Populism and the question of political time

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, comments on the quickening pace of politics in the context of a resurgent populist movement.populismoriginalThe many remarkable political developments of the last year – most notably the vote in favour of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President – are less extraordinary than they may seem at first sight if we regard them as recent moments in a longer-term acceleration of political time. It was Harold Wilson who (supposedly) said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, but fifty years later this seems like an understatement. The pace and rate of political change today seems unprecedented.

One way in which we might view the current success of ‘populist’ political parties and movements is that they are a response to this acceleration of political time. Populists often berate politicos obsessed with the minutiae of political intercourse, hooked on Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. But of course, there is a paradox here: populists have come to prominence and to power precisely by the use of those media that most readily lend themselves to the acceleration of political time. Donald Trump’s victory would not have been possible thirty or even twenty-years ago: not just because of the direct line he had in the election campaign to his followers on Twitter, but by the saturation coverage he received in the ‘mainstream’ media.

Populists have thrived on the permanent election campaign that has come to characterise the politics of democracies. It was not their invention. Nor was it a simply technologically-driven process, made possible by innovations in broadcasting and digital communications. Rather, the permanent election campaign is a central feature of neo-liberal governance. The logic of neo-liberalism transforms citizens into consumers, and political knowledge into a marketable commodity. Political knowledge was once tough to digest and even tougher to produce; but today it has been broken down into eminently digestible, often tasteless nuggets, and virtually anyone can add to the stock of knowledge through a tweet or by posting in the comments section on the website of a national newspaper.

Populism seems like a reaction against neo-liberalism. But, in fact, in its most prominent contemporary form – that is, the populism of the authoritarian nationalist right – it follows the same relentless logic of commercialisation and de-politicisation. A politics that promotes dissent, or even that calls for careful deliberation of important matters is routinely dismissed by populists. It promises instead to outdo the technocrats by providing quick and ‘simple’ solutions to what are deeply complex, and often intractable problems. Most obviously in the shape of Donald Trump, it offers the prospect of an effective politics by adopting the ruthless efficiency of the modern corporation (or at least what is supposed to be its ruthless efficiency, which in reality often masks inefficiency, inertia, and corruption).

By appealing to an idealised past of social harmony and effective authority, populists may seem to venerate a simpler and more authentic world, where politics was not driven by the permanent election campaign. But this is a veneer – populism in its contemporary forms is very much a product of a (hyper-) modern world of accelerating political time and diminishing public space. It is driven along by these transformations rather than presenting a challenge to them.

Populism might prompt us to think more seriously about the question of political time, because it may frame certain central problems about how we are governed in the present. Despite its avowals, populism does not slow down political time but accelerates it to the point of permanent crisis and reaction. We are seeing the manifestation of this ever-greater acceleration in the multiple crises of politics. How we slow down political time is a question now worth asking.

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The Presidential Apprentice? Taking Trump Seriously

Rob Singh is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck. His new book, ‘After Obama: Renewing American Leadership, Restoring Global Order’ will be published by Cambridge University Press in May. Prof Singh recently appeared on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Long View which focused on ‘Donald Trump and the Politics of Celebrity’

Donald Trump Sr. at Citizens United Freedom Summit in Greenville South Carolina May 2015 by Michael Vadon 13Buffoon. Joke. Jerk. Those are just some of the descriptions of the current front-runner for the Republican Party nomination for president of the United States. From his fellow Republicans, that is. Beyond the party, Donald J. Trump has been lambasted as a bigot, misogynist, and racist. Yet none of this has seemingly hampered the popular appeal of his quixotic quest for the White House.

Should we take the Trump phenomenon seriously? The answer is, emphatically, yes. Laugh at or loathe him, Trump has been the Heineken candidate, reaching parts of the electorate no other candidate can reach. And whilst it remains to be seen whether he can translate his support in the polls into votes, Trump already dominates 2016 in singular fashion. There exists no precedent in the modern era for a political novice setting the agenda so consistently that the media focuses in Pavlovian fashion on whatever subjects Trump raises. From stopping illegal immigration through a ‘beautiful’ great wall with Mexico to a moratorium on all Muslims entering the US, no-one has commanded attention like the New Yorker. Moreover, not only have other Republicans felt compelled to follow his lead but even President Obama’s final State of the Union was essentially an extended rejoinder to the Donald.

So, what underlies the success? Anger, authenticity, media savvy, populism, and timing.

An unapologetically redemptive force

First, most Americans think their country is on the wrong track. Among white working class Americans – the core Trump constituency – stagnant wages, real income decline, and loss of a once-dominant status in a nation transforming economically and culturally underlies disillusion. For Americans regarding ‘their’ country as in need of taking back and among those fearing the US is in terminal decline – polarised and gridlocked at home, discounted and challenged for primacy abroad – Trump represents an unapologetically redemptive force: a visceral, primal scream from the heart of white American nationalism.

Second, Americans broadly view their government as ineffective and political system as corrupt. Running for Washington by running against it, on a platform of incoherent but potently opaque policy positions, no-one – for those wanting to change Washington – embodies the outsider like Trump. Moreover, uniquely, his personal fortune insulates him from charges that he can be ‘bought’ by vested interests. When Trump talks about knowing how to work the system as a businessman, he is credible. Add to that an outspoken willingness to speak directly, bluntly and without fear of causing offence and millions of Americans view the Donald as a truth teller. Like businessmen in politics before him, Trump promises that what he did for himself he can do for America, and that ordinary Americans will once more partake of the increasingly elusive American Dream.

Social media mogul

Third, Trump has exploited his formidable media knowledge with astonishing shrewdness. Outrageous statements, outlandish claims and telling personal insults – seemingly spontaneous but carefully pre-planned and road-tested – compel ratings. Social media abets the creation of an alternative reality and echo chamber from which the distrusted mainstream media are excluded. Disintermediation – cutting out the middle man – compounds Trump’s celebrity status to forge what his 5 million Twitter supporters perceive as a personal link to their politically incorrect champion.

Fourth, Trump – for whom id, not ideology, is all – upends conservative orthodoxy. A New York native who was for most of his life pro-choice on abortion, pro-gun control and a donor to Democrats, Trump is no staid Mitt Romney. In rejecting free trade deals and ‘stoopid’ Middle East wars, pledging to make allies from Saudi Arabia to South Korea pay for US protection, committing to punitive taxes on Wall Street and preserving entitlement programmes for the average Joe, Trump’s anti-elitism is scrambling a party establishment fearful of an anti-government populism it unleashed but cannot control.

Finally, if Obama won the presidency in 2008 as the ‘un-Bush’, what more vivid an antithesis to the current lame duck could be imagined than Trump? After seven years of the most polarising presidency since Richard Nixon, Trump promises to restore the art of the deal – something the US Constitution mandates for successful governing, and AWOL since 2009 – at home and abroad alike.

Can Trump triumph?

Can Trump prevail in the Republican demolition derby? The odds are still against him. After all, most Republicans do not support him and he has been first in national polls in large part because the ‘establishment’ vote has been so fragmented among Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie. But if Trump can win or come second to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucus, and then top the New Hampshire and South Carolina polls, the prospects of him securing the nomination are 50-50 at worst. By the time of the Republican Party convention in Cleveland, Ohio in July, if not well in advance, no one may be laughing other than the Donald.

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