Two years ago, the US presidential election was closing in on us. Like many, I thought Hillary Clinton would win.
I wrote a long tweet thread at the time (captured in full here) which you can read in your own time (please do!), but the thing that was motivating me was from what you could describe as a ‘sustainability perspective’. There’s little that’s settled in the analysis of sustainability, but one of the things that ought to be is to be able to spot when something is unsustainable because the means of keeping it going are being systematically depleted. And I was, then, pondering what the end point of what looked to me like an unsustainable political evolution would be, but we’ll come back to that, kind of.
In the tweet thread I track the long breakdown of right wing politics, and the slow but inexorable substitution of ‘politics as approximately usual’ with ‘politics as pure power grab’. I described it, variously, as the shift of the GOP from a mainstream coalitional party to a fringe — albeit very large and significant fringe — party (distinguishing true-believers from RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only, was a massive red flag), and as a party that distinguished itself from the ‘reality-based community’ (labelling itself at the time as being part of the faith-based community, another whopping red flag).
I describe how the process has been slow-burning for a long time but it stepped up in the 21st century, to the point where people talked of ‘right wing postmodernism’, meaning reality was a manipulable thing, to be created in your preferred terms, not defined for you by outside forces that required experts to decode. This last note is important: the standard reliance on technocratic advisers to help guide and advise in the policy-making process is all but abandoned.
All of this predates Trump’s arrival, first as a candidate, then as president. As I (and others) keep saying, Trump is not an anomaly, he’s an end result.
Recently I wrote an oops-so-Trump-got-elected update (collected here) where I got a little more historically specific as to how I saw conservatism historically become unmoored from both its traditional principles, and, particularly, from being a movement of ideas. I mentioned three particular things that set the scene in the late 20th century for the full-blown unhinging that’s occurred in the 21st century: respectively, (i) the 1960s civil rights movement, and the development of what became the Southern Strategy, (ii) the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, and the ‘triumph of capitalism’, and (iii) the almost total marginalisation of conservative thinkers and idea-generators as contributors to policy design and implementation. I discuss these at a bit more length in the link just above.
A brief digression: some people will claim that conservatives have always been about holding power and maintaining privilege, and that the notion of conservatism being rooted in deep philosophical principles and ideas is a fig leaf for the real agenda of reinforcing dominance. This is not an argument to be resolved here. I note (in the link above) that previous generations of conservative politicians were pragmatic enough to do things that were not obviously ‘conservative’ but were deemed as important and in the public interest. Philosophically, imagine (or refer to actual historical examples) where high-profile conservatives (politicians or otherwise) did or supported things on principle, just because, even if they could have gotten away with bending, breaking or ignoring the rules. Things like observing due process, observing the separation of powers, observing the separation of church and state, observing the independence of the electoral boundary re-drawing process, observing scrupulously the fairness and impartiality of the voting process, and so on. That these things seem routinely observed in the breach now is evidence that the process of unhinging is at least close to complete.
What does all this have to do with ‘sustainability’?
It’s that the unhinging of the GOP, its unmooring from convention and abandonment of principle cannot maintain its trend. It’s built on shifting sands. What are the obvious ‘unsustainability’ points?
First: Tactically. At some point the Democrats will (we must assume, so bear with me) start fighting fire with fire, by which I mean they’ll stop being so concerned with being seen to be rigorous observers of the rules when the other side so freely violates them. I don’t know how or when and it’s not central to my thesis so let’s move on.
Second: Political systems in modern democratic polities with diverse societies are always experiencing the tension of keeping society ‘divided enough’ that there’s some inbuilt friction-driven party loyalty for the parties to leverage, but not so divided that the various groups are at each others’ throats. This somewhat delicate balancing act has been thrown out the window. Maximise division. Harness anger.
Third: As the division between groups is being maximised, the make-up of those groups is changing. The population is becoming less white, while younger people tend to be more liberal than older people. This means the potential Democratic voter base is expanding. The GOP has leveraged the union (in the Venn diagram sense) of angry, and rich, white people, but both those constituencies are shrinking.
Fourth: The political divisions being created are based on fears that at some point will come apart. The population in large numbers likes things like, say, government-provided (or supported) health care, and slogans from right wing rallies like ‘Keep government out of Medicare’ literally rely on fooling people, and keeping them fooled. This cannot continue indefinitely. People, regardless of party affliction or ideology, do tend to want their governments to do useful things while in office. They may be confused about which things governments actually do, but they’ll notice their absence if they stop being done.
Fifth: At some point, the denial of physical reality, and the forced irrelevance of technocratic expertise, will become unmanageable. Climate change will continue to happen, no matter how many snowballs or lumps of coal are brought into political chambers. Lax environmental policy generally will have observable consequences. Jobs will be lost and businesses closed or moved as trade deals collapse and tariffs bite. Reality will intrude, however unwanted, and the consequences cannot be hidden forever, no matter how persistent your propagandistic attempts to reshape the world are.
Sixth: At some point also, the media will stop defaulting to ‘Let’s discuss both sides’ as though we have a conventionally-operating two-party system focused on competing electorally by offering services and policies that appeal to a majority. The media has been slow to figure out how to handle the evident breakdown in normal political operations, and different sections of the media have been complicit — some deliberately, some inadvertently — in the overall gaslighting operation. But slowly, the ambient temperature is heating up, with an air of ‘This is surreal’ permeating the media’s discussion of political events.
The UK and Australia
The process I have described above is furthest advanced in the US, but it is not confined to there. In my 2016 tweet thread, I drew comparisons with developments and actions in the UK and Australia, all of which still apply. There are many differences of detail, from the institutional arrangements to the individual players, the nature of their opponents and the particular circumstances the countries find themselves in. But the basic pattern is the same.
The reality-denial of Britain’s Brexit referendum is on record. The ‘maximise division’ approach of the pro-Brexit forces, also. In Australia, the 2013 federal election brought in the conservative coalition government of Tony Abbott, whose (mostly) disciplined negative campaigning in the face of an unpopular incumbent government won them government without a particularly clear mandate for what positive things they would do once in office. So, of course, they focused in large part on culture war issues.
(I’m writing about this elsewhere and so more detail will follow. The important point is that in each case, conservative parties in government are struggling to articulate a positive vision of what they stand for, as opposed to a vision of perpetual culture wars they intend to fight.)
The cracks are beginning to show
Trump’s election has exacerbated growing tensions within America about immigration, trade and economy policy, and race and gender. Women’s marches and other protests — including counter-protests against white nationalist marches — have made obvious issues that had been at least partially hidden previously.
The latest episode is the confirmation process for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, nominee to the US Supreme Court. One aspect that has become plain is that many Republicans support Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation regardless of what is said about him. Reasoning ranges from the accusations against him by (amongst others) Christine Blasey Ford being false and part of a political conspiracy, to that it’s no big deal if he did what was said anyway.
In the meantime, Trump’s election has emboldened the Democrats. Now that the Republicans have stopped even slightly pretending to be open to ‘bipartisan centrism as usual’, a series of progressive candidates have been nominated for office, some of whom have gone on to win.
In Australia, the stumbles and embarrassments are mounting up. A Prime Minister was recently replaced, seemingly due to him being seen as too centrist for the hard-right malcontents in his party. (In particular, the deep-seated suspicion that he actually wanted to do something even tokenistic in response to climate change.)
Now there is a banking royal commission, an inquiry into corruption and malfeasance in the banking sector which is turning up awful story after awful story, and which the government had resisted calling until the point it could no longer resist. There is about to be a similar inquiry into aged care, where more awful stories are emerging. That these are significant (private) industries with the capacity to cause significant benefits or harms directly to members of the public, the manifest failure to regulate them adequately is apparent.
Just now, the revered national broadcaster the ABC, which has already been for several years one of the government’s culture-war ground zeroes, is in politically-inspired turmoil. The ABC board’s chair has resigned after sacking the chief executive, when emails came to light in which he’d previously demanded high profile journalists be sacked for displeasing the government. While all the sordid details are yet to be revealed, the stench of political intervention in a public broadcaster is apparent.
In the UK, the conservative government remains in turmoil over Brexit. Yes, this is less obviously party-political in that the Tories generally supported the Remain position during the referendum, and Labour appears to be tying itself in knots over how to be seen to respect the referendum results without shooting itself in the foot. But Brexit is the metaphorical analogue to Trump’s wall, and it is being most strongly championed by those on the far right.
I don’t mean to suggest that voters will automatically see these things as explicit failures of conservative politics. The deeply entrenched advantages of conservative parties are the perceptions of them as responsible economic managers, as guardians of law and order, and as focused on border security. But their capacity to sell themselves as the natural party of government is undermined, the worse the spate of self-inflicted bad news headlines gets. It’s harder to conceal the gap between promise and performance to the wider public.
The tension between ‘playing to the base’ and ‘appealing to the public’ is not new. But the strategy that the GOP have adopted, and exported to other conservative parties and movements — of perpetually playing to an increasingly partisan base while attempting to fool the rest of the public that they are governing in the interests of the country — can only continue for so long. The attempts to fool everyone not in the base is getting more and more difficult as the language gets more intemperate and the actions more extreme, and the base itself is, slowly but inexorably, shrinking.
Finally, the media, as mentioned above, are becoming increasingly short-tempered about having to take this shit seriously. Those parts of the media that haven’t always been openly partisan are starting to rethink what it means to be non-partisan, and the major legacy outfits seem (hopefully!) to be getting past their we-must-understand-the-mind-of-the-Trump-voter phase.
Soft landing or hard?
Writing in 2016, I was expecting a Clinton victory to come as a slap in the face to the GOP. I thought that Trump’s nomination — the absurd end result of a strategy of ever-increasing extremism — would be an electoral failure, and the Republicans would be confronted by the possibility of two more terms of a moderate and technocratic administration in power while they had to figure out why their strategy had failed.
Meaning: I expected the world to continue along more or less as normal while the angry trolls of the Republican Party had to finally confront the reality of their unpopularity. But their unpopularity turned out not to be the electoral barrier I expected. Despite winning a minority of the overall vote, Trump was elected, and here we are.
Despite being an obvious truism, it’s useful to remember that anything can be sustained for a long time, if you’re willing to throw enough resources at it, until some final point at which it all comes crashing down. Theranos, the blood-testing health technology company, was a multi-billion dollar enterprise sustained by bravado and false promises, until it became nothing. The ‘value proposition’ was never there.
The fundamentally empty value proposition of the GOP is on display, but they won the last election, and it is not completely absurd to suggest they may win the next. The GOP’s commitment to its underlying grift is escalating, and they will continue to escalate it until the whole thing collapses under them because the alternative is far worse. They can do — and are doing — considerable damage in the meantime.
Where are the points for change?
As Jeff Flake showed last week, Republicans who purport to put country over party are susceptible to pressure. (Yes, it helps, and then some, that he is not running again.) His insistence on an FBI inquiry in to Blasey Ford’s allegations is a small step, and already the White House is moving to constrain the inquiry. It’s only one small crack in an otherwise solid wall, but even if the GOP gets to appoint Kavanaugh, it’s not clear they haven’t won the battle only to lose the war.
White women who vote Republican are also having a moment right now. While I’m seeing media stories about right-wing women who still support Kavanaugh’s nomination, I’m also seeing social-media stories about right-wing women who are starting to see rape culture for what it is, and how it has been embedded in the political class who are vocally supporting this nominee. If the GOP starts to lose the support of Comfortable White Women, their shrinking base will shrink cataclysmically.
(Note: the flip-side is that many ‘rational, reasonable’ conservatives who label themselves #NeverTrumpers seem to be fine with Kavanaugh’s nomination being confirmed, regardless of what it takes to achieve this. The deep sense of the mainstream conservative party being the natural and legitimate party of government, with left-of-centre parties being illegitimate usurpers, is deeper than any perceived anomaly resulting from the nomination of a candidate such as Trump.)
In Australia, the removal of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has angered moderates who went along with the placate-the-conservatives-in-the-name-of-stability strategy. Having tipped their hand that no amount of placating conservatives would keep the leader secure, conservatives are now vulnerable against more moderate Liberals who now feel emboldened to push back. The recent preselection drama in Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah, where he suffered a protest vote (a third or more votes going to an empty chair, effectively), is an obvious example.
Meanwhile, left of centre parties are also becoming emboldened. Cleaving to the centre no longer seems like the obvious default strategy. Marking out clear division by doing things that actually appeal to large sections of the public seems less risky, and so more obviously progressive candidates and causes are being nominated and proposed. It’s like there’s a licence to try shifting the Overton window to see what happens.
And so, what now?
Of course, I don’t know. The long grift is coming apart, because a failing course of action will eventually fail, but how and when the failure will manifest specifically is hard to spot. In the spirit of not wanting to waste a good crisis, it’s worth left-leaning parties trying to offer an ambitious alternative, because if not now, when? What’s really important for the left side of politics to do is to figure out what they will do with power when it next comes their way.
It’s also worth seeing who is now — after being either indifferent to, or supportive of, the con I’ve described above — open to changing how they vote and (hopefully) how they think. As the grift starts to visibly come apart, they’ll be looking for places to jump to. Newsweek are already opining that, after the Kavanaugh hearings, the Republicans have lost women for good. This may be an overstatement, but it does raise two questions. If, for example, Republican-voting women rebel as a result of Kavanaugh, is this permanent or temporary? Do they simply want the GOP to go back to looking a bit more respectable, removing the gauche Trump-style populists and turning the misogyny down to a tolerably dull roar? Or, if permanent, how do those who’ve been yelling at white women for voting to preserve their country-club privileges reconcile with them?
Anyway, I think there will need to be large scale cult-deprogramming exercises, because the damage done is deep and lasting. We’ve not got a history of doing these, certainly not in living memory in the countries I am looking at here. Institutions that have contributed heavily to hyperpatisanship (most notably, sections of the media and the church) will not let their influence be challenged easily.
My first idea — and you’re welcome to treat this as anywhere between purely facetious and deadly serious — is to abandon our current system of government at least temporarily. Create a special emergency executive council, and put it in the exclusive hands of women of colour. They are the demographic most singularly Unimpressed By Your Bullshit since year whenever.
And since we’re asking them to step up and fix our mess, pay them a shitload to do it. Five years minimum. Might need ten. Discuss.
Michael Harris is an economist who has worked in academia and the government sector for many years.