Politics is Not a Safe Space: Neoliberalism and the Electoral Race to the Bottom

 

Poverty Rates in Appalachia, 2007–2011

Outside of self-imposed social media bubbles, history is not progressive like technology. While the march of technology changes how societies evolve in ways that no two eras are ever really the same, the cycle of the rise and fall of governments, regions, and classes continues with a somewhat random yet patterned process not dissimilar to biological evolution-itself not a progressive process in any demonstrable way. When I first reached adulthood and began to study history at the college level this was a harsh lesson to learn. In America and other countries like it we are fed a steady diet of individualism and liberal idealism from an early age. We want to believe, as the Puritans once did before they consumed themselves and burned out as a culture, that  we are at the forefront of a new era. We want to think history can be guided in such a way as to be manageable for everyone. This ignores that politics would not exist if convergent interests greatly outnumbered divergent interests. Most importantly, it ignores Ibn Khaldun‘s most prescient observation: that complacency breeds decline, that the losers of history often deserve to lose, and that the winners of today are the losers of tomorrow. It is the very act of winning that can be the most dangerous thing of all.

The Democratic Party at the national level became this complacent ruling elite, even while they kept losing house seats and state governorships. They had a bland faith in demographics and this restricted their campaigning only to certain swing state’s suburban enclaves. This strategy cost them an election they probably should have won. Women were assumed to be a safe bet, but white women ended up favoring Trump. Minorities were expected to just show up out of a sense of obligation and duty to a party that does not overtly hate them, Bill’s mass incarceration and drug wars and Hill’s ‘superpredators’ aside. The threat of Trump was supposed to keep the Obama coalition together. But the Obama coalition was first forged in a democratic primary against the Clintonian status quo. Even eight years later, it could not so easily flip to supporting that. Clinton did worse with all minority groups than Obama did, Trump did better than Romney with them. This is a massive failure on behalf of the Democratic Party.

The seeds of this failure were sown by Clinton. Not Hillary, but Bill. When Ronald Reagan became the first partially neoliberal president and Thatcher rose to power in the UK the mantra to their deregulation and free trade deals was ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA). The defeated left of center parties took heed and decided two could play this game. This led to Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Clinton would soon outstrip Reagan in his zeal to adopt the newest faddish ideas of governance of the post-Cold War era. The new Democratic Party was a party of globalized cities, and while big coastal regions thrived due to a complex combination of factors not necessarily related to these policies (Chinese growth, the arrival of the internet, etc) the rural areas of the country were written off as irrelevant to the future. Abandoned, left to rot, and with the government slashing domestic budgets for infrastructure and welfare, places like Appalachia withered on the vine. They were sacrificed on the altar of neoliberalism by a two party system in thrall to it. And nowhere was the betrayal bigger than Bill Clinton’s policy record. If you need proof, look at electoral maps from 92 and 96 then compare to 2000. So many states that backed Clinton against the Reagan-Bush consensus went to Bush Junior once Bill’s terms were up. Meanwhile, people took ‘thinkers’ such as Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman seriously despite the blatantly historically ignorant Kantianism they peddled about the end of history. History, however, has a nasty habit of never ending. This ideology was remarkably self-congratulating to the ruling class and their middle class henchmen in large cities, most of whom were liberals. It told them that the values they had been raised with were fundamentally correct, and that by living those values they were making a positive difference in the world, and that by merely thinking the right thoughts and using the right language they could make the world a better place. It may only now be becoming apparent to most of those people that this was delusion, but I have to say, I always saw this as delusion. So did others, but those others were shouted down consistently as being ‘unreasonable’ or ‘not serious’ or ‘not with the times.’

Had Dubya not had the good fortune to be president during the most massive terrorist attack in American history he likely would have been a single term president. He was able to use security issues to further ramp up the neoliberal drive which was now securitized. When asked during the surge of patriotism after 9/11 what the average American should do, the Bush administration responded with ‘go shopping.’ Civic responsibility was sought by the people only to be met with more market fundamentalism. The vagaries of a supposedly logical global market was not only now in charge of domestic policy-it ran foreign policy as well. Here the strains and cracks in the edifice really began to show. The blithe predictions for Iraq bore bitter and contradictory fruit. The war itself became so toxic it cost Hillary Clinton the democratic nomination, rightfully, and the Republicans the general election, also rightfully.

Obama ended the most odious influence of the evangelicals on domestic policy and reigned in (though did not significantly reduce) the neoliberal/neoconservative drive on foreign affairs, but while he did not accelerate the objectives of neoliberalism at home, he did absolutely nothing to stop them. He failed to undo enough of the odious Bush legacy but ironically was able to scale back many worst excesses of Clinton era policies such as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, The Defense of Marriage Act, the fever pitch of the War on Drugs, and the massive deregulation of speculating financiers. Even the affordable care act, which I admit I have directly benefited from, was really a gift to insurance companies and further entrenched the for profit civics model this country has adopted since the 80s.

Appalachia, non-farming rural enclaves of the midwest and south, and significant chunks of remote regions continued to suffer and be neglected. Rather than appeal to these people who obviously have nothing to gain from Republican theories of governance, the Democrats wrote them off as irrelevant and cast blame on them for supporting many of the policies the democratic party itself once espoused. Obama won by getting people in Florida and Ohio to recognize the horror of Bushism, but all the while the Democratic Party did nothing to substantively address many of those concerns. And yet it expected, if not demanded, people vote for them anyway. Worse still was their liberal minions outside of the party who assumed that what was good for New York City (where both campaigns and most mainline media were headquartered, it should be noted) was good for the country. They also assumed that the neoliberal consensus and the bland liberal language it used for legitimacy was not the problem-just who managed this consensus was. For a decade I have tried to convince people this was not so, and I and many people far more famous than I failed utterly in the face of this delusional alternate reality by the 21st Century bourgeoisie. We warned, correctly, that if a smart alternative to this hegemony was not presented than a dumb reactionary one would be. Trump is a new Obama, electorally speaking. He built a coalition of those dissatisfied and in so doing showed the fragility and unpopularity of the status quo.

Is this to discount the role racism and possibly sexism plays in these regions? No. And it is precisely those factors that made it important to control the backlash against the bipartisan financial interests in America. Having failed to take heed from the more observant people on the left and even the occasional clever paleocon, the liberals and centrists sowed the seeds of their own destruction. The best they could hope for was meliorist Clintonite ‘triangulation’, and this became increasingly unappealing to everyone. As it is, identity politics has clearly failed. The world is not a safe space, and a bunch of liberal theorists ignoring actual material and structural issues, writing off class or in fact actively being classist (especially towards people who do not live in cities) is an ideology for the complacent and lazy and nothing more. This is further shown by the fact that these people only get fired up about the presidency and never really bother with midterms. It is a testament to the intellectual bankruptcy and irrelevancy of 21st century liberalism that people sharing JK Rowling quotes and suggesting *all* opposition to them must be rooted in prejudice of some personal identity is assumed to be ‘woke’ and that the solution to this is some sort of vague ‘awareness’ and moralistic posturing. The fact is, liberals are not intellectually superior to conservatives and they never really were. I may find them personally somewhat more palatable largely due to social issues, but I see both of them as deeply complacent ideologies that avoid critical thinking in favor of sounding righteous and upholding some form of doctrinal status quo. People arguing for political discourse on college campuses to be made as safe as their parents suburban mcmansion are not people talking about real issues that impact people in real physical space. People who do not have the privilege of being perpetually outraged by the casting of movies or a dumb joke because they struggle to survive are not won over by this middle class fatuousness. Navel-gazing is for those who prioritize their personal feelings and the liberal concept of individualism and virtue signaling becomes a form of self-branding regarded as superior to civic responsibility. Worst of all, and as I once warned, this tip to identity politics was inevitably going to picked up by the other side, the side who deals in overt race baiting. This has been my fear ever since I first learned of politics via identity back in college. Liberals cannot castigate rural whites for being identity voters when they so clearly opened that door of political acceptability for them. Like imitates like, and under neoliberalism they both spiral down together in a race for the basest form to turn out the largest amount of famously ignorant undecided voters. It is, after all, the logic of free market capitalism that one’s civic duty exists for purposes of self-fulfillment. This is an ideological point no other successful society has ever engaged in, probably because it is blatantly untrue.

What is most insufferable is the liberal pretense to great wisdom merely by *not* being conservative. It is a low standard, and when you set such low standards it drags both sides down. Much in the same way that Clintonism made the Democratic Party abandon the working class and its union core for faddish ideology and therefore lost much of its traditional support. The SensibleSerious consensus creates a large swath of disaffected voters with nothing to lose. Both parties, working together, made this happen. Both parties, in their own way, will suffer for it. So will the country at-large, who had much less say the implementation of these policies.

And that brings us to the centrists, a group of people who I have previously made my feelings of intense disdain quite clear. Since Bill Clinton, the liberals have basically meshed with the center with the partial exception of immediately after 9/11. But the center is a place of laziness which always represents the current status quo-and these days that status quo is an ecological and regional destroying neoliberalism. Now, back in Bill’s day this was a new thing worth giving a shot, but no longer. It is dead. Even if you support it, you must acknowledge that. Brexit and Greece were merely the precursors. Want electoral proof? In all the post-Bill presidential elections the candidate who was a less doctrinaire neoliberal won over the one who was more. Or to be more specific, centrists always lose in the 21st Century. Gore, Kerry, McCain, Romney, Clinton (II): all the more traditionally centrist candidates. Centrism isn’t just intellectually sloppy, its a recipe for losing as well. No one likes centrists, and given their record in this century, no one should. In primaries this was especially obvious. Hillary Clinton’s perpetual running on the presidency and career as a milquetoast senator striking unsustainable bargains with a loathed two party system smacks of Henry Clay, a historical figure no one admires any more nor wishes to emulate. The democratic party itself reminds me of the Whigs-an unstable coalition that devours opposition movements with actual ideas in order to present a bland front against the party that holds the initiative.

There is a final key to Trump’s victory people might talk about later but haven’t so far that I have seen: endorsements hurt and castigation helps, *especially* from the media. The late night comedians which were so entertaining and good at poking holes in the paranoid post-9/11 consensus did not keep their credit as those who speak truth to power, but rather became establishment cheerleaders. They sacrificed their vital role as the opposition for one of a deeply partisan cheerleader. As these various talk show hosts and actors lined up to condescendingly urge people to vote for the democrats they unintentionally aided the narrative that the media was all for Clinton, that the ruling classes controlled everything to get the result they wanted. It is B.S. of course, plenty of the ruling class supports Trump and he has no trouble attracting upper income voters. But the comedian/actor axis made it an obnoxious reality that people in affluent cities wanted something, and considering their previous track record on what they want and how those policies effect other parts of the country. If one wanted to, say, ‘Make Comedy Great Again’ it should go after the entire system, not just one half of its Janus-face.

America does not deserve Trump as a whole, but liberals and conservatives do, and neoliberals especially. They made him by creating the conditions for his rise. If history is a guide however I do not expect them to learn this lesson as they never have before. Instead, they will lash out at everyone they can to avoid taking personal responsibility. They will fail to recognize that it was their candidate’s record, not her gender (though it likely played a subsidiary role), that was the primary reason for her loss. They will probably blame minorities for not showing up to vote, rather than themselves for not giving much of a reason for said minorities to vote as they had before. The smug condescension of Manhattan and Los Angeles returns to its traditional role as reflexive defense mechanism. People like me who saw the dangers lurking in this neoliberal system will be the ones they will blame for their own failures. I cannot count the amount of times that I personally got talked down to on issues involving minorities by people who are entirely white, affluent,  and straight. I am none of those things. I fear what might happen in a Trump presidency as much if not more than these people-but this did not happen in a vacuum and it was the liberals who were at least half of the enablers.

But this potential for at least intellectual and grassroots organizational upheaval will be surrendered and sacrificed to the right alone if major changes are not made to the dark and desperate future of having Henry Clay liberals be the primary opposition. Ironically it is the America-First candidate who has destroyed the myths of American Exceptionalism once and for all by making our right wing so blatantly European. That honesty could at least free up all sides to be more intellectually rigorous, not just one. But that requires looking beyond the consensus of the SensibleSerious™.

FOREIGN POLICY:

American elections are important to everyone, so it was worth talking about on this blog. But this is a primarily foreign policy blog and so we should now deal specifically with foreign policy issues. This is no mean task given the many contradictory statements Trump has made.

The most important and concerning thing is the cavalier attitude Trump has regarding Asia-Pacific relations. The most important countries in the world for U.S. interests are in that region and the second and third largest economies also dwell there. Hyper-nationalism and territorial disputes are legion. And no matter what the British say, the U.S.-Japan Security Agreement is the world’s most important and stable alliance. It comes closer to the bedrock of global stability than any other bilateral relationship. It is also unique in modern history for bringing together two countries which are so globally powerful for so long. Trump has been openly dismissive of this alliance, asking why the Japanese do not pay for themselves, when in fact they have been quite good at doing so. In fact, Japan payed most of the expenses of the first Persian Gulf War.

The status of this alliance is the most concerning foreign policy issue of a Trump presidency. Coupled with a trade-tariff war with China it could be a recipe for disaster. One fear I can at least tone down, however, is that of Japan acquiring a stronger and more autonomous defense. This has been in the workings for almost a decade. A great power can only be governed like a banana republic for so long. For obvious historical reasons Japan may prove more reticent to acquire a nuclear deterrent, but I do not believe it would be inherently destabilizing if it did so. Still, the alliance should be maintained.

In China, Xi Jinping is a far more intelligent leader than either Clinton or Trump, but especially Trump. It remains to be seen what opportunities this might open up to to the PRC, if any.

Europe represents opportunity in equal parts to danger. A vast over-estimation of Russia’s conventional capabilities due to a few flashy brushfire victories over smaller armies in remote theaters often guides American grand strategy, but Russia probably could be contained so long as Germany, France, and Poland stick together. Especially so if the UK stays with them, but that is less certain as we see how Brexit shapes up. The most likely reason Putin wants Trump is not some childish liberal conspiracy theory of Manchurian candidacy but rather because he expects he can run circles around him at the negotiating table. It is ever so slightly possible that some kind of mutual bargain could be struck between the two Bros-in-Chief.

The one decided potential benefit here is that Trump will probably be better than Clinton in the Middle East and possibly Africa as well. Gone will be the tone of the preaching humanitarian racist that has bungled US policy towards Africa for decades and driven important countries into the arms of the Chinese. The expansion of AFRICOM might get a more critical eye-though that remains a big maybe. Most importantly, the odds we will attack the government of Syria have gone from somewhere around say 70% under Clinton to about nil now. This is the only true demonstrable gain I can see from this election in either foreign or domestic policy for the average person-but it is (potentially) a gain. One of the few issues that Trump was consistently right on was the need to go after ISIS alone and not fight 3 sided conflicts where our intervention is not needed. Considering how utterly disastrous, deadly, and expensive 21st Century regime change policies from Iraq to Libya have been, with unintended consequences of causing surges in terrorist attacks (which in turn fuel the far right) this could be a truly concrete benefit not only for foreign policy people like me of the realist persuasion but in breaking up the neocon establishment in DC proper.

So us geostrategists have to be even more wary than usual in the near future. Uncertainty is high. But there is hope for some new ideas and a re-orientation of a neoliberal hegemony quite long in the tooth to keep representing U.S. (and others) strategic interests. That vague hope does not, however, allay my fears for various minority communities in this new era. But as there was a big backlash to Bushism on social issues that ended up winning the argument far more effectively than Democratic meliorism would have, so too that fight should never be given up. Let this be the shock to renew it with vigor rather than simply wait for the mythical liberal fairy tale of ‘inevitable progress’ to happen. Those of us against the rising global tide of reactionary identity politics can have a bright future indeed if they reject neoliberalism, complacent cosmopolitanism, ‘woke’ classisism, and the other faith based homilies that got them in this mess in the first place.

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