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?
“So if someone tells us it is just to give to each what he is owed, and understands by this that a just man should harm his enemies and benefit his friends, the one who says it is not wise. I mean, what he says is not true. For it has become clear to us that it is never just to harm anyone.” Plato, Rep. I. 335e1-5
Amidst the Facebook maelstrom that accompanied the rather thoughtful and sharply precise letter sent by Dean Ellison of the University of Chicago, it was little-remarked that Plato’s Republic – the cornerstone of the Western political-philosophical tradition, a formative text for many undergraduates and professors here – begins with the violent establishment of an intellectual safe space. Indeed, Plato’s larger dialogical-philosophical project can be read as a thorough, culture-defining attempt to think through, to dramatise and vividly stage for his theatre-obsessed polis the simple question: what makes for a good conversation about the truth? What makes a conversation real? Where is it that conversations come to an end? Why do they do so? In what kind of spaces do we feel free to think? With what kinds of interlocutors can we feel out the good? What jokes, stories, poems, songs, and images do we tell each other as we try to describe to one another the indescribable truth? What compels us to talk to one another about the things that matter most? What compels us to keep silent?
This is a lot. The gravity of the situation hits me in waves. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I had assumed the Obama coalition from 2012 would hold up, given that Obama had made a couple of speeches endorsing Clinton. Michelle had made a really strong one too. I had thought it would be the margin of Obama’s win over Romney, that the bad old familiar order would continue. I didn’t bother to look into the polls or the specific states in the Midwest more closely, Clinton was experienced enough and the Democratic GOTV machine strong enough to carry it home.
Seeing the results come in on 11 pm on Tuesday, I felt a sinking familiar to me from past election nights. I was now numb to the painful realization that the familiar, comfortable liberal world of the late 90s and early 2000s was ultimately over. This certainty has been exploded many times in my life now. I felt like when I did in Edinburgh in May 2014, preparing to move to Chicago in a couple of weeks but broken apart by the Modi BJP’s resounding win: a clear single-party majority for the most authoritarian candidate in India since Indira Gandhi. It reminded me of what I felt seeing David Cameron win a single-party majority in May 2015. Like Clinton this year, Ed Miliband of the Labour Party ran an unfocussed, uninspired campaign – dogged by a press more intent on bringing him down a peg than challenge Tory dogmas on deficit-spending. It reminded me of the Brexit referendum in June this year; another muddle-headed campaign for an admittedly unpleasant and imperfect status quo surprisingly lost to a clear, direct message – fuck ‘em.