The prevailing liberal consensus has failed. By this I mean the ideas, visions, plans for the future held by the leading liberal politicians and intellectuals in many countries – my writing so far has only focused on India, the UK, and the US – have come to nothing. Within their own terms, within the presuppositions that they are committed to; they have no idea what more they can do to win elections. Winning elections to govern more sympathetically than conservative parties has been their main claim to legitimacy against left critiques.
The quickly diminishing leading liberal party in India, the Indian National Congress, is committed to dynasty rule that has automatically, and rightly, ruled out its credibility amongst most of the electorate. Ed Miliband’s Labour tried to square the circle of offering economic competence, technocratic verbiage (‘predistribution’ matches ‘trumped up trickle down’ for rhetorical futility), and anti-immigrant sentiment to find that more or less the same package was more slickly, and believably, sold by the Tories. Clinton’s slick, data-driven campaign lost handily to a man who can’t finish a sentence. Why?
As history ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union, a new age of reason, prosperity, and tolerance was announced. All liberal democracies and liberal citizenries had to do now was maintain their order. The liberal capitalist order was the best that we could achieve. Parliamentary democracy ensured that within this order, there was a variety of options for citizens to choose from. There was nothing to worry about, this variety could never get out of hand – all the parties would have an interest in maintaining the larger constitutional order. After all, the median voter, the rational, logical, identikit consumer of politics would force even the most fringe ideas to move to the centre and maintain healthy homeostasis. Because, as we said, the best social order has been figured out and is known to everyone. Increasing college-level education through the service-sector transition and student debt in the US or, in the UK, through government investment in public universities, would ensure that everyone would be on the same page. The market metaphor became the central operating metaphor for understanding political and social life. If political parties became too extreme and manifested themselves as threats to this order, they would automatically lose their consumers. I mean, voters. Only a few people think that liberalism needs to be replaced with overt white supremacy, this kind of thinking would repulse most people, the Republicans will eventually have to moderate.
Now that people had tasted true freedom, all they needed to do was pick between a few flavours of soda – if any party spiked the recipe too much in either direction, too sweet or too fizzy, the consumers could be trusted to restore normalcy by rejecting it. How would this work? To win any election – a common way of justifying the superiority of liberal parliamentary democracies to other forms of government is the peaceful way that elections attenuate political disputes – one would not only have to retain a traditional base of voters, but also win the undecided, independent median voters who were not invested in either brand and would thus prefer the least radical solutions. Stability was the goal of electoral politics and the free market of electoral choice would achieve it. It was assumed that enough of the consumers would desire it to continue making their choices on that basis. A lot of people do think like this: is my country better off than it was 4 years ago? What are the economic indicators? How have I done personally in the last four years? My company? My friends? My neighbours? My town? My state? If it’s worse off, let me vote for the party that isn’t in power to give someone else a chance. If both parties are equally interested in the undecided voter, the thought is that they will have an interest in making the country the best off possible because the undecided voter is the least biased – even if they will have different ideas on how to go about it. We all basically agree what a good state of affairs will look like, let’s just keep trying different mixes and recipes from roughly the same two or three parties and we should be fine.
There are a lot of blind-spots to this way of thinking about politics. First of all, what if we disagree? Are we merely disagreeing on the means to roughly the same goal: a stable, economically prosperous society? Or are we disagreeing on something more fundamental and more important? Second, what are the market incentives for political parties to continue to focus on median, undecided voters if voter turnout steadily declines such that for the most part, only fierce partisans, largely from the middle class and above, turn out to vote? Third, what if college education for more people and a mass media isn’t enough to guarantee that people share a common idea of what a good society looks like? What if most people can’t afford to go to college? What about the economic incentives for corporations to fund systems of education and forms of journalism that only distribute ideas favourable to their interests? Finally, to the extent that such a shared, common idea of what a good society ever existed, what if it was ridiculously wrong? What if, for instance, capitalism was inherently prone to crisis and continuous economic growth worsens global warming? Or what if it was the case that increases in national GDP accompanied exponential growth in the imprisonment of Black and Latino people in the country? How would liberal electoral politics address this?
We would have to rely on the liberal parties to have our backs. Let’s look at the Democrats in the US this year. According to the Democrats, these are unfortunate compromises that need to persist in the given political reality. The reality being the shared idea that a certain kind of stability and economic growth is what we are looking to achieve, and that the self-interest of rich people is an immovable constraint. This compromise consisted in two intertwined goals. One, to secure a basis for national prosperity, one can’t rule out private interests completely. What’s good for corporations is good for the country – the more money they make the more people they can employ; they are job-creators. This pressure meant that whatever the industry, be it fracking, pharmaceuticals, prisons, or arms, some amount of leeway needed to be given. If the Democrats were in power, they could be trusted to push back a little. Through executive orders, economic incentives, tax-breaks and incremental changes to legislation, they would discourage some of these bad things from happening. Second, by 2016, while the Democrats could no longer ignore the truth that a lot of the big things were going badly wrong; they had to insist that for electoral success, these things would have to be set aside until after the win. This was the Clinton argument against Sanders when he started raising these questions: he is inexperienced, idealistic, and can’t win an election. To sum up: Democrats would slowly, surely, attack the systemic issues affecting the country but would make compromises because the private sector needs accommodation for the country’s economy to grow, and second, you have to win elections to have power to do anything, perhaps winning elections means saying what middle-class white people in the suburbs of winnable counties in swing states want to hear.
The Clinton campaign, like the Clinton administration in the 1990s when history first ended, thought very much along the lines that we described above. First, there was the idea that Trump was simply unacceptable and every rational human being knew that. The Democrats desperately wanted to run against Trump. Indeed, it’s been reported that Bill Clinton encouraged Trump to run in the Republican primaries. Presumably the thought was that Trump would be the easiest candidate to beat because surely no one in their right mind would vote for him. He can’t complete a sentence. He’s a boor. He’s vulgar, incoherent, violently racist and violently sexist. Enough Republicans would be ashamed of him to either stay at home or even reluctantly vote for Clinton. Clinton was by far the most qualified and experienced candidate, she knows the realities and the system well enough to manage it; she was the expert who deserved to win. The Clinton campaign assumed enough people, Republican and Democrat, shared a common vision of what presidential elections. This was flatly wrong: 90% of Republicans were willing to vote for Trump to keep Clinton and the Democrats out of office.
I don’t write this to prognosticate on what the Clinton campaign could have done differently – the result was close enough that on a different day perhaps Clinton would have clinched it. Perhaps if Clinton had merely taken a fifth of the Sanders agenda, or some of Sanders’ forthright message on what needed to change and how she would achieve it, that would have been enough. Perhaps if she had just visited Wisconsin a few times. In any case, the result is close enough and the election was winnable enough that political scientists and Democratic strategists can carefully calibrate the next candidate and the next campaign to maximize voter turnout. At the very minimum, as Ezekiel Kweku argues here, the Democrats “are going to have to take the extraordinary step of doing politics”.
Rather I write to describe the limits of the concepts of sanity and insanity in thinking about politics and political disagreement. The liberal view of politics as rational consumer decision-making dramatically falls short in trying to understand why millions of people might see the same evidence that they are seeing – Trump’s violent sexism and racism – and yet still turn out in large enough numbers to make him win. Where was the rational adjustment and moderation to the median voter? Surely Trump had proven himself unqualified for the job? Even Republicans could see that, no? How could they do something like this? Clinton’s entire campaign strategy was based on this claim to a shared form of collective decision-making turned out to be shared only by members of the press, enthusiastic Democratic partisans, and her campaign staff. Chuck Schumer, the proposed Dem Senate minority leader, bet that for every blue-collar Democrat Clinton might lose in western Pennsylvania, that she would win two moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She lost both.
One can’t simply assume that the continuous exposure to the same set of facts, school curricula, college syllabi, broadly similar sources of news, similar professional life experiences, and so on will lead someone else to understand and live their politics in vaguely similar terms to one’s own. This is the working assumption of the leading liberals of our time: John Oliver and Jon Stewart; Leslie Knope and Aaron Sorkin; Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. America is already great. America is great because America is good.
Not only is this a gross misunderstanding of how politics and communities work; it is an unsustainable way to live. The only way to rationally respond to the fact that a large section of one’s country has seemingly completely rejected one’s value-system for reasons completely incomprehensible to oneself is to laugh or to cry. We can turn to John Oliver or Jon Stewart to give us the satisfyingly hilarious and angry and sweary rant on how hypocritical, patently absurd, stupid, and immoral Trump’s candidacy is and how all of his voters must be idiots. Or we can cry at how irredeemably racist and sexist the country is and that there’s nothing more to be done. Everyone’s just terrible and we’re simply fucked. Notice how both options rule out the possibility of actually doing anything.
The end of history is over. In fact, history never ended. The impression one has of a moral and political consensus amongst one’s acquaintances and colleagues is just that, an impression. Conservatives in the US – and also in India and the UK – have spent the last thirty years offering people a titillating story about the marginalization of the respective ethnic/racial majority by women, minorities, LGBTQ people and self-indulgent liberals who are deliberately weakening the economy and hindering job-creators in a web of moralistic, unrealistic regulations. Liberals meanwhile have largely responded by pointing out how intolerant and hateful this line of thinking is – which it is – but in practice have largely agreed with the economic prescriptions and have done what they have for women, minorities, and LGBTQ people only after coming under sustained pressure from mass mobilization and activism.
Going forward, let’s start with the reasonable assumption that we don’t already agree. Rationality does not consist in coming to the same conclusions from seeing the same facts. Contemporary conservativism is undertaking a coherent, systematic attack on the liberal worldview and must be resisted as such. Though to effectively resist it, liberals will have to admit that they have a partial, fallible, empirically ameliorable worldview. Politics is not a matter of incrementally improving the world by accepting the pursuit of policies that the most qualified candidate is proposing as most realistic; but assessing issue by issue, what it is those policies add up to and whether they are actually doing good for people. Liberal reality – the idea that liberal parties winning elections and being less bad than conservatives is enough to keep us going – was always broken. Now, more starkly than before, we can see why. Thankfully, hundreds of thousands of leftist organizers around the world have been shouting this for decades. Let’s listen to them and fight.