Just a few days ago, the Wall Street Journal joined the choir of embittered reactionaries denouncing the popular mobilization against Amazon, stating, “New York’s progressives … don’t know how to play (the) game.”
Not too long after, articles emerged proclaiming how the popular, anti-establishment French Yellow Vests movement (a miracle by any standards) has been “infiltrated” by “ultra-leftists and extreme-right agitators,” that Melenchon’s leftist Unsubmissive France is in fact “just as bad” as Le Pen’s fascist movement. In the U.K., the Tories and the Blairites are united in opportunistically painting Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing as anti-Semitic.
In our own country, Bernie Sanders — indisputably the leader of the American left — is equated to a left-wing Trump or a loon by almost every establishment pundit and their mother.
Certainly, it is a given that the standing establishment consensus is entirely antiquated (hence, the phenomenon of “Fake News”). It no longer resonates with the masses, incurs nothing but contempt and fails to see the ground that has been stripped from beneath its feet. It survives only by demoralizing — it weaponizes cynicism. But it is one thing to recognize the panic of the establishment and another to recognize the doom spontaneously unfolding from all of this.
It is commonplace today to speak about the danger of the emerging neo-fascism as in that of the Orbans, Salvinis and Le Pens of Europe. However, let us suppose an alternative hypothesis by no means incompatible with these observations: that the threat to democracy does not immediately emerge from the right, but from the center, which exempts itself from partisanship, which does not register its technocratic reasoning as a political position at all but rather as “the facts” against “ideology” (or “partisanship”).
In 2018, the New York Times polled 14 developed countries. In all of them, including the United States, it was those who considered themselves centrists who were found to be overwhelmingly the most distrustful of democratic institutions. Even the far-right, whose pretense to democracy is purely opportunistic, polls higher in favor.
One cannot help but be reminded of the typical narrative espoused by those respectable, professional classes after the 2016 elections: The “stupid, low-IQ rednecks” who don’t know what’s good for them, or the “far-left ideologues” who split the party or those inner-city strata who are “too lazy to vote,” are the reason we have Trump.
It was the same narrative that, more recently, united the far-right and the center when the dust cleared from the events around Amazon’s HQ2 — that the “clueless” Ocasio-Cortez and her stupid “ideology-driven” supporters refused the generous beneficence of Prince Bezos.
The danger of right-wing populism is, on its own, nothing. It has as much of a future as David Duke or the Klan. But the form of right-populism will become something when it converges with the centrist establishment, which has already acceded so much to Trumpism (especially discursively).
Those who doubt this are invited to consider the trajectory of the centrist democrats over the last couple of years. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry now support curbing immigration in Europe, which has “crushed” the continent. Chris Cuomo asserted on air that Trump is right on immigration, only that it is not something to be solved by a wall but through “technology” (something supported, immediately, by Don Lemon). Nancy Pelosi — along with Chuck Schumer and the rest of “da resistance” — clapped enthusiastically before Trump’s denunciation of socialism during the State of the Union and during the conciliatory moments of that speech.
Any laughable “adoption” of a far-left platform among Democratic candidates is a bluff meant to placate the left, and nine times out of 10 it bears only an aesthetic similarity where it is not an outright compromise (e.g., Elizabeth Warren’s “Accountable Capitalism Act” is worlds apart from Sanders’ “Democratic Socialism”).
The way the centrist establishment has responded to the reactionaries, and the means by which they attempt to stave off the left, thus realizes the emerging post-democratic order in an inverse form.
The victory of the right will be accomplished not at the expense of the establishment, but when the respectable classes “meet halfway” with Trumpist reaction, when the professional classes, the educated experts, condemn the ‘outlandishness’ of the left and find common ground with the reactionaries.
The threat of right-populism to democracy is therefore real. But it will fly over the heads of those who do not see its emergence precisely elsewhere: from the center, from those who realize the alliance between the ruling class and right-wing populism in their efforts to curb the increasing radicalism on the left. For them, Trump’s aesthetically displeasing attributes (his rudeness, his demeanor) pales in comparison with the left’s political vigilance.
The question is thus not one of being beyond partisanship, but which causes we are partisans for. To abandon partisanship is to abandon politics. It is to concede the very discourse of the debate to the caprice of the ruling classes. It is to abandon political decision-making to the technocrats, to those who — like Trump — conceive of governance as the mundane running of any business.
At the same time, it is true that the left has emphatically failed to root itself in the people at large, which is precisely why cynicism prevails at the moment (see: Howard Schultz’s “politics”).
But the limits of the left are the limits in its rationality. They are immanent. When a fighting left is born — and, perhaps, such a movement already has been — it will not pull punches. The moment when the left ceases to hold back, when it gives the centrists a good hit on the nose, that will be the moment when the tacit marriage between the Democratic establishment and the GOP will be openly consummated, when the spineless centrists cower behind the reactionary right against the people.
Only then will popular discontent find an outlet in something other than spontaneous reaction. Only then will a left worthy of the name find resonance in the masses.
Grayson Walker is a sophomore Philosophy, Politics and the Public and philosophy double major. He is a guest writer from Greenviille, S.C.