Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Could Petty Partisanship Compromise Democracy?

Alt-right loon
Whenever I see Americans deny that their country is a democracy it freaks me out a little; the right to have a say in how one's country, state, or local district should not be blithely cast aside as if it didn't matter. As the US presidential election looms I'm discovering that the battle between the progressive/centre right alliance and the alt-right isn't just a clown-car pileup being staged for our amusement, it's the stage on which the meaning of freedom will be debated. I'm not even joking.

The UK follows where the US leads

Recently I've been seeing headlines in the national papers decrying the "liberal elite." Isn't that an American trope? The left is doing it too, but basically it's bourgeois-bashing — nothing to see here, either move along or pick a class to declare solidarity with. Now RT, the Russian news agency, has had its bank account closed by NatWest for no apparent reason. Unless they've broken a bank rule, there's no business reason for this, the motive must be political. I can't help wondering if it's anything to do with recent stories in Vox about the Russians trying to influence Americans to vote for Putin fanboy Trump. It's a blow to freedom of speech, whatever the reason; love it or loathe it, this is expression. If anyone wants to moan about inaccuracy they can start with the Daily Mail: they invented that tooth-fairy ex-girlfriend story as misogynist propaganda ("Never let a ticked off woman loose with a set of pliers, I tell ya!"), I haven't forgotten that.

The demonisation of "the left"

Our right to freedom of expression in the UK has been steadily eroding for some time. I might not be a leftist myself (I'm a communitarian conservative, if anything), but I do have left-wing friends and though I often disagree with them I hate the idea of them being demonised and mistreated because they honestly believe that "Prime Minister Corbyn" is a good idea. For the record, Corbyn is Bennite, i.e. the chap who brought us the NHS. He's not the massive threat the media paint him as but he doesn't half come across as naive. We need him to provide opposition but if he wants office he will have to learn to accept that there is such a thing as "the market," even though it's not free.

Why we need to pay attention

This matters to people on this side of the Pond because it means that the dangerous partisanship, that has so infected American political discourse that people literally see leaders, members, and supporters of the opposing party as actual enemies to be eliminated, could, in time, be replicated over here. It just depends on how long it'll take the politics of fear and loathing to take root. Let's hope it doesn't.

The meaning of freedom

Freedom isn't about being able to do whatever you want sans consequence, it's a delicate balance of pay-offs in which the Twofold Principle applies: the individual must be free to act and the will of the people must be respected. It's the freedom to say I wish I could stamp on copyright till it dies while someone else complains that he's an artist who makes a living from licencing copies of his work. It's not about which of us is correct; neither of us has the right to shut the other up. In America, partisanship makes you careful about where you express your opinions if you don't want to be hammered into conformity by people you know. There are, of course, exceptions. In Orange County, North Carolina, the Republican Party headquarters was firebombed. A GoFundMe campaign set up by Democrats surpassed its $10k goal forty minutes after it was set up. This is democratic freedom in action. It's a sharp contrast to the intimidation faced by people who nail their political colours to the mast elsewhere — and find themselves either patronised or demonised for daring to do so.

Hope and change

The truth about Trump supporters is that they're fed up with the status quo and are desperate for change — any change. Here's the fun part: by characterising Trump supporters as right-wing nutbuckets, the press has a) herded the crazy cats his way and b) encouraged the doubling-down of the echo chamber siege mentality that American politics is particularly prone to; recent allegations of sexual abuse — even the ones he's been caught admitting to — aren't really dampening his support. Indeed, the mad conspiracy theories that he's secretly a Russian agent hoping to become a puppet president for his BFF "Vladdy" Putin are being treated with the same amused contempt reserved for Kenyan secret agent Barry Sotero and his bumped-off husband — Red Scare politics only really works on idiots, after all. Hilariously, it's only a Marxist plot when it's about the black guy, comrades.

Hacking and hijacking

As the accusations of hacking and vote-rigging rage on, the question has to be asked about who is really pulling the strings behind this election. That there have only really been two candidates (and some token contenders) from two parties (the others are deliberately locked out) is cause for concern; shouldn't other parties have a chance to present their case to the American people? We let weirdos like the Natural Law party broadcast political ads on mainstream TV, that, I kid you not, feature yogic flying as a policy. Why? Freedom. That they never got a sniff of a seat in the UK Parliament is not the point; they had a chance to publicise themselves and their party and to get their manifesto in front of an audience. That it fell on its face is down to democracy; people weren't interested. We even have political debates featuring the leaders of the biggest political parties — this is why other parties have more of a chance over here. That the Liberal Democrats have fallen from grace is down to their toadying to the Tories for the sake of power — the public aren't likely to forget the broken promises that cost Nick Clegg his job any time soon. Tim Farron has his work cut out winning back support — not to mention credibility. But as limp and weak as the Lib Dems are, at least they get airtime. It's difficult for third parties to bring themselves to the attention of the public in America, where you're either Democrat, Republican, or Independent, and that's it. The end result is that Americans are coerced into choosing a team, to vote for the candidate they despise the least to keep the one they despise more out of office. And they must choose a team; any criticism of Team A is automatically construed as support for Team B by default. The language of shame tars and feathers anyone who refuses to play by the rules of the (rigged) game.

The Powell Memorandum and the Southern Strategy

If you're wondering how come the Americans took a header off the sensible cliff, it's not actually due to a left-wing plot but because of a right wing conspiracy. There are two elements to this: the Powell Memorandum and the Southern Strategy. Let's take a closer look.

The Powell Memorandum

When I first found out about the Powell Memorandum it made perfect sense that the neoliberal consensus exists because of the stocking of media outlets, centres of learning, and think tanks with corporatist propaganda. Whenever I argue with economist Noah Smith on Twitter it's usually because I've caught him uncritically repeating right wing economic talking points. One tends to wonder where he gets them from; I can't help thinking that perhaps economics is as partisan as politics — you have to choose between Smith/Keynes/Stiglitz or the Austrian school — and this is what informs his thinking. I still follow him, perhaps because I don't agree with him, not because I do. Basically, Noah is an example of what happens when you make education and empirical facts a partisan issue — you end up cherry-picking those facts that line up with your political biases and ignoring the ones that don't. This is the basis of every argument I've ever had with Noah. The trouble with the Powell Memorandum is the Chamber of Commerce and the other interested parties took the ball and ran with it. Unfortunately Powell lost control of the game; labour unions, which he considered "a freedom," are routinely demonised in the right wing press. Had he envisaged how coarse and abusive our society would become if his policies were implemented he might have held back his hand from writing the memo. But then, it seems he believed was writing it for right-thinking Americans, not right-wing reactionaries with an axe to grind. It's what happens when you* think that only decent, worthy people are wealthy and successful in commerce. That's not necessarily true.

The Southern Strategy

In 1958 Democrat politician George Wallace lost out in the primaries for nomination to become state governor to KKK-supported George Hawkins. In January 1963 he campaigned on a platform for enforcing segregation. His reasoning was this:

"You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor." - George Wallace, Wikipedia

It was the beginning of the Southern Strategy, where dog whistle politics calls the faithful to arms to protect their privilege at all costs. During the integration of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Wallace was exposed to the depth and breadth of racism throughout America, as evidenced by the fan mail he got for resisting the enforcement of the policy. Citing state's rights (this is dog whistle for "continue slavery") he cast himself and his constituency as brave little Davids against the Federal Goliath. In this he blazed the trail for those white supremacist movements who claim that "white Anglo-Saxon culture" is under threat of extinction via cultural and racial genocide via racial mixing. This coded race-baiting has become a little more sophisticated over time, but not much. We can still see through it. In 1964, the Republican party's contender for president was Arizona's Barry Goldwater, whose anti-New Deal politics are Republican orthodoxy today. Having noted Wallace's success at gaining votes via the fear factor, Goldwater leaped onto the racist bandwagon to win votes. It is this decision that turned the GOP into the wealthy white man's party that it is today. Needless to say, the Democrats swung the other way to polarise voters into choosing which side they were on in the racial culture wars. Goldwater lost but the die was cast. Nixon rinsed and repeated the strategy and won the next election. And Trump is doing it now.

How they tie together

President Nixon had to ask Powell twice to become a Supreme Court judge, where he served for fifteen years. While Powell wasn't as racist as his Southern Strategy-practicing bretheren, he was anti-New Deal in his outlook and his Memorandum is based around the Red Scare notion that Socialists were infiltrating every corner of America and that their malignant influence had to be countered. The Southern Strategy alone would not have brought Trump to the political fore, nor would it have permitted him to become the Republican front-runner — their brand of patronising misogyny wouldn't have let him through. No, the influence of the Powell Memorandum in creating the think tanks and other organisations helped to shape public opinion, in tandem with the Southern Strategy, is what gave us Trump. That Powell lost control of the game is not the point; once you introduce the possibility of influencing public opinion via think tanks, etc., there's no saying who will be doing the influencing. So when the Republican party shifted hard to the alt-right, Trump was the logical endgame.

What about democracy?

The trouble with anti-government sentiments and the anarchic republicanism I decried in the first paragraph is that the proponents thereof have absolutely no idea how to replace them. Mere voluntary transactions won't effect the rule of law. Ending participatory democracy in the name of opposing the tyranny of the majority denies the Bill of Rights that limits what the majority can actually do. And the whack-a-doodles following Trump over the edge of the cliff of sanity are all about those things. Government and governance require effective administrative facilities. Anyone I've ever seen calling for a revolution has had this pointed out to them; right wing activists infiltrated government, not to shut it down but to take it over. By insinuating themselves into key positions they are in position to effect their agenda. If Trump wins he may or may not have to contend with a Congress and Senate stuffed with Democrats and Establishment Republicans. Whether he does or not one thing is certain: if he wins expect him to attempt to reign like a king. If he loses, expect rioting from the conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and nihilists who make up his base. Either way, trust in the institutions of democracy has been badly eroded because, as Trump pointed out, the game is rigged to be a two horse race. Unfortunately, in this race, the best they could come up with are a bucking bronco and a clapped-out old nag.

*This is deeply embedded in American culture, and it's one of the main reasons they hate socialism — or anything that sounds like it — so much. In such a viewpoint social welfare payments suck the virtue and purpose out of enterprise and endeavour and should therefore be extremely restricted.

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