Establishment politics have really taken a beating in recent months. And rightly so. Powerful political and economic elites have run the show for too long, and people are desperate to take back control. But what kind of control people want to exert is a whole other issue, which has divided opinion on both sides of the Atlantic – from the Brexit vote to the US presidential election.
So how exactly did we get to this point? What kind of future do we want? And how do we get it?
The state of Western politics and the 2016 US elections
Many Americans dread what a Donald Trump presidency would bring. And TV progressives have echoed that fear. But at the same time, they’ve really struggled to support Hillary Clinton. Their desire to back her as the main opponent to Trump’s racism, misogyny, and downright repulsiveness has been clear. Yet for balance, they’ve had to explain why many Americans don’t trust her.
It’s easy to joke about the absurdly appalling choice facing the US public on 8 November. But it actually says a lot about Western politics today. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, economic and political elites have insisted that their extreme form of capitalist governance is the only way forward. History was over. Debate was now effectively pointless. And formerly left-wing parties moved rightwards as a result, trying to please corporate opinion formers in the media and get back into government. Enter smooth ‘modernising’ figures like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
The most powerful political parties now sat on the right of the political spectrum. And voters only had a choice between different shades of grey. Hard-line capitalism or ‘capitalism lite’? That was supposedly democracy. Voting every few years to decide which form of elite rule would do you less damage.
International policies and bold campaign promises to one side, that’s essentially what the battle between Trump and Clinton is about.
But while it’s essentially business as usual in US politics, Trump does represent something slightly different.
Breaking free and regaining control
Presenting people with this sorry excuse for democracy, establishment politicians have really struggled to keep people’s trust. Or their enthusiasm. That’s the case in the US, the UK, and in other Western nations.
Traditional right-wing parties have offered only austerity, deindustrialisation, and general social decay. And traditional ‘left-wing’ parties have been so busy listening to their newfound corporate friends that they’ve effectively stopped listening to the exploited working people they once claimed to represent.
But 2015 was a watershed moment in both the US and the UK. In America, many voters were sick of both the Democratic and Republican establishments. And the reaction was widespread support for outsiders: Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. Each said things their red and blue counterparts wouldn’t say for fear of stepping too far away from the status quo. And voters loved it. They could see themselves taking back control with the help of figures they could really relate to.
In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party thanks to a wave of opposition to the political and economic status quo. Nigel Farage’s UKIP, meanwhile, continued to grow as a right-wing opponent of the establishment, and would become a key player in 2016’s EU referendum. Both figures offered a chance for citizens to take back control – albeit in very different ways.
In the US, Clinton and her powerful benefactors managed to undermine the popular Sanders campaign from the very start. But Trump had no convincing opponent. And because of his personal wealth, he didn’t have to worry about how to fund his campaign. His inflammatory and controversial soundbites, meanwhile, got him all the free media airtime he could ever dream of. The US vote now appeared to many voters as a battle between an establishment candidate and an anti-establishment candidate (though Trump is actually very much a part of America’s economic establishment).
In the UK, mainstream corporate newspapers essentially told their readers that it was only ‘the establishment’ that wanted Britain to remain in the EU. A vote for Brexit, then, would be an anti-establishment vote. Even though many Brexiteers were actually wealthy establishment representatives, and many Remain campaigners were not.
Donald Trump and right-wing Brexit campaigners have all appealed to nationalist sentiment in order to win votes. To a sense of cultural pride; a distant and distorted memory of past glories; and a sense of identity and self-worth which had been lost in recent decades.
There are both constructive and destructive ways to change the established political and economic order – which is far from fair and far from democratic. And nationalism tends to move the debate in the wrong direction. Neither overtly capitalist nor socialist, it usually divides people according to the language they speak, the culture they subscribe to, or how they look. It can have left-wing or right-wing overtones depending on the mood of the country, but it’s main focus tends to be on a foreign enemy. That can be a central government depriving communities of democracy. Or a foreign government (or other force) interfering in national affairs. Just causes that are sometimes real, and sometimes made up. But the big message is one of resistance rather than setting out a comprehensive programme to address social and economic ills at home.
Historically, nationalists have tried to unite those who exploit and those they exploit under the same flag. They say the interests of the rich and powerful are the same as those of the overworked and underpaid. There are no class interests. Only national interests. There’s a shared destiny for everyone in a country – bosses and workers alike. The Nazi regime, for example, made big promises to German workers. But it was actually an ultra-capitalist force. It attacked trade unions while serving wealthy citizens very well. And to keep social classes united, it created and persecuted outside ‘enemies’.
The wrong target
The outsiders in the dialogue of today’s right-wing nationalists, whether in the US or the UK, tend to be migrants. People who are noticeably different. Linguistically. Culturally. Or physically.
But if we look at why people migrate, it’s not to take over the host country or do it harm. It’s to flee poverty, injustice or violence. And those behind this reality are usually the rich and powerful – whether national or international. In turn, these people are usually in charge because former colonial powers left dangerous political vacuums behind them or actually played a key role in installing or encouraging authoritarian regimes.
In short, barely decades on from the end of colonialism in many countries, the legacy of violence and plunder (whether direct or indirect) lives on. But rather than directing our attention to the power games of the world’s richest and most exploitative people, right-wing nationalists ask us to focus on the easy target. Migrants. And refugees, in particular. The vulnerable and the visible. The poorest and the most exploited.
Why people are giving nationalism a chance
Brexit wasn’t a right-wing vote. And Trump’s successes across the Atlantic aren’t either. No matter how many right-wingers or racists have backed them. As journalist John Harris insisted after the EU referendum:
Brexit voters were not stupid, deluded, bigoted, or hateful
Instead, he said, the vote spoke to the powerlessness felt by millions of people in neglected communities. The most recent crisis of global capitalism hit working people hard. And establishment politicians seemed more worried about protecting those responsible for the crisis than those affected by it – in the US, the UK, or elsewhere. Conservative governments had never truly helped working class communities. And New Labour elites had largely forgotten about them. So what was there to lose? Leaving the EU might help. It might not. But it couldn’t hurt to give it a shot.
As US documentary director Michael Moore said recently about Donald Trump and his supporters:
He is the human molotov cocktail that they have been waiting for. The human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them.
And Brexit was similar. Establishment figures didn’t appear to want it. And establishment figures suck. So Brexit would be the perfect molotov cocktail to wake them up.
Making a broken system even worse
But understanding why right-wing nationalists have gained support recently doesn’t justify their racist rhetoric and harmful policies. Support for them, whether they appear to be anti-establishment or not, helps no one. It only takes us further away from values of compassion and justice.
In the UK, wealthy corporate media outlets have jumped on the UKIP bandwagon. We’ve seen The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Express, and The Daily Telegraph all play into the language of ‘an establishment betrayal of the people’ to describe the judges who ruled that Brexit must be overseen by parliament rather than Theresa May’s regime. In doing so, they sounded very similar to Jo Cox‘s suspected murderer, who gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.
Fearmongering about foreign enemies – in this case migrants – simply plays into the false idea that they are somehow responsible for all our problems. In reality, our problems are the result of our undemocratic political and economic system. We have a struggling NHS because our elites favour reduced funding and backdoor privatisation. Our education suffers for much the same reason. Private control of our trains, meanwhile, has been hopeless. And the list goes on.
Ending distraction politics
Many countries in the world are clearly moving in a nationalist direction. From the US to Russia. From the UK to Turkey. But it is a tired alternative. It is not a solution to the ills of global capitalism; and it won’t somehow lead us to ‘greatness’. We’ve tried it before, and it only serves to divide humanity and create conflict. It simply distracts us from the real problem: the exploitative, oppressive, and undemocratic rule of the world’s rich and powerful.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is just one politician who has refused to play the nationalist distraction game and has instead highlighted the real culprit of Britain’s problems. Speaking about the strains of immigration in June, he said:
Some communities can change dramatically and rapidly, and that can be disconcerting for some people… More people living in an area can put real pressure on local services like GP surgeries, schools and housing… [But] this isn’t the fault of migrants – it’s a failure of government.
There is an alternative
The real alternative lies in an understanding of the reality expressed by Corbyn above. People in neglected communities are struggling; and political elites have ignored their voices for decades. The solution is to listen to their voices and support their communities. Fund healthcare properly. Fund education properly. Build enough houses. And build a meaningful democracy.
Together, we can build a fairer, more democratic, and more compassionate society. A society that deals with injustices and inequalities by looking at their true causes rather than scapegoating people from abroad, who are also victims.
It’s easy to say ‘immigration bad, government good’, because foreigners are an easy target. But that changes nothing. It’s much harder to stand up to someone who lives in a country mansion and sends the fruits of their workers’ labour to an offshore tax haven. But it is possible to take back control from political and economic elites. Control over our economy, our natural resources, and the future of our communities.
Democracy isn’t voting every few years for which out-of-touch elite we want to rule over us. It’s active involvement in our political destiny. It’s something we learn by participating. And there are wonderful examples of this both in the UK and abroad.
The crisis of the Western political establishment will continue whether Donald Trump wins the US elections or not. Either way, it’s a disaster for ‘democracy’, and a disaster for humanity. And the only way Western citizens can avert further disaster is to stop waiting for the establishment to give them an alternative to the messed up status quo, and to start building it for themselves.