To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Monday, September 26, 2016

What 'Peasants With Pitchforks' Are Telling Western Elites



This year of Trump has seen a lot of dumb things said and written by a lot of otherwise very smart people whose historical imaginations seem to be stuck in dystopic overdrive.    

The darkest scenario is the one holding that the US is at some kind of Weimar tipping point, that Trump is Adolph Hitler and that the resentment and racial nationalism of the white working class is the equivalent of the unstable Volk who embraced fascist demagoguery as a way of restoring lost national greatness in the wake of World War I’s humiliations and the ravages of Great Depression.

Indeed, 2016 is shaping up as a year where the ghosts of fascism past stalk the land. Alarms are coming from all corners, as much from overwrought popular comedians such as Louie C.K. as from hysterical pundits at such otherwise serious publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the New Yorker. The tendency to see such specters seems to be a function of too much time spent in the newsrooms and editorial offices among insular, like-minded colleagues and not enough time spent among ordinary Americans with a more grounded sensibility, and who have also watched as their working and middle class versions of the American Dream come apart. More than disconnection there is an active, even aggressive lack of compassion, a fecklessness that seems to be a function of cultural chauvinism as much as class condescension. 

Valid grievances based on economic inequality “have turned poisonous and welcomed intolerance and untruth into their orbit,” writes Atlantic editor and Brookings fellow Leon Wieseltier in the Washington Post, in language that previewed Hillary Clinton’s now-infamous “basket of deplorables” remark. “Outrage, a fine political emotion, has degenerated into resentment and hatred” among those that Wieseltier refers to as “despairing and deluded millions.”

There were a number of columnists and commentators who thought the fascist allusion was overwrought and that it would be better if journalists and pundits looked beyond the smears to see that social and economic forces were really driving the Trump juggernaut. 

The Times’ Ross Douthat argued that “freaking out over ‘Trump-the fascist’ was a good way for the political class to ignore the legitimate reasons he’s gotten this far — the deep disaffection with the Republican Party’s economic policies among working- class conservatives, the reasonable skepticism about the bipartisan consensus favoring ever more mass low-skilled immigration, the accurate sense that the American elite has misgoverned the country at home and abroad.”
If Republicans don’t want Trump the phenomenon to turn into an actual movement, if they don’t want the intimations of fascism in his appeal to cohere into something programmatically dangerous, then tarring his supporters with the brush of Mussolini and Der Führer right now seems like a shortsighted step — a way to repress the problem rather than dealing with it, to dismiss discontents and have them return, stronger and deadlier, further down the road.
Another example of successfully resisting facile historical comparisons was a recent piece by Navy War College scholar Andrew Michta in The American Interest. AI is an odd place to find a piece like this, as it is generally considered a neoconservative publication, and Trump has had a particularly deranging effect on the group of journalists, think-tankers and policy wonks that make up that community. But Michta’s essay, titled “A Wake Up Call For Western Elites,” is a serious and incisive dissection of the problem of elite leadership and policy failure, in the US and in Europe that has fed this populist moment that eschews the reflexive linkage between nationalism and fascism that so many American pundits make. The essay very thoughtfully suggests that nationalism can be compatible with the liberal-minded tents of globalism and cosmopolitanism, as long as elites acknowledge that immigration and other drivers of multicultural change have to be harmonized with notions of national community and with popular notions of sovereignty rooted in respect for tradition and for borders. “Latter-day peasants on both sides of the ocean are rising up, pitchforks in hand, against an increasingly denationalized aristocracy,” Michta contends, “Rebellion is stirring in the West, and maybe that’s not a bad thing.”  

Nationalist parties in Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Hungary Finland, France, Sweden, Germany and France are surging at the polls, Michta notes in setting the stage.

In Germany, where nationalism historically has had a particularly toxic image, the nationalist anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland, which two years ago did not exist, polled 4.7 percent in the last election and now holds seats in half of the state legislatures. … In France’s regional elections in 2015 the National Front got 6.8 million votes—its highest number ever—and did not win in two regions it targeted only because the socialists threw their support behind the conservatives… In the US, the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries has shown the strength of anti-immigrant and anti-elite sentiment, forcing the GOP establishment to hastily pick sides and realign party loyalties.
These developments have triggered a “tidal wave of pessimism” in the chattering classes and op-ed writers who don’t know what the rejection of their globalist notions is all about.
Yet Michta says there has been “precious little introspection on the part of the intelligentsia on either side of the Atlantic as to what policies and factors of the past three decades have generated this surge of popular anger.” The visceral response was to dismiss the surge as either another familiar populist spasm mixed with the fallout from the 2008 recession or as the inevitable aftershock of our transition to a post-industrial West.” He also scoffs at those calling the populist upsurge a “manifestation of anger from those who lack the skills to adapt to a new economy—sore losers, unwilling or unable to retrain for new jobs, and therefore apt to fall through the cracks in the floor of our global edifice, which is otherwise seen as continuing to support unprecedented prosperity. “ 
What’s blocking a clear appreciation is elite moral sanctimony.
The nationalist rebellions that are stirring across the West have thus far generated almost uniform elite condemnation on the grounds that such movements and the parties they have spawned are fed and driven by prejudice and intolerance, racism, discrimination, and—to quote one university discussion—a “desperate attempt to preserve white privilege.”
Were it all that simple, we could double down on the narrative of the forces of enlightened progress under assault by those of retrograde parochialism, and in this modern tale of cosmopolitanism betrayed by nativism keep on shaking our heads at the lack of judgement that surprisingly ever larger segments of the general public across Europe and the United States are. 
Michta argues that populism is a “simple, safe, and ultimately maddeningly imprecise concept” and that anti elite anger is something we should stop and take seriously—and on a much deeper cultural and historical level than we have so far---instead of “dismissing it out of hand as an aberration defying explanation and unworthy of consideration.”
According to Michta, “The West is experiencing a nationalist awakening of a magnitude not seen in decades because the policies of those decades have run their course and are no longer accepted.”
The experience of open borders, mass migration, and top-down regulation has undercut the people’s sense of their own sovereignty in Western societies, leaving many to grapple not only with economic hardship but also, and perhaps even more importantly, with a growing sense of cultural marginalization in their own states. The backlash against immigration has been the key driver of the revolt. This backlash, however, is less against the principle as such; the West has been historically welcoming of immigrants. Rather, opposition has swelled against the speed and manner in which immigrants are brought into the national culture, as well as the official policies that exert little pressure on new arrivals to acculturate. Multiculturalism, with its anti-Western bent, in combination with the ascendency of the liberal left across national media and in culture debates, has convinced more and more people that their communities are being transformed with minimal elite concern for their aspirations and priorities. Today, the latter-day peasants of the collective West are massing outside the gates of the manor out of a sense that their governments have confined their values to the margins. To be sure, while some who demand closed borders are in the grip of prejudice, for the rest it is about the right to live in communities that remain familiar and, though they may evolve gradually over time, do not demand a sudden and wholesale transformation of culture.
Modern nationalism is paradoxical, Michta notes. On the one hand, “it molds a larger community around a deeply internalized sense of reciprocity—what Ernest Gellner called a “special feeling” of community.” On the other hand, “it reaffirms the distinction between who is in and who is out, for kinship and discrimination are often two sides of the same coin.”
Still, a sense of shared national heritage is central to the cohesion of the state. The idea of a nation as an extension of some of the most rudimentary, if abstracted, ties that bind people to their family has historically created a sense of larger solidarity. Without it, the notions of a shared financial burden and obligation to defend the homeland or the need to sacrifice, if necessary, one’s individual comforts for the nation as a whole would never be possible.
A key part of the problem “is that our elites seem unable to divorce the idea of nationalism from the historical narrative of fascism,” Michta notes, addressing the ease with which so much of our pundit elite has been equate Donald Trump to Adolph Hitler and other dark historical figures. In fact, “globalization and the persistence of strong nation-states are in fact not contradictory.” The current nationalist wave could be “a positive restorative force reasserting the unity of Western democratic nations, provided we begin to seek a genuine consensus on the importance of common reference points in society.”
To do so would invalidate the most established and often cherished narratives about the direction of global change that envision and celebrate a world in which nation-states continue to surrender sovereignty to international norm-enforcing institutions and supranational projects.  Simply put the vision of a postmodern Europe in particular as defined over the last three decades, cannot be reconciled with the experience of 21st century nationalism, for the former envisions societies where national identities rooted in a shared culture and history are replaced by a generic concept of citizenship bridging between multiethnic and multicultural societal enclaves. A compromise would require some affirmation of a larger national culture, and most importantly a movement away from ethnic group politics in order to arrest the centrifugal forces that have balkanized Western societies for decades.
Whether a nation is looking ahead with confidence, diffidence, or fear depends on the ability of its elites to speak directly to public anxieties, aspirations, and goals while generating a vision and a sense of common purpose. Great powers do not implode simply because their economies have declined or because their military campaigns failed to produce the intended results. Economics and foreign policy matter greatly, but they require something much less tangible in society: confidence about the future that draws in part from a reaffirmation of the core tenets of the past. The surge of nationalism across Europe and the United States needs to be understood as still an essential ingredient of modern statehood, and engaged through democratic politics in ways that eschew Manichean choices.
Neocon antagonists such as Bret Stephens charge that Trump is vulgar and crass, denouncing the “conservative gutter“ into which the GOP has descended.  
Michta doesn’t ignore the fact that Trump and his movement are a bit rough around the edges, as are their European counterparts. But he seems to be saying that there are things much more substantive going on than issues of taste, etiquette or what has been sniffishly put down as “political hygiene." No virtue signaling and racial righteousness here. 

Like all incipient movements, this new nationalist awakening has its low points, and its spokesmen and spokeswomen can be clumsy, clownish, and downright rude; however, the public sentiment behind it deserves a hearing not because we like it or dislike it, but because it is reshaping our societies. And most of all, the latter-day peasants have shown that they will not stand for being ignored.