After Brexit and Trump, 2016 is widely seen as an annus horribilis for liberalism. If you define the liberal ideal, as The Economist does, as “Open economies and open societies, where the free exchange of goods, capital, people and ideas is encouraged and where universal freedoms are protected from state abuse by the rule of law?”, this has been a bad year. John Gray, an English philosopher who foretold both Brexit and Trump, agrees with the definition but unlike the house magazine of laissez faire liberalism, he welcomes its decline. Gray sees the liberal faith in progress as a dangerous delusion and he welcomes disenchantment with the pieties of neo-liberalism as a necessary first step towards a new realism.
It’s hard, though, to find a generalisation that fits all the illiberal populisms that rule the world today. How to reconcile the alleged causes of Brexit or Trump’s triumph (and possibly Marine Le Pen’s next year) with the ascendancy of far-right politicians in central and eastern Europe, figures like the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, in Hungary, or the Polish PM, Andrzej Duda? Even more problematically, what do Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Rodrigo Duterte and their electorates have in common with their western counterparts?
One country whose current political culture can be said to be a direct result of the ideological imposition of high capitalist dogma is Russia. In the heyday of neo-liberalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ‘international community’ and the institutional pillars of the post-war ‘world order’-the IMF and the World Bank-turned Russians into lab rats for unregulated capitalism. The economic and human catastrophe that followed taught Putin and his apparatchiks that globalisation was a Western plot designed to elicit complete surrender. This suspicion was encouraged by NATO’s ever-advancing eastern frontier in the name of small-state sovereignty and the eastward expansion of the European Union. Russia learnt in the cruellest possible way that there was no world order, just a jungle where muscle meant territory. Putin’s brand of illiberal populism can be attributed to the excesses of neo-liberalism but the explanation can’t be generalised. No other nation was ravaged in this way.
If there is a single, systemic explanation for all the swaggering populists that bestride the world’s stage, it isn’t obvious. The economic explanation offered for Brexit and Trump’s election (working class voters in the hinterland voting with their feet against a neo-liberalism that has left them stranded in de-industrialised towns) doesn’t fit countries in Asia who, economists assure us, have done well out of globalisation. A disenchantment with the neo-liberal order can’t, therefore, be the one size that fits everyone. The bogey of immigrants stealing jobs isn’t a major issue in the electoral coalitions built by Orban or Duda. They might baulk at the idea of housing immigrants from the Syrian catastrophe, but immigration wasn’t the issue that brought them to power.
There is a curious role reversal in the debate over the reason for Brexit and Trump: the right keeps emphasising economic explanations-unemployment, free trade, recession-while the left doubles down on cultural ones, such as racism and assorted forms of bigotry. For the Right, economic explanations serve a rhetorical purpose: they normalise the xenophobic rhetoric that has followed Brexiteers and Trumpistas like a dirty halo by suggesting that such racism, as there is, is a distorted expression of authentic material suffering.
The rhetorical use of economic (and therefore ‘secular’) grievance suggests an alternative way of reading the new populism, not so much as a crisis of liberalism but as the coming of age of modern majoritarianism. This is a peculiarly Indian way of understanding the phenomenon sometimes called illiberal populism.
Indians remember a very similar debate about the causes of Narendra Modi’s election victory in 2014. On the Left, it was despairingly diagnosed as the triumph of Hindu nationalism, while the BJP and many of its born-again ‘centrist’ supporters insisted that the absolute majority that Modi had won was an expression of the material aspirations of a young electorate.
Progressives argued that it was a mistake to see Modi’s political success as rooted in his claim to be an economic moderniser. His success lay in mobilising the electorate in the name of the ‘nation’, a nation defined by a nativist majority beset by threats from without and within. His visceral appeal is majoritarian; economic progress, certainly, but for a narrowly defined people mobilised against the enemies of the nation. In Modi’s case, these are treacherous Muslims and deracinated secularists, while for Erdogan, Turkey’s enemies are Kurds, Armenians and, above all, its own secular, godless Europeanised elites. “We are the People,” Erdogan likes to say at public rallies. “Who are you?”
The similarities to Trump’s central message are striking. A coastal elite, obsessed with racial, religious and sexual minorities, neglected hard-working white people and turned them into strangers in their own country. If his hostility to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) was aimed at harnessing the resentment of de-industrialisation amongst working class communities in the rust belt, his public bigotry about Mexicans and Muslims and the blinding whiteness of his entourage, made it clear that he was addressing a white working class.
It’s useful to remember here that Trump didn’t stop at promising to deport 12 million undocumented immigrants, or building a wall to stop illegal migration from Mexico, he characterised Mexican illegals as rapists and criminals. And he did this in his speech in June 2015 when he declared his intention to run for president. His calling card, from the moment he set out his stall, was bigotry.
Trump’s defenders argued that his critics miss the wood for trees by cherry-picking his provocations while ignoring the real anger about real issues that he forced into the national conversation. Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who was an early supporter, put this pithily: liberals took Trump literally without taking him seriously. The implication that Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally is clever but not persuasive. To argue that people voted for Trump despite his bigotry is to ignore the support that this bigotry brought him, support that more ‘mealy-mouthed’ Republicans, despite their conservatism and their near-identical policy positions, never got close to. Trump won the Republican primaries because he was xenophobic and racist; his supporters took him both seriously and literally.
Trump’s apologists respond to this argument in two ways. One, by objecting that to argue this is to stigmatise a plurality of Americans as racist and, two, by arguing as Joe Scarborough did in an opinion piece, that since some Trump voters in the Midwest must have voted for Obama in earlier elections, they couldn’t possibly be racists.
We have heard these arguments rehearsed before in India after Modi’s election. Liberals were accused of smearing a third and more of India’s electorate as communal, merely because they voted for the BJP and its allies. This argument from size, which assumes that there is virtue in numbers, is based on a common misunderstanding of prejudice, whether racial or religious.
Bigots aren’t born, they are made and bigotry is a set of acquired opinions, not a permanent inherited condition. Progressives who characterise Modi’s supporters as bigoted aren’t asking to elect a new people. They are acknowledging that there is some serious counter-persuasion to be done. Bigots don’t have to be cadre members of the KKK or the RSS. They don’t even have to be career bigots. If they are persuaded by the rhetoric of Hindu nationalism or white nationalism to vote for Modi or Trump, it’s reasonable to say that they are either voting for bigotry or are willing to discount it as a necessary evil. When they stop supporting bigotry, when they reject the assumptions of majoritarian nationalism, they will stop being prejudiced in that way.
BIGOTS AREN’T BORN, THEY ARE MADE. BIGOTRY IS A SET OF ACQUIRED OPINIONS, NOT A PERMANENT, INHERITED CONDITION
If we see the new populism as majoritarianism gone viral, there are historical explanations that suggest themselves for Trump’s victory and Modi’s. Trump won the electoral college while losing the popular vote. He won votes where they mattered under the rules of the game. The real question isn’t why Hillary lost the 80,000-odd Midwestern votes she needed to win. The question that will interest historians is why did nearly half the American electorate vote for this bigot with a bouffant?
There is a detailed historical answer to that question that goes back to the Republican Party’s ‘southern strategy’ unveiled 50 years ago and the cumulative success of the dog-whistling, gerrymandering and voter suppression perfected over the decades. Trump’s electoral college majority wasn’t built over one campaign; it was built over 50 years and helped over the line by the derangement induced in sections of the white electorate by the sight of black tenants in the White House for eight interminable years. There is, similarly, a history to Narendra Modi’s popularity founded, like Trump’s, on decades of majoritarian mobilisation, starting with the campaign for the razing of the Babri Masjid and culminating in the Muzaffarnagar riots just before the 2014 elections.
Why did these disparate majoritarianisms win political power at roughly the same political moment? Any generalisation will need caveats, but the Great Recession and its consequences offer the beginnings of an explanation. As economic growth tapered off and the prospect of secular progress dimmed, plausible sectarians offered anxious and uncertain voters both anti-national enemies and nationalist panaceas. In times of economic crisis, majoritarian parties and strongmen invariably have a headstart over their liberal or left-wing counterparts, because invoking the Nation and sounding the alarm against external threats and internal treachery is part of their stock in trade. Liberals committed to a civic patriotism (and reluctant to summon up a people for fear of who might turn up) are slower off the mark. Sometimes liberals are so persuaded of the self-evident virtue of their beliefs they forget that political success turns on persuasion. It’s cold comfort, but after the lamentation and handwringing of 2016, they know that their clock starts now.