Katie & Max Blumenthal React To Biden’s “Democracy Speech.”
00:00:00 intro to Biden’s Speech
00:02:00 The “Beltway Uniparty”
00:02:56 Biden has always been a Right Wing Democrat
00:03:32 Dystopian setting
00:04:50 Why Biden is like Roger Waters
00:08:20 Katie starts streaming Biden speech
00:08:55 The real threats ignored by Biden
00:11:53 What is normal?
00:13:27 This is an American exceptionalism speech
00:13:43 Biden Intensified Trump’s Policies
00:14:58 Biden called MAGA Republicans “semi fascists” in private speech
00:15:31 Biden’s Press Sec defined extremists
00:17:12 How Republicans have disenfranchised people
00:18:04 the 2000 election was stolen
00:18:37 Are people who say the 2000 election was stolen election deniers?
John Roberts represented the Chamber of Commerce in private practice.
Before Roberts, the Chamber’s preferred position was chosen 50% of the time.
Under Roberts, 70% of the cases are decided in the Chamber’s favor.
Before John Roberts, Lewis Powell represented the Chamber on the Court
Even the “Left-wing” supports the Chamber:
- 53% Steven Breyer
- 48% Sonya Sotomayer
The corporate media almost never covers these corporate law issues.
They want to distract from the corporate issues with social issues.
Environmental issues (Climate Change) are barely part of the converstation.
Why is Donald Trump’s “big lie” so hard to discredit?
This has been a live question for more than a year, but inside it lies another: Do Republican officials and voters actually believe Trump’s claim that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election by corrupting ballots — the same ballots that put so many Republicans in office — and if they do believe it what are their motives?
A December 2021 University of Massachusetts-Amherst survey found striking linkages between attitudes on race and immigration on one hand and disbelief in the integrity of the 2020 election on the other.
According to the poll, two-thirds of Republicans, 66 percent, agreed that “the growth of the number of immigrants to the U.S. means that America is in danger of losing its culture and identity” and the same percentage of Republicans are convinced that “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate with voters from poorer countries around the world.”
Divisions over racial equality were closely related to perceptions of the 2020 presidential election and the Capitol attack. For example, among those who agreed that White people in the United States have advantages based on the color of their skin, 87 percent believed that Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate; among neutrals, 44 percent believed it was legitimate; and among those who disagreed, only 21 percent believed it was legitimate. Seventy percent of people who agreed that White people enjoy advantages considered the events of Jan. 6 to be an insurrection; 26 percent of neutrals described it that way; and only 10 percent who disagreed did so, while 80 percent of this last group called it a protest. And while 70 percent of those who agreed that White people enjoy advantages blamed Trump for the events of Jan. 6, only 34 percent of neutrals did, and a mere 9 percent of those who disagreed did.
According to experts I asked, Republican elected officials who either affirm Donald Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was corrupt, or refuse to call Trump out, base their stance on a sequence of rationales.
Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, sees the origin of one rationale in demographic trends:
I believe much of the polarization and discord in national politics comes from changing demographics. Robert Jones of P.R.R.I. writes about this in “The End of White Christian America” and I think this is a source of many politico-cultural divisions and plays out in electoral politics. There is an America (“American dream”) that many whites were privileged to know growing up and it now seems to be evaporating or at least becoming subservient to other cultural ideals and norms. So that spurs anxiety and it is translated to the language and posture of politics.
McCurry went on:
I think otherwise well-meaning G.O.P. senators who flinch when it comes to common sense and serving the common good do so because they have no vocabulary or perspective which allows them to deal with the underlying changes in society. They feel the changes, they know constituents whom they otherwise like who feel the changes, but they cannot figure out how to lower the level of angst.
Some maintain that another rationale underpinning submission to the lie is that it is signals loyalty to the larger conservative cause.
Musa al-Gharbi, a sociologist at Columbia, pointed out in an email that acceptance of Trump’s false claims gives Republican politicians a way of bridging the gap between a powerful network of donors and elites who back free trade capitalism and the crucial bloc of white working-class voters seeking trade protectionism and continued government funding of Social Security and Medicare:
Embracing the Big Lie is an empty approach to populism for a lot of these politicians. It allows them to cast their rivals, and the system itself, as corrupt — to cash in on that widespread sentiment — and to cast themselves as exceptions to the rule. It allows them to portray themselves as allies of “the people,” but without actually changing anything in terms of the policies they advocate for, in terms of how they do business.
For those Republicans leaders, al-Gharbi continued, “who are the swamp, or could be reasonably construed as such, it is important to create an apparent distance from ‘the establishment.’ Flirting with the Big Lie is a good way of doing so.”
Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and a senior fellow at Brookings, noted in an email that “fear of electoral retribution from Trump — and from Republican voters — drives Senate G.O.P. reluctance to break with Trump.”
The former president, she continued,
has succeeded in reshaping the G.O.P. as “his” party. This electoral dynamic applies in spades to Republicans’ unwillingness to challenge Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection — or like Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell to back down from their initial criticisms. It seems as if fealty to Trump’s alternative version of the events of Jan. 6 is the litmus test for Republicans.
The underlying policy agreements between Republican incumbents and Trump reinforces these straightforward concerns over re-election, in Binder’s view:
For all of Trump’s nativist immigration, trade, and “America First” views, he was lock step with Republicans on cutting taxes and regulations and stacking the courts with young conservatives. In that light, certainly while Trump was in office, Senate Republicans held their noses on any anti-democratic behavior and stuck with Trump to secure the policies they craved.
Along similar lines, Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, observes that Republican elected officials make their calculations based on the goal of political survival:
What perhaps looks like collective derangement to many outside the party ranks is really just raw political calculation. The best strategy for regaining Congressional control is to keep Trump and his supporters inside the party tent, and the only way to do that is to go along with his myths in order to get along with him.
This approach, Cain continued, “is the path of least political resistance. Trump in 2016 demonstrated that he could win the presidency” while rejecting calls to reach out to minorities, by targeting a constituency that is “predominantly white and 80 percent conservative.” Because of its homogeneity, Cain continued, “the Republican Party is much more unified than the Democrats at the moment.”
While there was considerable agreement among the scholars and strategists whom I contacted that Republican politicians consciously develop strategies to deal with what many privately recognize is a lie, there is less agreement on the thinking of Republican voters.
How could the “Big Lie” campaign convince so many Republicans that Trump won an election he so clearly lost? Some observers wonder whether these beliefs are genuine or just an example of “expressive responding,” a term social scientists use to mean respondents are using a survey item to register a feeling rather than express a real belief.
In their own analysis of poll data, Cuthbert and Theodoridis concluded that most Republicans are true believers in Trump’s lie:
Apparently, Republicans are reporting a genuine belief that Biden’s election was illegitimate. If anything, a few Republicans may, for social desirability reasons, be using the “I’m not sure” option to hide their true belief that the election was stolen.
Al-Gharbi sharply disputes this conclusion:
Most Republican voters likely don’t believe in the Big Lie. But many would nonetheless profess to believe it in polls and surveys, and would support politicians who make similar professions, because these professions serve as a sign of defiance against the prevailing elites, they serve as signs of group solidarity and commitment.
Poll respondents, he continued,
often give the factually wrong answer about empirical matters, not because they don’t know the empirically correct answer, but because they don’t want to give political fodder to their opponents with respect to their preferred policies. And when one takes down the temperature on these political stakes, again, often the differences on ‘the facts’ also disappear.
One way to test how much people actually believe something, al-Gharbi wrote, “is to look out for yawning gaps between rhetoric and behaviors.” The fact that roughly 2,500 people participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection suggests that the overwhelming majority of Republicans do not believe the election was stolen no matter what they tell pollsters, in al-Gharbi’s view:
If huge shares of the country, 68 percent of G.O.P. voters, plus fair numbers of Independents and nonvoters, literally believed that we were in a moment of existential crisis, and the election had been stolen, and the future was at stake — why is it that only a couple thousand could muster the enthusiasm to show up and protest at the Capitol? In a world where 74 million voted for Trump, and more than two-thirds of these (i.e. more than 50 million people, roughly 1 out of every 5 adults in the U.S.) actually believed that the other party had illegally seized power and plan to use that power to harm people like themselves, the events of Jan. 6 would likely have played out much, much differently.
Whatever the motivation, Isabel V. Sawhill, a Brookings senior fellow, warned that Republican leaders and voters could be caught in a vicious cycle:
There may be a dynamic at work here in which an opportunistic strategy to please the Trump base has solidified that base, making it all the more difficult to take a stance in opposition to “whatever-Trump-wants.” It’s a Catch-22. To change the direction of the country requires staying in power but staying in power requires satisfying a public, a large share of whom has lost faith in our institutions, including the mainstream media and the democratic process.
Jake Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington, noted in an email that the “big lie” fits into a larger Republican strategy: “In an economically unequal society, it is important for the conservative economic party to use culture war politics to win elections because they are unlikely to win based on their economic agenda.”
“There are a number of reasons why some Republican elites who were once anti-Trump became loyal to Trump,” Grumbach continued:
First is the threat of being primaried for failing to sufficiently oppose immigration or the Democratic Party, a process that ramped up first in the Gingrich era and then more so during the Tea Party era of the early 2010s. Second is that Republican elites who were once anti-Trump learned that the Republican-aligned network of interest groups and donors — Fox News, titans of extractive and low wage industry, the NRA, evangelical organizations, etc. — would mostly remain intact despite sometimes initially signaling that they would withhold campaign contributions or leave the coalition in opposition to Trump.
Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, took a different tack, arguing that Republican members of Congress, especially those in the Senate, would like nothing better than to have the “big lie” excised from the contemporary political landscape:
I disagree with the premise that many senators buy into the “big lie.” Congressional Republicans’ stance toward the events of Jan. 6 is to move on beyond them. They do not spend time rebuking activists who question the 2020 outcome, but they also do not endorse such views, either. With rare exception, congressional Republicans do not give floor speeches questioning the 2020 elections. They do not demand hearings to investigate election fraud.
Instead, Lee argued, “Many Republican voters still support and love Donald Trump, and Republican elected officials want to be able to continue to represent these voters in Washington.” The bottom line, she continued, is that
Republican elected officials want and need to hold the Republican Party together. In the U.S. two-party system, they see the Republican Party as the only realistic vehicle for contesting Democrats’ control of political offices and for opposing the Biden agenda. They see a focus on the 2020 elections as a distraction from the most important issues of the present: fighting Democrats’ “tax and spend” initiatives and winning back Republican control of Congress in the 2022 midterms.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist, argues that
Trump lives by Machiavelli’s famous maxim that fear is a better foundation for loyalty than love. G.O.P. senators don’t fear Trump personally; they fear his followers. Republican politicians are so cowed by Trump’s supporters you can almost hear them moo.
Trumpism, Begala wrote in an email, “is more of a cult of personality, which makes fealty to the Dear Leader even more important. How else do you explain 16 G.O.P. senators who voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006, all refusing to even allow it to be debated in 2022?”
Begala compares Senator Mitch McConnell’s views of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 — “America’s history is a story of ever-increasing freedom, hope and opportunity for all. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 represents one of this country’s greatest steps forward in that story. Today I am pleased the Senate reaffirmed that our country must continue its progress towards becoming a society in which every person, of every background, can realize the American dream” — to McConnell’s stance now: “This is not a federal issue; it ought to be left to the states.”
Republican politicians, in Begala’s assessment,
have deluded themselves into thinking that Trump and the Big Lie can work for them. The reality is the opposite: Republican politicians work for Trump and the Big Lie. And they may be powerless to stop it if and when Trump uses it to undermine the 2024 presidential results.
It is at this point, Begala continued, “where leadership matters. Trump stokes bigotry, he sows division, he promotes racism, and when other G.O.P. politicians fail to disavow Trump’s divisiveness, they abet it. What a contrast to other Republican leaders in my lifetime.”
Like Begala, Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at M.I.T., was blunt in his analysis:
There’s generally a lack of nuance in considering why Republican senators fail to abandon Trump. Whereas Reagan spoke of the 11th Commandment, Trump destroyed it, along with many of the first 10. He is mean and vindictive and speaks to a set of supporters who are willing to take their energy and animus to the polling place in the primaries — or at least, that’s the worry. They are also motivated by racial animus and by Christian millennialism.
These voters, according to Stewart,
are not a majority of the Republican Party, but they are motivated by fear, and fear is the greatest motivator. Even if a senator doesn’t share those views — and I don’t think most do — they feel they can’t alienate these folks without stoking a fight. Why stoke a fight? Few politicians enter politics looking to be a martyr. Mainstream Republican senators may be overestimating their ability to keep the extremist genie in the bottle, but they have no choice right now, if they intend to continue in office.
Philip Bobbitt, a professor of law at Columbia and the University of Texas, argued in an email that Republican acceptance of Trump’s falsehoods is a reflection of the power Trump has over members of the party:
It’s the very fact that they know Trump’s claims are ludicrous — that is the point: like other bullies, he amuses himself and solidifies his authority by humiliating people and what can be more humiliating than compelling people to publicly announce their endorsements of something they know and everyone else knows to be false?
Thomas Mann, a Brookings senior fellow, made the case in an email that Trump has transformed the Republican Party so that membership now precludes having “a moral sense: honesty, empathy, respect for one’s colleagues, wisdom, institutional loyalty, a willingness to put country ahead of party on existential matters, an openness to changing conditions.”
Instead, Mann wrote:
The current, Trump-led Republican Party allows no room for such considerations. Representative Liz Cheney’s honest patriotism would be no more welcome among Senate Republicans than House Republicans. Even those current Republican senators whose earlier careers indicated a moral sense — Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Richard Burr, Roy Blunt, Lisa Murkowski, Robert Portman, Ben Sasse, Richard Shelby — have felt obliged to pull their punches in the face of the Big Lie and attempted coup.
Bart Bonikowski, a sociologist at N.Y.U., describes the danger of this political dynamic:
In capturing the party, Trump perfectly embodied its ethnonationalist and authoritarian tendencies and delivered it concrete results — even if his policy stances were not always perfectly aligned with party orthodoxy. As a result, the Republican Party and Trumpism have become fused into a single entity — one that poses serious threats to the stability of the United States.
The unwillingness of Republican leaders to challenge Trump’s relentless lies, for whatever reason — for political survival, for mobilization of whites opposed to minorities, to curry favor, to feign populist sympathies — is as or more consequential than actually believing the lie.
If Republican officials and their voters are willing to swallow an enormous and highly consequential untruth for political gain, they have taken a first step toward becoming willing allies in the corrupt manipulation of future elections.
In that sense, the “big lie” is a precursor to more dangerous threats — threats that are plausible in ways that less than a decade ago seemed inconceivable. The capitulation to and appeasement of Trump by Republican leaders is actually setting up even worse possibilities than what we’ve lived through so far.
BREAKING: Trump just HUMILIATED himself with a delusional Christmas interview. To demand Hannity and Ingraham be kicked off the air over secret January 6 texts, sign here 👉
CPAC leader Matt Schlapp is doubling down on his position that PBS should stop receiving federal funding after the network announced that a new Asian-American muppet would be joining the cast of Sesame Street. Cenk Uygur, Jayar Jackson, and Jackson White discuss on The Young Turks. Watch LIVE weekdays 6-8 pm ET. http://youtube.com/theyoungturks/live Read more HERE: https://www.mediaite.com/tv/matt-schl… “Matt Schlapp doubled down Thursday on his call to defund PBS because Sesame Street introduced a new Asian-American character. Schlapp joined Fox News’ Todd Piro Thursday morning for a segment that suggested there is something controversial about the long-running children’s television series bringing the muppet Ji-Young into the cast. He reacted to the news earlier this week by tweeting, “What race is Ernie is Bert? You are insane PBS and we should stop funding you.”
Plutocratic populists reduce economic conflicts to questions of belonging.
Half a decade on, “Brexit and Trump” remain shorthand for the rise of right-wing populism and a profound unsettling of liberal democracies. One curious fact is rarely mentioned: the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Remain in 2016 had similar-sounding slogans, which spectacularly failed to resonate with large parts of the electorate: “Stronger Together” and “Stronger in Europe”. Evidently, a significant number of citizens felt that they might actually be stronger, or in some other sense better off, by separating. What does that tell us about the fault lines of politics today?
Conventional wisdom has it that cultural divisions now matter most, and that plenty of people feel they have nothing in common with liberal, supposedly “globalist” elites. Yet that idea is not only empirically dubious; it also uncritically adopts a cultural framing of political conflict that plays into the hands of the right, if not the far right. The divisions that threaten democracies are increasingly economically driven, a development that has been obscured by the rhetorical strategies of a right committed to plutocratic populism.
Democracies today face a double secession. One is that of the most privileged. They are often lumped together under the category of “liberal cosmopolitan elites”, which is an invective thrown around by populist leaders, but also a term employed by a growing number of pundits and social scientists. This designation is misleading in many ways. While it is true that certain elites are mobile, they are not necessarily cosmopolitan or liberal in any strong moral sense – if by cosmopolitan we do not mean folks with the highest frequent flyer status but those committed to the idea that all humans stand in the same moral relation to each other, regardless of borders.
Value commitments are not necessarily related to travel patterns; the world’s most influential cosmopolitan philosopher, Immanuel Kant, never left his hometown Königsberg. While plenty of wealthy people make a big show of international charity work, one would search in vain for advocates of what in political philosophy might possibly be called genuine global justice. And we should not forget that, in the 1990s and early 2000s, globalisation was justified not by emphasising its beneficial effects on the world but the advantages it would bestow on individual nations.
Economic and administrative elites still follow education and career paths that are distinctly national. My students at Princeton University might go to work for a multinational company and be posted overseas, but they cannot go “anywhere” – they cannot simply decide, for instance, to join the French elite. It is of course flattering for academics and journalists to think that democracy’s fate is in their hands, and that if only liberal elites somehow cared more for white working-class men in the American Midwest or the north of England, all might be well.
The point is not that cultural elites are not important – of course they are. The point is that simplistic divisions of society into “anywheres” and “somewheres” – famously put forward by David Goodhart in The Road to Somewhere (2017) and endlessly repeated by liberals eager to flaunt their capacity for self-criticism – systematically obscure that actual decision-making elites remain far more national and far less liberal than is commonly thought.
Globalisation has not brought the end of nationalism but opportunities to retreat selectively from society – something from which economic and financial elites (again, not particularly liberal in their views) have especially benefited. They appear to be able to dispense with any real dependence on the rest of society (though of course they still rely on police, halfway-usable roads, and so on). With the globalisation of supply chains and trade regimes, workers and consumers do not have to be in the same country, and, as a consequence of the shift away from mass conscript armies, one also does not depend on one’s fellow citizens to serve as soldiers.
An openly avowed, though also quite cartoonish, version of this secession of the economically powerful is provided by the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel self-identifies as libertarian (and ended up not only as an adviser to Donald Trump but as one of the figures trying to adorn Trumpism with a philosophy). In a programmatic statement published in 2009, he wrote that “in our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms – from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy’”. He put his hope in “some sort of new and hitherto untried process that leads us to some undiscovered country”. Since, alas, there appear to be few undiscovered countries, Thiel bet on cyberspace, outer space, and, in case none of those spaces work out, “seasteading” (as in: settling the oceans).
Thiel’s dismissive remarks about the demos provoked strong reactions – in particular, his sentence that “since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians – have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron”. He later clarified that he did not advocate for disenfranchising citizens. Indeed, the whole point of his thinking was that the demos as such had to be written off as hopeless; the best one could do was to seek distance from ordinary folks – or, put differently, secession.
Thiel’s pining for undiscovered countries corresponds with the sordid reality of transnational accounting tricks. As two distinguished economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman observe, “US firms have in 2016… booked more than 20 per cent of their non-US profits in ‘stateless entities’ – shell companies that are incorporated nowhere, and nowhere taxed. In effect, they have found a way to make $100bn in profits on what is essentially another planet.”
These kinds of secessions are not undertaken by “citizens of nowhere” (the money does not really end up nowhere); nor does any of this have anything to do with cultural or moral cosmopolitanism, even if right-wing populists, ever ready to wage culture wars, portray things that way. But the populists’ critique does contain a kernel of truth: some citizens do take themselves out of anything resembling a decent social contract, for instance relying on private tutors and private security for their gated communities. In France, an astonishing 35 per cent of people claim that they have nothing in common with their fellow citizens.
Such a dynamic is not entirely new: writing about French aristocrats, the 18th-century political theorist the Abbé Sieyes observed that “the privileged actually come to see themselves as another species of man”. In 1789, they discovered that they were not (just as some today will eventually discover that there are no
The other secession is even less visible. An increasing number of citizens at the lower end of the income spectrum no longer vote or participate in politics in any other way. In large German cities, for instance, the pattern is clear: poorer areas with high unemployment have much higher abstention rates in elections (in the centre of the old industrial metropolis of Essen it is as high as 90 per cent). This de facto self-separation is not based on a conscious programme in the way Thiel’s space (or spaced-out) fantasies are, and there is no “undiscovered country” for the worst-off. Tragically, such a secession becomes self-reinforcing: political parties, for the most part, have no reason to care for those who don’t care to vote; this in turn strengthens the impression of the poor that there’s nothing in it for them when it comes to politics.
How does all this relate to the rise of right-wing populism and today’s threats to democracy? Like all parties, populist ones offer what the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu once called a “vision of divisions”: they provide, and promote, an interpretation of society’s major political fault lines – and then seek to mobilise citizens accordingly. That is not in itself dangerous. Democracy, after all, is about conflict, not consensus, or what James Mattis, Donald Trump’s ill-fated secretary of defence, called “fundamental friendliness” (which, lamenting the lack of “political unity” in his country, he was sorely missing in the second decade of the 21st century).
The promise of democracy is not that we shall all agree, and it does not require “uniformity of principles and habits”, as Alexander Hamilton had it. Rather, it is the guarantee that we have a fair chance of fighting for our side politically and then can live with the outcome of the struggle, because we will have another chance in a future election. It is not enough to complain that populists are divisive, for democratic politics is divisive by definition.
The problem is that right-wing populists reduce all conflicts to questions of belonging, and then consider disagreement with their view automatically illegitimate (those who disagree must be traitors; Trump’s critics were not so much wrong on merit as, according to his fans, “un-American”). Populism is not uniquely responsible for polarisation, but it is crucial to understand that its key strategy is polarisation. Right-wing populism seeks to divide polities into homogeneous groups and then insinuates that some groups do not truly belong or are fundamentally illegitimate.
In this world-view, instead of being characterised by cross-cutting identities and interests, politics is simplified and rendered as a picture of one central conflict of existential importance (along the lines of “if the wrong side wins, we shall perish”). Thus, disquiet about the double secession is channelled by right-wing populists into collective fear or even a moral panic that “the country is being taken away from us”. In the US in particular, that fear helps to distract from questions of material distribution; what the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have called “plutocratic populism” combines relentless culture war with economic positions that are actually deeply unpopular even with conservative voters, but which are continuously obscured by conjuring up threats to the real – that is, white, Christian – America (or white Christian England, for that matter). While some Republicans speak out for a kind of “working-class conservatism” – just as the Conservative Party has its advocates of “red Toryism” – there is no way that the Republican Party in its present form will implement any such agenda. In this respect, Trump was typical: stoking the feelings of socio-economic-cum-cultural victimhood of his supporters, and then passing a tax cut of which 80 per cent went to the upper 1 per cent. While the jury is still out on Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda, the fact is that One Nation Toryism has also often remained mere talk.
Here, then, lies the gravest danger to democracy: in the face of what they perceive as an existential threat, citizens are more willing to condone breaches of democratic principles and the rule of law (it is easier, for instance, to portray judges as “enemies of the people”). The Yale political scientist Milan Svolik cites a revealing “natural experiment” in social science to make the point: on the eve of an election in Montana in 2017, the Republican candidate Greg Gianforte “body-slammed” a Guardian reporter. Plenty of people had already voted by absentee ballot; only those going to the polls on election day – by which time three major Montana newspapers had withdrawn their endorsement of Gianforte – could directly punish the GOP politician for his behaviour. And what happened? In highly partisan precincts, party loyalty trumped respect for democratic norms. Populists seek to deepen a central division in society and simplify it into a question of whether you are for or against the leader. Thus they make it more difficult for their supporters to put democracy and the rule of law above their partisan interests.
So how should liberals and the left fight back? For one thing, they should resist an uncritical adoption of the anywheres-versus-somewheres frame. What’s more, they should resist the mainstreaming of the far right, or racism lite, that some European social democrats think promises a revival of their electoral fortunes. Some point at Denmark and the mostly symbolic measures adopted by a nominally left-wing party to prove its toughness on immigration and Islamism. But, as the French economist Thomas Piketty and others have shown, most of those who abandoned social democratic parties did not defect to the far right. Instead, since the 1970s, they stopped going to the polls altogether.
Getting people to re-engage in politics is fiendishly difficult. But in their contrasting ways Boris Johnson’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings and the strategists of the Spanish left-wing upstart Podemos proved that it can be done. You can bring citizens to vote who appear to have checked out of the political system entirely, if you offer them an image of their interests and identities that they can recognise. There is Trump’s talk of “finding votes” in the sense of election subversion, but there is also the genuinely democratic practice of finding votes by seeking out those who consider themselves abandoned. And, once again, there is nothing undemocratic about drawing clear lines of conflict: criticising other parties is not the same as calling them illegitimate, populist-style.
Any social democratic programme that seeks to re-engage voters must not be neoliberalism lite, in which deregulation is the default, along with low taxation and disciplining of workers through harsh incentives to accept more or less any job (all policies adopted by Gerhard Schröder, for instance). It must also involve a serious effort to explain which basic interests are shared by those who ceased participating altogether and those who abandoned social democratic parties for Green parties, or even the centre right (in some countries such as Germany).
It is not a mystery what these interests might be: most obviously, functioning national infrastructure and an education system that puts serious resources into helping the worst-off (the vast inequalities of existing systems, where wealthy parents can simply bring in more tutors, was cruelly demonstrated during the pandemic, when even affluent parents faced realities they had never confronted before).
It is not naive to think that Joe Biden might be providing the right model here. He has resisted getting mired in debates about cancelled children’s books, critical race theory, and other topics relentlessly promoted by right-wing culture warriors. Instead, he is making a surprisingly serious effort to address the secession at the top of society, going after tax avoidance. He is even trying to drag countries along which have made tax avoidance a national business model, and, for good measure, he might be able to drag the Thiels, Musks, Bezoses and Bransons of this world back down to earth.
It would be wrong, though, to conclude that liberals must disavow so-called identity politics and leave minorities to their fate (or at least their own devices). The most prominent movements of our time – Black Lives Matter and #MeToo – are not really about identity in any substantive sense; they are about claiming basic rights which others have long taken for granted. They are also not just about “resentment at indignities”, as Francis Fukuyama claims – as if these were all emotional issues where narcissistic folks should simply pull themselves together. Nor are they just about “abstract values”, as Adrian Pabst recently charged in these pages. There is nothing abstract about not wanting to be shot by police or be harassed by powerful men.
Less obviously, it is also not true that claims by minorities are somehow more likely to lead to polarisation and irresolvable political conflicts. It is conventional wisdom that one can negotiate over material interests more easily than over identity, as trade unions and employers reliably did during the heyday of postwar European social democracy. For many there is also a seemingly self-evident lesson from recent years: if you don’t want populist-authoritarian white identity politics, you should shut up about the identity of black and brown people, for otherwise you are simply providing more ammunition for populist race and culture warriors.
Yet identity and interests cannot be so neatly separated. That is true today, and, if we didn’t suffer so badly from historical amnesia, we would not claim that things were all that different in the golden age of social democracy. Socialist parties never fought only for wage increases and better working conditions; they also struggled for dignity and collective respect. Think for instance of Red Vienna, made by socialists into a showcase for working-class culture and uplift during the interwar period.
Even when conflicts are about identity, this does not mean that compromise and negotiation are automatically impossible. We do not necessarily all assume that there is an inner, true, unchanging self, as a romantic conception of identity would suggest. People are able to rethink their political commitments and what really matters in both private and collective life; what is regularly ridiculed by the right as “woke” today is only one example of how political self-perceptions – and hence identities – can change.
Conversely, it is far from obvious that conflicts over material interests can always be resolved in a rational, amiable manner. We have forgotten to what lengths the owners of concentrated wealth might go to defend themselves from claims to redistribution (and we are not fully aware of what they are already doing today: the political scientist Jeffrey Winters refers to expensive lawyers and accountants specialised in tax avoidance as a powerful “wealth defence industry”).
One reason why we have forgotten this is that no political leader has seriously tried to take anything from secessionists at the very top; Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama were part of a long historical arc of neoliberalism in which some progressive change was possible but the basics of the Reagan-Thatcher revolutions were never seriously questioned. In the United States, the Republican Party has been radicalised in recent years and is bent on undermining democracy through voter suppression and election subversion – even though, economically, there hasn’t been much of a threat to its backers yet. That is an ominous sign of what reaction a genuine liberal commitment to addressing the double secession might provoke.
Jan-Werner Müller is professor of politics at Princeton University. His most recent book is “Democracy Rules” (Allen Lane).