Conservative populism is flourishing in America as rapid change and media hysteria cultivate the politics of fear.
As must now be blindingly obvious to anyone following the international news, American politics is not like Western European politics. In the United States, popular outrage does not turn rapidly into responsive public policy. Governments do not move effectively to deal with economic and social problems on whose resolution most thinking people are in broad agreement.
A deranged youngster armed to the teeth with his mother’s weapons slaughters children in their schoolroom, but the US Senate cannot even pass a limited set of background checks on potential gun-buyers – background checks which a full 90% of the US electorate now understands to be necessary. Eleven million American workers survive in the shadows without proper documentation, yet comprehensive immigration reform remains stuck in Congress. The US economy is still 9 million jobs short of its 2007 total, and yet the President’s Jobs Bill remains blocked by Republican opposition and filibuster. Whatever else works in the United States, federal politics visibly does not.
The question is why? At least three reasons spring initially to mind.
One is that the Constitution wasn’t exactly designed to make Washington DC work – at least not in the manner of a modern democratic unitary constitution. From the outset, the founding fathers preferred checks and balances to untrammelled executive power. They wanted privileged minorities to exercise disproportionate influence; and they wrote in a small state and a southern veto into the way legislative seats were allocated and legislative procedures operated. They saw federal politics as the politics of notables.
The one thing they feared most, as destructive of the careful power balance they had built, was the rise of faction. Well, faction has really risen now. On the right at least, the notables have been replaced by the party hacks. The Democratic Party remains a shambolic coalition of liberals and conservatives; but the modern Republican Party does not. It has its divisions – social conservatives against libertarians for one – but its centre of gravity these days is pure Tea Party. Margaret Thatcher (not to mention Ronald Reagan) would be a moderate in today’s Republican coalition. What progressives currently face across the aisle in Congress is nothing less than right-wing politics run amok.
Why so right-wing and reactionary? Partly that is the product of money and planning. The plutocrats who grew rich from the inequality of the Reagan and Clinton years are determined to hold on to all that they have. The entitlement culture is alive and well at the top of American society. The super-rich now spend billions to sustain an ideological and political offensive against all things progressive.
Washington is in so many ways these days a bought town. Money buys campaign influence there. Money sustains right-wing think tanks. Money finances vast lobbying exercises. Money buys media outlets that push the conservative and the libertarian case. Money fuels the organizations that build the right-wing mass base. The parents of the slaughtered get the television time, but the National Rifle Association gets the Senate votes.
So there is money, but there is more. Ideological campaigns need audiences as well as resources, and unfortunately modern day American conservatism has them in abundance. America is changing fast: economically, it is losing its global dominance; socially, it is losing its white Anglo-Saxon majority; culturally, it is losing its Puritanism and its patriarchy.
There are a lot of frightened and beleaguered conservatives in the United States right now: evangelical Christians hanging on to their faith; angry white men hanging on to their guns; and low-paid Americans desperately hanging on to whatever money they can earn. When conservative talk-radio tells them every day that socialists have taken over in Washington – and that Washington elites are therefore now after their taxes, their sports and their faith – it is hardly surprising, in the midst of a severe economic downturn, that conservative populism is so prevalent in small-town America.
So strong in middle-America in fact, and so entrenched in the House of Representatives (where, since 2010, the gerrymandering of seats is at an all-time high), that getting anything progressive done in Washington is staggeringly difficult these days. It is as difficult in Washington now as it was in the United Kingdom in 1983 and 1987 when Thatcherism was so all-pervasive. But 1997 did eventually happen in the UK– something slightly better did eventually turn up in power in Westminster. We certainly need its equivalent here in the US. Any suggestions on how to get it will be gratefully received, because these are desperate and frustrating times for the American centre-left!
This column was first published by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI)