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Rethinking Identity Politics

Liberal America needs to take a long, hard look at the realities of right-wing populism.

By News

Image by Zach Cooper

Illustration by Zach Cooper.

In an internal memo from the Clinton campaign, it was revealed that the Democratic nominee’s top strategists intended to elevate the personages of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz so as to fill the Republican field with “rats” — siphoning voters away from the Republicans. In their own words, they intended to “[not] marginalize the more extreme candidates, but make them ‘pied piper[s]’ … who actually represent the mainstream of the Republican party.” Yet when push came to shove, they discovered, to their horror, that their piper could not be distinguished from a rat. If Clinton was a pied piper, then the only road she led the children of America down was that of an undreamt-of reactionary future.

When Donald Trump won the US presidential election, the first reaction of many people was a kind of dazed shock. If they bothered to reflect further, most thought it signified nothing more than a perverse error. Which is to say that no one could really want Trump; anyone who voted for him must have been duped, and his loss of the popular vote supports that theory. Still, any serious perspective must come to grips that the fact Trump captured one of the major political parties in the US — a fact of major historical significance. That the election could come down to a 2 percent margin in the first place is evidence of Trumpism’s significance.

A pattern of liberal disdain — and an unwillingness to analyze the failures of liberal democratic structures that brought right-wing populist movements to power — is clear. When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, it must have been because of racism rather than any legitimate grievance. The disrespect for the will of the people by liberal commentators went as far as calling for the results to be overruled by parliament, claiming the people cannot be trusted.

When the National Front is supported by one quarter of the French population as the largest single party, then it must be because of small town provincialism. The implication is clear: When the working class votes for right-wing populism — as it has increasingly done over the last decade — then it is illegitimate. Already, the same narrative is being constructed in the United States. Trump won because of some form of racism inherent to whites, and the origin of that right-wing populist sentiment was fundamentally irrational.

Yet any serious analysis of the rise of right-wing populism must start with the fact that the supporters of right-wing populism genuinely want it. Trump supporters were not misled as to what they were getting; they genuinely wanted Trump.  So too with the National Front and Brexit, and dozens of other movements worldwide, from the Sweden Democrats, to Poland’s Law and Justice, to the Hindutva-backed administration of Narendra Modi.

This raises another question: Why are right-wing populist movements gaining popularity among the very people who will most be harmed by their policies? This cannot be answered by the inadequate formulas of identity politics. Rather, it must start with the recognition of legitimate grievances harbored by the working class.

In the United States as well as in the rest of the world, regulatory and welfare frameworks have been gutted in the name of “free markets.” The result has been the creation not of greater freedom but of environmental conditions and extremes of inequality redolent more of the society which produced the “satanic” mills of the industrial revolution than of any sort of society with a claim to modernity. According to Oxfam, the richest 62 people own as much of the world as the poorest half. The wealth share of the richest one percent of society has nearly doubled in almost every first world country since 1970. Disproportionately, this lopsided disbursement of resources correlates with a decline in labor unions — down from 35 percent in the 1940s, to 10 percent today. Other democratic structures, such as public schools, housing councils, and health care, are also in peril — the cumulative effect of which has been the further alienation of the working class from “respectable” mainstream politics.

Simply put, the working class has been steadily abandoned by political elites. It is not merely a matter of blaming conservatives for neoliberalism, considering that the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton and the Labour Party under Tony Blair eagerly embraced the neoliberal principles of privatization, deregulation, and dismantling of labor unions and embarked on campaigns of privatization and welfare “reform” — a trend that has not been reversed by their successors. In Europe, a further dimension of alienation has been added in the form of the European Union, which effectively ties the hands of governments with regards to economic policy. It bans nationalization outright, while gutting welfare and labor provisions. With the collapse of the financial market in 2007, the contradiction between the working class and the business class came to the fore.

The language of neoliberal politics is rooted in linking political freedom with market freedom. When market freedom fails the working class, is it any surprise that they reject the idea of political freedom that they have been taught is inseparable from it? When the mainstream of political opposition abandons laborism and socialism for identity politics — thereby tacitly accepting the alienation of the working class — it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of the working class is unreceptive.

Identity politics fosters a crude relationship between working class voters and their political consciousness. It plays right into the hands of its right-wing counterpart, which functions on displacement — from the antagonism between workers and businesses, to a conflict between workers and “outsiders.” As Walter Benn Michaels has noted, when the Democratic leadership was handed the populist challenge of Bernie Sanders, and then effectively vetoed his candidacy in favor of Hillary Clinton, is it any surprise that the working class prefers to support Trump who at least pretends to be on their side?

Max Horkheimer said, “Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism.” This is the orientation that politics must assume if right-wing populism is to be overcome. It cannot be defeated by tired old liberal formulas or recourses to the feel-good and do-nothing populism that orbits around identity. Instead, it must reorient itself around economic populism. (That is to say, labor and socialism.)

August Bebel once said that “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.” The same might be said for Trumpism.

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