Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

Does the New US Political Spectrum Signal a Renaissance of Democracy?

Rather than a “crisis” of representative democracy as many journalists and academics have contended since November 2016, the recent opening up of the political spectrum in the United States and elsewhere should be seen as an expression of a renaissance of democratic politics. And, yes, the left should thank the right—especially Donald J. Trump–for the role he has inadvertently played.

November 6, 2019 was another election day in which supporters of democracy rejoiced, and one in which Democrats should privately thank Trump. Just as in 2017 and 2018, the “Trump effect” helped raise electoral participation rates to levels not seen in decades and helped bring to office candidates previously written off as “unelectable” by the corporate media class. Over the past three years, all over the country, new office holders emerged who are either significantly further left than the norm of the post Reagan decades, and/or who publicly identify themselves with groups traditionally stigmatized or marginalized by the dominant political duopoly. The arrival of “the Squad” in November 2018, together with the Democrats’ nearly unprecedented forty seat gain in the House, was the tip of the iceberg of an expanding “effective enfranchisement” at the state and local level–the inclusion of groups who normally had nothing to gain from voting or participating. Democratic socialists, socialists, feminists, anti-racists, but also, transgender persons, women, latinx, people of color, youth have not just shown up at voting booths, they have arrived at city halls, state assemblies, and Capitol Hill.

Take Virginia, for example. Since 2017, the people of the Commonwealth elected, and recently re-elected, their first transgender state-level official, doubled the number of women in state office, brought a self-described socialist to state government, and welcomed the first Muslim woman to the House of Delegates. In 2019, grassroots, progressive, insurgent candidates helped Democrats take back both houses of the Virginia Legislature, together with the Governorship, for the first time in over 25 years, and they did this by defying centrist Democratic leadership. But this trend is not simply, as some suggest, a reflection of a “resistance” to Trump. Rather, the strong “leftward swing” arose out of a re-politicization of politics itself, through the opening up of the political horizon. Trump, despite himself, did not simply “wake up” everyday Americans from political apathy, he helped opened up the political spectrum, expanded the realm of the possible, especially on the left.

This “people’s wave” can best be described as a Trump-provoked—but markedly Trump transcending–renaissance in genuine politics, a sign of a new understanding of the political centered around both fighting adversaries and building movement coalitions driven by a new sense of what is achievable via collective action. This more plain-spoken and more fertile form of politics is embodied in the grassroots, insurgent candidates who speak directly to the people–especially groups ignored, instrumentalized, or infantilized by the political duopoly—while emphasizing the possibility of forging new political realities using an anti-elite aesthetic in the form of a colorful working-class coalition. Such “impossible” or “unelectable” candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar, Danica Roem or Ghazala Hashmi, accomplished “surprise” victories, as they manifested a new political horizon, a new sense of the “realistic.” A common strategy of these “insurgents” has been registering new voters while running on progressive programs that attract these new voters. In short, Trump’s push made participation more urgent at the same time that it has become more worthwhile. Organizing and voting transform from symbolic “civic duties” to rational political actions, from prophylactic measures against the worst to proactive undertakings for the sake of the best.

How did the arrival of a bona fide right wing—if not neo-fascist–candidate like Trump kindle a new sense of the politically possible for the left? First of all, Trump’s very victory signaled a double rupture with American politics as practiced for at least three to four decades. Trump won despite, if not thanks to, the mainstream media’s consistently negative coverage and, more importantly, the entire professional managerial class’s open hostility. The journalists, pundits, lawyers, intellectuals, and opinion leaders with the most social and cultural capital—supported by pollsters consultants and journalists, who often hid the worst polls regarding Clinton v Trump—stood united against him, with the exception of a few right wing enclaves and Fox news. He was supposed to lose, in both senses of “supposed,” but he won. Convincingly.

He was an insurgent in the primary and the general election; he beat and shocked the establishment. Trump showed a crack in the establishment’s ability to “manufacture consent,” but also the possibility of insurgency, whether from right or left. The gatekeepers were not longer impregnable. Politics was not a predetermined game. “Politics” was suddenly political again; nothing is truly political if it is predictable.

Just as importantly, Trump won in a particular way, triumphing against a particular understanding of politics. Carl Schmitt, early 20th century German jurist and political theorist—today associated with the “agonistic” or contentious view of democratic politics–posited two powerful critiques of political liberalism during the Weimar Republic. First, to expect that the constitution or laws will control whoever is in office, that, no matter what, basically decent outcomes will result from the electoral-juridicial process, misunderstands the concept and practice of sovereignty. Rather, the people in power are the ones who determine not only how to interpret law and constitution but also, when law or constitutional even apply. Secondly, and more relevant to today’s political atmosphere, politics ultimately revolves around fighting adversaries, not debating partners. Politics requires winning against a foe or an enemy; the best politicians understand that. Moreover, a democratic politics always implies the claim, “we are the many,” and that “they are the few.” Trump understood and embodied this contentious and popular understanding of democratic politics quite well.

In Schmittian terms, our nearly four lovely decades of global neoliberalism (1980-2020) reflected the “illusion of liberalism” in a new way. The illusion was no longer law and constitution together with “civil debate,” but it was markets and technocratic management. From Reagan to Obama, Thatcher to Brown, the establishment together with the professional managerial classes produced and reproduced the myth that “economic laws” and “market forces” would solve our problems outside of contentious politics. It did not matter whether left or right were in power, Democrat or Republic, Labour or Tory, SPD or CDU, the invisible hand of the market together with the trained hands of the economist would steer us to the common good. This resulted in the gradual melting away of the distinction between right and left, that up to 2016, saw dwindling voter participation in most of Western “democracies.” If Democrat and Republican offered the same policies, and appointed administrations from the same set of managerial professionals with very similar ideas of what was possible, then what conflict whatsoever? On both sides of the Atlantic 2016 ended this myth.

In 2016, of the candidates on the right Trump understood the adversarial nature of politics the best; on the left it was Sanders. Trump won the battle—because of a Democratic National Committee interference that demotivated potential voters and resulted in low Democratic voter participation—but, he is losing the war. Trump did name, and inveigh against, an adversary, and did claim he was representing “the many” when he promised to “clean the swamp.” But the enemy for Trump shifted from “the liberal elites” to “outsiders,” dark skinned immigrants. What he failed to take into account, is that the adversary were actually the many. The many he needed to carry out his plans resisted him at various points: his revolving cabinet, his many legal and political loses, testify to this.

Sanders, on the other hand, chose the right adversary, and the right allies: “the billionaires” and “working people of all backgrounds,” respectively. By definition, his would be allies—the coalition he aims to put together—vastly outnumber the adversary. More politically savvy than many in his own party in 2016, Sanders did not run against Trump, but against the billionaires and the system from which they benefit. As polls showed then and now, this was a winning strategy against Trump–setting aside for the moment the successful efforts to block him from within his own party. Sanders campaign motto has been “not me us,” since 2015. It is also interesting to point out that Jeremy Corbyn of Labour in the UK has the phrase “For the Many” stitched onto his suit jacket.

Yes, one might retort, but Marx also saw politics as conflict based on a friend/enemy distinction. But Marx saw class as the one real basis of the distinction, workers versus capitalists under capitalism. What Schmitt adds is that conflict can be based on a perceived adversarial relationship, that perception is essential. If Marx saw history and real material-social relations as responsible for conflict and ultimately for the working class’s awareness of that struggle (under any interpretation of Marxism); Schmitt gives more agency to the politics and the social movements that explicitly identify the adversary. Here, the left and the right meet. Here, we see why in moments when politics matter the most, clear distinctions, clear alternatives, matter. The wishy-washy center collapses because it does not give those disadvantaged or excluded by the status quo anything to fight for. Especially in electoral systems structured by binary distinctions, like that in the US or UK, a clear adversary is needed to mobilize and engage. There must be a “them” to fight against, or something to fight for, in order to overcome the despair and apathy that decades of neoliberalism has conditioned on our early 21st century political consciousness.

What the “new right” embodied in Trump and the “resurgent left” in Sanders both do away with the faded Republican/Democrat distinction, which no longer held in a neoliberal age where both parties stood united on economic and social policy—with the exception of essentially unpolitical lifestyle issues like sexuality. It is interesting to note that the collapse of many social democratic and some center right parties in Europe follows this same pattern of “neoliberalization,” where traditional mass parties lost the ability to distinguish themselves from each other. For the right, Trump finds a concrete adversary, not in the “Dems,” it is “corruption in Washington,” liberal elites, China, migrants/newcomers, and a hostile world “taking advantage” of America’s “generosity.”

For the left, Sanders identifies the fiend in the greedy billionaires and a political system beholden to moneyed interests at the expense of human rights. It goes without saying that one of these makes a far more convincing analysis of political reality, together with a pragmatic program for reform. The only way Trump could put his program into action would involve fascism, if not worse. The way Sanders would put his program into action is through tax and electoral reform, reforms successfully put into practice once put into place by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the US, or by Labour in the post-war UK. Moreover, Sanders wins in the short-term via a multiethnic, multigenerational, multigender working class coalition, in the long-term through the practical reforms which consolidate those allegiances. In the ethical battle, it is also clear who will come down on the right side of history, the one calling for a return to ethnocentrism and isolationism, or the one calling for pluralistic coalitions and human rights.

But another critical aspect of politics involves attention and sensibility: turning the public’s attention to an issue or problem. For Jacques Rancière, politics inevitably involves a “distribution of the sensible,” ordering and making particular people and issues visible, sensible, or intelligible, others less so. Trump’s 2016 campaign and victory, turned the public’s attention to the economic plight of rural (white) Americans, promising to bring back the jobs “shipped to China and Mexico”–issues that the neoliberal consensus of American politicians had taken for granted, trivialized, or made invisible with its “free trade,” “market-efficient” dogma. Trump’s anti-elite campaign and insurgent victory brought attention to the failed economic policies championed by the Duopoly for decades, like outsourcing, NAFTA, and liberal trade relations with China.

Criticism of “free” trade deals, critiques and critics of markets, was policed, in Rancierian terms, as outside of the realm of politics. Only “crazies” could question the fairness of “free trade” or the desirability of market distribution of common goods. Those who maintain and police that hegemonic order were and are precisely the professional managerial class that tends to be absorbed by the “Washington consensus” and the center of the political Duopoly in the United States, and by similar political centers elsewhere. Those who do the policing miscount and marginalize the interests of those outside this center. Again 2016 served as a break from a decades long consensus blind-spot.

Sanders brought public attention–”sensibilized” the public—to the same issues as Trump, but in a way that did not exclude or occlude that urban dwellers and non-whites, including immigrants, were also victims of the same failed trade and economic policies, and that they too have a right to better representation in Washington. That representation of working class interests–not reducible to “win-win” compromises between elites and masses–could not be achieved through mere “civility,” as Obama’s gentler status-quo presidency tended to show, as it preached “hope” not action. While the preacher-president Obama could only ask citizens to “be nice” to one another; organizer insurgents like Trump and Sanders urged mass mobilization. In this sense the 2016 presidential election was  between Trump and Sanders, but the latter was prevented by his own “allies” from entering the ring.

But there is one more decisive dimension of democratic politics that did not earn mass attention until after the 2016 election, a dimension especially important in times of change. Politics lives well outside formal institutions in the everyday activities, collective actions, and disruptions that constitute the “world” in which we live in. For Hannah Arendt, politics is ultimately about collective “world making,” in which people together decide and take action on the world in which they want to live in. Politics for Arendt involves inspiring the plural many. The Women’s March, the March for Our Lives, Black Lives Matter–the proliferation of protests and movements–and the return of grass roots, small-donor funded politics, helped “sensibilize” everyday Americans to the possibility of taking part in creating the world in which they want to live in. Apathy vanishes quickly when people see and feel that “the world” is on the line—which many literally clamor as climate and populist activism resonate.

World-making implies a recognition, “it does not have to be like this, if we act together.” Again, a view of politics diametrically opposed to market technocracy, which involves an implication that, “market laws dictate it must be like this.” Trump and Sanders mark the end of market truth and the return to an awareness that we make the world in which we live in, decide what “fair” trade is, what “human rights” are. Of the two, it is obvious who offers the more compelling answers to these questions, and the broader coalition. But at the end of the day, both should be credited with re-politicizing what had been taken for granted for decades. They tell us that neither democracy nor freedom can be delegated.

The phenomenon of Trump to Sanders–not to mention Brexit–amounts to the realization that it is not managerial elites and technocrats who determine what the world must be, but it is we who choose through our actions with others the world we create it. Populism has often been the epithet the professional managerial class employs to mark its loss of the narrative. A renaissance of democracy is the reality those taking part in the re-emergence of grassroots politics are consciously and actively creating.

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