they make this simple fact an explicit doctrine and a rallying cry and an organizing principle then they will have become full populists.  What they will do with that populism, whether it will be a force for preserving and promoting the best of America, or whether it will degrade and destroy – we don’t know yet.  Only disaster can result if they allow leaders like Trump to drag them further into the gutter.  They have the potential to become a powerful force for unmediated white authoritarianism, and that’s an outcome too awful to contemplate.

If there is to be a constructive populist alternative, an inclusive, color-blind, mature populism, it can ultimately come only from a reconstructed liberalism.  Bernie Sanders has taken liberalism halfway there, with his stress on economic concerns over cultural ones, and his nascent and inchoate economic nationalism.  The rupture between liberalism and white working people must be reconciled, and that can only happen when liberals come to understand the centrality of our shared American identity.  And maybe a program of working class unity could reduce racial tension.  Maybe such a movement could address our actual problems and offer real solutions.  Maybe it could remind us all who we are to each other, what we owe each other, and what we can accomplish together.  Maybe it could elicit the better angels of our nature.  And maybe, finally, it could tell us how we can be healed.