Before my last few blogs on the section of the Torah dealing with the reunion of Jacob and Esau and a review of the Coen brothers’ new movie, The Ballad of Buster Scragg, I summarized the political debates in America in a chart depicting a four-way fight. The populists took over the Republican Party. We know because the president, as the leader of the party, routinely denigrates the core institutions of a democracy – an independent non-politicized judiciary, a free and responsible press, a representative legislature fairly chosen by the people, a non-politicized office of an attorney general, a military that is subject to civilian control but not to be used by those same civilians either to promote a domestic political agenda or to be used against a country’s own citizens. He uses harangues, mass rallies and the grossest of lies to promote “me” in the name of making the country supposedly “great” again. Populism of the right depends on the part of the nation that feels lost to the forces of history – namely and mainly white rural males. The insidious enemy consists of immigrants, both within the country and those wanting to come.
In contrast, left liberals retain control of the Democratic Party, though a more radical left, democratic socialists in America who would be characterized as the liberal left in Europe, have increased both their presence in Congress and their public support representing a rise of populism on the left as well as on the right. Throughout Europe, there are populists on the left within governments, but the populists mainly come from the right. In fact, the equivalent of the left liberal perspective in America, the social democrats, have been the greatest losers to populism on the right and left, but overwhelmingly on the right. The SPD in Germany is down to 14% support in the polls; the French socialists scored only 7.4% in last year’s parliamentary elections, the Dutch Labour Party won only 5.7% of the vote, the Czech Social Democrats have dropped to 7.3% in the polls.
After I describe the conflict within the Democratic Party in the USA in this blog and detail my interpretation with evidence from the political ground on the tensions within the Democratic Party, I will shift to Britain where the populist left have already taken control. Then I will move to the continent.
Why have populist parties, or factions within parties, arisen in America and Europe? The rise of social media? The effect of globalism and automation on workers? Fears of an economic turndown as economies begin to stall? Migration, that may be seen as a threat on the right but may be viewed as an opportunity as well as positive value for the left? I believe that none of these are key indicators. A fundamental culture clash is. The white rural male fear of “coloureds” and migrants may be central to the politics of the far right; the opposition to Israel as a Zionist state characterizes the populism on the left, much more clearly in Britain than in America. But I claim that the same forces exist in the U.S. Why Israel? This will be the suspense question hanging over this blog but only answered in a future blog.
To recall, the overall battle, with modifications and clarifications, can be represented in terms of basic and core political values (as well as personality traits not represented here) by the following chart:
|Left Populist||Liberal||Conservative||Right Populist|
|Substance *||Identity wars||Protections||Markets||Identity wars|
|The rights of oppressed foreign nations||Civil and group rights||Human rights||National rights|
|Process *||Challenge incumbents||Defend incumbents||Surrender
|Voter registration||Voter registration||Voter suppression||Voter suppression|
|Class war||Common membership||Common membership||Cultural war|
Notice three similarities, marked with an asterisk, between the populists of the right and left. The core fight is cultural, not economic, focused on identity politics. Second, incumbents were challenged from both ends of the spectrum. Third, both the far left (relative to American politics) and the far right engage in the politics of resentment, but with different identities in play in defence of the “oppressed.” The oppressed on the right are the hard core of a traditional demography left behind by the culture and the economy of globalism. On the left they are not only oppressed domestic minorities (Hispanics and Blacks in America), but oppressed nations abroad.
Note also that socio-economic and structural factors in the difference between right and left – class, religion, income and education – though clearly still present, have taken a back seat to cultural conflicts and identity issues. This may be because of secularization as well as widespread access to satisfying basic needs. Certainly, the liberalization of social mores has influenced debates over abortion, gender preferences and preferred modes of dying – euthanasia. Thus, though socio-economic factors both influence and colour the identity wars, the core conflict is over the mode in which the full expression of the persona is expressed. That may also be why the idiosyncratic personalities of leaders on both the left and the right have gained in prominence.
In fact, the conflict within both the left and right may be characterized as one between the importance of socio-economic versus socio-cultural factors. The conservative right favours deregulation, free trade, a restricted role for trade unions and an emphasis on entrepreneurship. The populist quasi-authoritarian right uses the state for protecting “the nation” against imagined threats. On the left, the liberal left favours a state in which the state plays a protective economic role, but on the far left plays a protective “national” role, though the nation protected is very different than the one on the right.
It may be that the Industrial Revolution resulted in class warfare, but the Information Revolution brought a different war, not so much between the rich and the poor, but nevertheless betwixt two “nations” between which there is neither intercourse nor sympathy but rather ignorance of one another’s habits, thoughts and feelings. The two nations might as well inhabit different planets.
In this war, radically different uses of the new media play as critical a role as the printing press played in the Industrial Revolution, though, in the background, there have been very important economic and structural shifts.
Blue collar workers have lost their jobs rather than being drawn into an industrial work force at the lowest pay levels. Menial work shifted back to service rather than manufacturing as in the pre-industrial period; since 2000, five million factory jobs have disappeared in the U.S. At the same time, in the Information Era, there has been the rise of a new gross economic inequality where productive gains have gone almost exclusively to the top .1%. The populist and liberal left recognize that automation and computers have led to the demise while the right populists blame international bankers and/or trade partners. But the left populists also blame the latter, not for exploitation but for a failure to offer protection and ensure a just distribution. Further, the failure is global and the worst victims are those forced to migrate and/or become refugees. The latter numbers have doubled in the last two decades.
As my chart indicates, the divisions within the Democratic Party and on the Left are not marked over whether to support trade unionism or the prudence of pushing single payer health insurance, but primarily over cultural issues in the name of Third World solidarity and global anti-racism.
Our focus here is the USA and left populism versus liberalism. There are similarities between left and right populism, namely: attacks on the rule of law; on the bureaucracy; against the mainstream media; a portrait of a battle between the virtuous ‘ordinary’ masses and a nefarious or corrupt establishment or elite; an emphasis on the general will versus responsible representative democracy, and an opposition to capitalist globalism. But the differences between left and right populism are starker. They can be summarized as follows:
|Issues||Right Populism||Left Populism|
|Rights||Critics of human rights||Defenders of human rights|
|Favourite nations||Saudi Arabia||Palestinian nationalism|
|Mobility||Oppose international mobility of the poor||Pro non-colonial mobility|
|Education||Lacking quality tertiary education||Graduates of tertiary education|
|Modes of organization||Mass rallies||Movements and causes|
|Leadership||Attracted to political outsiders – billionaires||Attracted to grass roots outsiders|
|Hatred||Xenophobia & racism||Anti-Zionist antisemitism|
Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post (13 September 2018) recently wrote a piece entitled, “The Threat to democracy – from the left” and pointed to attacks by the left against speakers on campus ranging from Stephen K. Bannon to Condoleezza Rice. For Zakaria, as much as he disagrees with him, Bannon “is an intelligent and influential ideologist, a man who built the largest media platform for the new right, ran Trump’s successful campaign before serving in the White House, and continues to articulate and energize the populism that’s been on the rise throughout the Western world.” As a liberal, Zakaria defends not only his right to speak, but the duty to offer him a platform. The populist left regards him as a present and certain danger and some would even deny him the right to speak. Civil liberties remain crucial for liberals but are expendable for left populists in the name of solidarity with and respect for the oppressed.
The populist left goes beyond the resistance and debates of liberals to demand direct and active opposition to defeat the toxic marriage of white nationalism and an entrenched plutocracy. Unlike the right, left populists are not machos. Unlike Donald Trump, they would never praise Montana Republican representative Greg Gianforte for body slamming a reporter (DT – “any guy who can do a body slam…he’s my guy”). Instead, they focus on building networks rather than frontier virtues.
With the help of Alex Zisman