Elites, right wing populism, and the left

The left must reclaim its ideology, not allow it to be co-opted by the right.

Eliane Glaser
11 November 2016

Donald Trump, by Gage Skidmore.

Trump’s election was a tragedy. But the outrage is its reframing – by the mainstream media and even sections of the left – as a revolt against ‘complacent liberal elites’. 

Media commentators were dismissive of Trump during his campaign. But now he’s President-elect they seem constrained for fear of echoing Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ comment. Everyone is terrified of implying that the working class Americans who voted for Trump shot themselves in the foot. We may be dismayed by post-truth politics, but at the same time we tell ourselves that people see through it all. False consciousness has become the ultimate taboo.

People are not stupid. But they are misinformed and misled. 72% of Americans agree 'the US economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful', yet they elected a billionaire tycoon. We don’t know how to talk about this incongruity. The post-election analysis emphasises how Trump ‘connected’ with blue-collar voters. There’s an odd reluctance to perform a simple reality check – not just about whether he will build the wall, but about how his professed support for blue-collar workers contrasts with his plan to repeal Obamacare and cut taxes for the rich. The way to avoid the patronising connotations of false consciousness is to target the hypocrisy of the message, not the voters.

The priority now, many are saying, is to listen to forgotten working-class voters. They are right. But we must also be wary of regarding opinions as authentic and organic. We seem to have forgotten that opinions are made and people are influenced.

The right’s co-option of left-wing protest is what both Trump and Brexit are all about. Right-wing populism across the world is harnessing public anger towards the super-rich, global corporations and financial power and turning it against politicians, experts, and the left. These are the wrong targets: they are relatively powerless and they are the only means we have to create a fairer world. It’s true that the political class is homogenous, corrupt and aloof. But that’s a contingent, not an intrinsic reality. It’s the result of historical circumstance and neoliberal policy. We must not let the right convert resistance to financial power into an attack on political authority. 

The right has destroyed the left and stolen its language, using it as a decoy with which to push through policies that hurt the poorest. This shows that – in contrast to Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis – left ideology has won. But it also has zero power.

There is an emerging mantra that the real divide is no longer between left and right but between globalisation and national sovereignty. Naomi Wolf repeated it on Today. This is false. In a society that’s increasingly unequal, the opposition between left and right is more relevant than ever. It defines the interests of the 99% against those of the 1%. The conflation of the ‘global elite’ with ‘internationalism’ lumps Goldman Sachs together with multicultural tolerance.

Commentators everywhere are pointing to the ‘liberal elite’ and the ‘political establishment’ as if they are the real problem. Jeremy Corbyn echoed this view on LabourList earlier this week. We must resist this muddled and damaging trend. The term ‘liberal elite’ elides economic oppression with the political left. It fuses together legitimate criticism of global capitalism with the condemnation of left-wing parties. Thomas Frank, one of the original critics of right-wing co-option, has turned his fire on the Democrats in his new book, Listen, Liberal. While his analysis is correct, this serves unwittingly to reinforce right-wing populism’s undermining of the left.

Yes, the Democrats have failed to engage with working-class voters. Yes, the Labour party in Britain abandoned its core purpose by moving to the centre. But this betrayal is the result of constantly being told that the only way to get elected is to move to the right and engage with ‘business’. Sanders and Corbyn are of course the notable exceptions, but look at how they are ridiculed and excoriated by the media.

We on the left need to find our voice and reclaim our ideology. And we need to resolve and redefine our attitude towards political institutions, political office and political authority. Let’s not join in the bonfire of the elites until we know exactly who we’re talking about. Otherwise we will play straight into the hands of an ascendant fake-radical right that whips up public hostility to the system while quietly taking it over.

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