Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Populism in small doses can be productive if the center holds

A Trump rally in Huntington W.VA this month/Carlos Barria, Reuters

Our dysfunctional politics aside, we are not the Middle East. The Middle East is a petri dish of political dysfunction: from Syria’s Hobbesian state of nature, to the theocracy of Iran, the military junta led state of Egypt, the failed state of Lybia, and the Kingdom of Jordan; from the petro-princeling, theocratic compromise state that is Saudi Arabia, to the corrupted strong-man rule of Turkey, to the deeply flawed democracies of Israel and Lebanon. By paying attention to these negative examples we can appreciate what we have and must never let go of.

Take the recent essay by Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi (The end of this Road: the Decline of the Palestinian National Movement) in the New Yorker, describing the political plight of the Palestinians. In their essay, Agha and Khalidi say a curious thing: “The post-Abbas era will launch an uncharted and unpredictable course,” they say. “The institutional failures of the P.A. all point to an increasingly narrow and more tenuous form of leadership, one that is based more on formal elections [rather than recognized moral authority] and, consequently and paradoxically, on less solid and genuinely representative grounds” (emphasis added).

The fact that formal democratic elections should result in leaders with less genuinely representative grounds is indeed paradoxical. Yet, the legitimacy of the founding fathers of the Palestinian National movement, most prominently Yasser Arafat, was not based on democracy. The remaining legitimacy and moral authority of Mahmoud Abbas is also not based on democracy: any democratic mandate he once may have had has long expired. He last stood for elections in January 2005, and the following year—together with Israel and the United States—he pointedly ignored the democratic legislative assembly victory of Hamas. So how is it that formal democratic elections will result in less legitimacy?

After Abbas there is no consensus leader who might be able to lead the Palestinians to a compromise political settlement with Israel, say Agha and Khalidi. A new leader may emerge from formal elections, but such a leader will lack the moral authority for leadership of the Palestinian national movement, presumably because the Palestinians lack a cohesive and coherent vision of what the Palestinian nationalist movement should be, and what kind of society they should have.

Because the Palestinians do not have sufficient established political structures, and because they lack a consensus around such structures, they need a strong, universally accepted leader, a charismatic strong leader like Arafat. Winning the most votes in an election is not sufficient.

What can we Learn from the Palestinian’s Plight?

In the United States we can relate. We have been more and more divided in our politics. We have the feeling that our elected officials are exercising leadership based on merely formal electoral victories. Merely formal electoral victories are not satisfying. Nearly half the country did not feel that Barack Obama was “their” president. More than half the country does not feel that Donald Trump is “their” president. Like with the Palestinians, mere formal electoral victories do not confer moral authority to speak for the entire country.

But we have something the Palestinians lack. We have a democratic consensus around institutions and political norms. Particular elected leaders are secondary. Driving around the country this past month and speaking with many Trump voters, I have the strong impression that their support for Trump is not about cult of personality, or because they are racists. There is a non-rational belief that “maybe he’ll shake things up!” The non-college educated, previously Democratic voting whites who put Trump over the top want to be noticed. They want someone addressing their concerns. They feel the Democratic Party has taken them for granted. They did not identify with Hillary Clinton as their champion. But these people are not rejecting our political consensus: a free, democratic society, rule of law, free enterprise, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, National Parks, National Forests, apple pie and baseball.

Indeed, as the Republicans in Congress are learning, “repeal and replace Obamacare” does not mean Trump voters don’t care about actual solutions for improving our healthcare system. Trump voters don’t believe the government has no role to play in providing affordable healthcare, they just think the established politics has not delivered. Obamacare was a first step to expand coverage, but it did nothing about making medical insurance more affordable. And these voters are not wrong to be dissatisfied. They recognized that “repeal for the hell of it,” as McConnell, Ryan, and Trump were set to do, would not have served their purpose. And so, despite seven years of using “repeal and replace” as a war-cry, when it came down to it, GOP voters wanted something productive done about health care, and when Ryan and McConnell offered nothing productive, there was not enough support for repeal to get it done.

In the wake of their 2016 defeat, Democrats are adjusting their politics to deal with the new reality. The next Democratic campaign, starting in 2018, won’t make the mistake of ignoring Michigan voters, or belittling non-college educated voters. Populism in moderate doses can be useful.

Populism is dangerous only if the populists are successful in undermining our institutions to such an extent that they can’t be thrown out of office in the next election when they don’t accomplish what they promised. Do Bannon, Miller, Gorka, Sessions, Trump, et al, want to undermine our political consensus and institutions, and our right and ability to “vote the bastards out?” There is concern that’s what they aim to do. But there is cause of optimism. The path to replacing our political consensus with a cult of personality would run through events like we witnessed in Charlottesville this weekend. But the country has rejected this march of a few hundred hate filled white nationalists. Trump, who initially bent over backwards not to criticize this hateful, pathetic mob of neo-Nazi marchers, has had to back-track. Just like GOP senators and representatives have learned these past six months, Trump is finding that the center is holding. We want our presidents and Congress to get positive things done. . ., and if they fail to, we will vote them out of office. 

2018 and 2020 can’t come soon enough!

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