Monday, January 23, 2017

Electoral quakes and the establishment: A new world approaching?

By Denis Melnik and Andrés Lazzarini (Guest bloggers)

As the first days of Donald Trump’s presidency unfold, the prevalent attitude to his surprising victory among the various breed of the liberal intelligentsia all over the globe is pretty much the same as it was on the morning of November 9, 2016 — that of a profound shock. Apart of purely emotional reactions (ranging from desperate ‘Bernie could have won’ to hopeful ‘Trump will be impeached almost immediately’), this shock reveals itself in attempts to rationalize what those intellectuals regard as ‘irrational’ in familiar and comforting terms. The terms were provided by what had started as a pre-election narrative postulating why a ‘bigot’, ‘misogynist’, ‘white supremacist’, ‘fascist’, etc. simply could not have won the election, and was supposed to culminate in authoritative post-election covers of Madam President’s victory. That narrative was happily going hand-in-hand with the data provided by political scientists. The latter had all the tools available from their powerful analytical arsenal to prove the imminent failure of Trump; on the election night it happened so that they had to reposition themselves, and to explain the failure of the data ‘on air’. The narrative itself did not remain orphan even for a moment though: it was adopted to explain ‘Madam President’s’ loss. Its psychoanalytical potential is undermined, however, by the need to interpret how the win of the person with such disparaging characteristics was possible at all.

Even if the models of modern political science at times can be somewhat loose, it is the reliable source of plausible and comforting (for some) post-factum interpretations appropriate for becoming the commonplace (post-) truths. The interpretation of the 2016 election focused attention on the three Rust Belt ‘swing states’ accounting for roughly 70,000 majority of popular vote. Precisely these votes, according to the established narrative, actually delivered Trump to the presidency (see, however, a more nuanced analysis here).

A day before the election, the visionary U.S. Vice-President Biden had called on some understanding, even empathy, towards Trump’s supporters: ‘We’ve got to figure out […] what is eating at them.’ Shortly thereafter, ‘they’ were located among the Rust-Belt 70,000. It were those (presumably) male voters that became the locus of therapeutic exercises for the liberal intelligentsia. The number is comfortably meager as compared with over 2.8 mln. Hillary Clinton’s lead in the nationwide popular vote; the anomaly is confined to an inward region of cultural and economic backwardness as confronted with the progressive coastal and metropolitan areas (which allow for a liberal use of habitual ‘postmodern’ pattern of explanation dealing largely with ‘cultures’, ‘identities’, ‘gender’, and the like); the angst over the anomaly can be safely channeled into external causes (the very backwardness of ‘theirs’, the electoral college system, alleged Russian hacking, etc.)

Still, the location of the anomaly did not preclude the search for ‘what is eating at them’. There emerged two major modes of explanation: a ‘psychological’ one (the frustration of undereducated, poor white male voters lost in the changing cultural landscape), and an ‘economic’ one (the discontent of the undereducated, poor white working-class voters hit hard by deindustrialization). The two modes are not incompatible: after all, according to mass-media outlets, ‘working class’ usually stands for men (for some mysterious reasons the mass-media do not regard women working either at their homes or outside as ‘working-class’). But while the first perfectly fits into the ‘post-modern’ pattern, the second is rather heterogeneous as it revives the elements of the ‘obsolete’ reality from a mass-production era. Indeed, with the advent of the notion of post-industrial society, first among sociologists since the 1970s, but later among economists as well, the idea that large scale industrial production was dying had become common wisdom by the 1990s. By the very same period, in the wake of the Soviet disruption and the fall of the Berlin wall, it had been merged with the notion of globalization; and both notions contributed to acceptance and spread of the neoliberal consensus both in the academia and in the progressive public discourse. These notions reshaped the understanding of the future trends. If in the 1970s–80s the evidence of deterioration of formerly thriving industrial and urban areas were generally considered as the signs of a general economic and social decline, since the 1990s the depressed areas around the former centers of industrial production were seen as a by-product of progress: some unpleasant (and temporary) evidence of a coming global, digitalized and anonymized order. The story of the ‘lost’ regions and industries was told in terms of a statistical tendency: that of constantly declining share of manufacture in GDP, and of manufacturing workers in the labor force. The practice of outsourcing, the urge to sign of free-trade agreements (during the Clinton era in the 1990s as well as during Obama’s terms) and the creation of the ‘global value chains’, sanctified in the authoritative sources on management, only reinforced the discourse further — one simply cannot be progressive if not to side with the actual way of progress. For some other mysterious reasons we are all told time and again that this alleged path towards progress and enhancement is the product of some natural force in the era of ‘post-industrial’ production in which each individual should release her creativity that will pay off sooner or later according to their merits – and not to their patrimony - of each individual. After all, the story goes, all of us have merits (human assets, human capital) – it is up to each of us to release them in full.

In the new millennium means of production lost its significance to production of meaning. The working class was substituted by the ‘creative class.’ And the creative class of the world was effectively united by Facebook and other social networks of choice. Its major champions were creative indeed: they created the brand new industry of urbanism promoting their enlightened, valuable (and high-priced) expertise on gentrification and the other means of ‘post-modernization’ of the cities in decay. But it was a win-win game. The virtual reality allowed for a fair share of ‘likes’ for all, and the senses created by a new global value chain of symbolical production did produce the sense of participation among the aspirant cadres from the peripheral belts of the ‘global village’ (or, rather, ‘Greenwich Village’). A real world was conveniently represented by the newsfeed on a screen of an iPhone (preferably in a Starbucks); only the Hope was needed, and it was delivered in abundance. Alas, the Great Recession endangered the consumption of lattes and smoothies among the ‘creative class’, and proved that the discontent of the ‘working class’ in some cases cannot be relieved by urbanism alone, nor by any of the other virtual prosperous villages.

‘What’s eating at them?’ had been long in the air before November 9, 2016. But it seems that the ‘economic’ mode of approaching the question would have remained confined to a restricted circle of old-fashioned radicals, only rarely and condescendingly noticed by the progressive left, unless for the series of political quakes. It was again the political science that breached the established ‘post-modern’ pattern. By the time of the 2016 U.S. election the talks on the crisis of globalization and the major blow to the neoliberal consensus due to economic troubles of the ‘old’ sectors of the advanced economies had ceased to be regarded as eccentric. Initially the rise of ‘populist’ movements with their pleas for protectionism and nationalism was conceived as a political aftershock to the world economic crisis (and, more recently, to the wave of immigration); the aftershock that might have delivered a number of parliamentary seats to the newcomers, but not to shake the established bipolar (centre-left – centre-right) political order in the advanced economies (the electoral successes of populist and nationalist parties in Hungary and Poland were largely regarded as the excesses of young democracies to be corrected by the influence of the EU apparatus). It was the start of the anti-establishment U.S. primaries in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected rise, the Brexit vote in June 2016, which let into the mainstream discourse the idea that economic discontent can be translated into real political changes. Shocking as it was for the whole class of public opinion makers, Trump’s win was a verification of the hypothesis that had already emerged out of the previous experience. And afterwards, all other electoral events in the advanced economies have started to be seen under the light of this hypothesis: as its further verification. It was the case of the prolonged and inconclusive presidential elections in Austria (where the right-wing candidate at last failed); even more so it was the case of constitutional referendum in Italy on December 4, 2016. In the latter case, Matteo Renzi, then Prime Minister, a whiz-kid to Nicolò Machiavelli and Nelson Mandela (most likely with Mother Theresa as a midwife), a self-proclaimed communication guru (he uses his iPhone as masterly as Macbook), and a self-esteemed Latin Obama, managed to transform otherwise rather secondary electoral event into the reality show — to receive finally the international fame he fully deserved. The next test is the coming presidential election in France, where a bunch of gifted centre-left and centre-right political leaders did their best to support the cause of Le Pen family.

But here we are leaving the electoral analysis for the realm of political science models (assuming they are much more advanced now, than prior to November 2016), in order to concentrate on the hypothesis itself — the hypothesis, let us recall, that underlies an ‘economic’ understanding of the series of electoral quakes. ‘Trumpquake’ was strong enough to make the mainstream political discourse to embrace the notion of revolution (see here and here). Putting this ‘political revolution’ on economic grounds of deindustrialization and other negative effects of globalization, combined with the impact of the economic recession and slowdown on incomes and opportunities only made the notion more plausible. Again, there is nothing at odds with the idea that Trump’s victory was based on economic discontent of certain social groups, which would prevent using it as an element in therapeutic exercises of the liberal intelligentsia, that is in development of Freudian-like narratives. Generally, in such exercises it is just a background for narrating, and not the narrative itself: there is nothing in economic issues to make them even nearly as exciting as the search for a ‘father figure.’ True, the vast majority of the low-income recipients voted against Trump, while high-income classes opted for the billionaire only on a slight edge difference against Clinton. The huge absentee for election-day, which would otherwise have had other effects, can be interpreted as the big failure of the Dems to actually deal with the economic consequences of free-trade liberalization on the once-booming manufacturing workers.

Still, economic understanding of recent political history has its own logic, which is in its essence alien to the mainstream approach, centered on subjective psychological phenomena and their social objectification in forms of ‘identities’, ‘cultures’, ‘minorities’, all echoed by many mass-media outlets. Only one step from here is needed to postulate that the objective ‘economic forces’, rather than a variety of subjective representations and projections, is in fact the driver of historical processes; and that political and social effects of ‘economic forces’ may well differ from the desires and expectations for the future shared by respectable, present-day opinion-makers.

Such an understanding very much resembles a certain old-fashioned doctrine, originated in the works of an obscure and pretty ‘modernist’ 19th-century author. The notion of revolution as the ultimate means to ensure the compatibility between economy and society was central to that doctrine either — even if the proponents of that doctrine usually saw the revolution as an outcome of long conscious activity, rather than an unexpected break of the political prediction models. Even here, however, history is able to make a sarcastic grin: Steve Bannon, who urged the Trump team to concentrate efforts on white ‘working-class’ electorate of the states previously considered to be Democratic firewall, once allegedly proclaimed himself a ‘Leninist.’

It would have been really remarkable if the ‘post-modernist’ discourse were to embrace, even occasionally, a ‘modernist’ doctrine of historical process. It was not the case, however. A political revolution it was not — there were no change in any basic institution of the advanced economies.

There is a shift in political reality underway, but it was not an abrupt change in social and economic reality. True, Trump’s victory may dreadfully frighten those who eight years ago deemed Obama’s term as a hopeful and democratic paradise. But the fact is that the capitalist system is restructuring itself, back again to boost the domestic production (of the advanced economies) before any truly anti-capitalist threat may take roots. This political shift in the political reality on the globe does not in the least mean a break with neoliberalism and globalization – while we may await for increasing public expenditure on military and infrastructure, much alike to what Reagan did in the eighties, there is no reason to expect a tyranny now, which may break ties with the other economies of the world. There are no revolutions, but electoral quakes within the established circle of mass establishment options staging on the democratic playground of the global village. It is not the notorious ‘glass ceiling’ that is to be shattered, rather the mirror between the established class of the opinion-makers and reality of the modern world.


  1. Very nuanced. Worth digesting. Thanks, Matias, for curating.

  2. Thanks Matias for posting and sharing the piece; and thanks Steve for your feedback. Andres