29 January 2016

The legitimacy crisis is real

It should be abundantly clear by now that I am not a fan of Donald J Trump. He is a vulgar Calvinist, a vulgar Caesarist and our version of Kleon – or, if you prefer a modern analogy to a classical one, he’s our version of Silvio Berlusconi. It’s unclear if the man has any convictions at all apart from ‘look out for number one’. He’s certainly not a true populist in the mould of Bill Peffer or John Rayner, or even a quasi-populist like Huey Long, who appealed to people’s competence and self-respect, instead of to their overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of complex global threats to life and livelihood.

But in spite of all of this, the Trump campaign has proven a source of endless fascination. Among the ordinaries and the shock troops of movement conservatism, his candidacy is immensely popular. But among the elites of that same movement, his candidacy is met with immediate and visceral revilement. The reason for this is that the political game which they rigged to play out a certain way, isn’t doing so. They used the moral capital from the culture wars in order to drum up support for foreign and domestic policies which have proven ineffective and indeed devastating to the cultural fabric they were claiming to protect. Now the grandees of movement conservatism are finding, to their grief, that the culture-war rhetoric no longer works, and the democratic structures they claim to support are being used against them.

The same thing is happening on the left, it should be noted. The campaign of Bernie Sanders is being driven as much by a rejection of Democratic politics-as-usual (as personified by Hillary Clinton) as it is by Bernie Sanders’s ideas themselves. I should note that I wholeheartedly support certain aspects of the Sanders campaign – particularly the commonsensical ideas to reintroduce postal savings banks for small-volume lending (not a new idea at all), and Glass-Steagall regulations on commercial banks. (But the disappointing truth, which likely will prevent me from voting for him, is that Bernie doesn’t differ that much from the Democratic establishment on foreign policy or on life issues.) That isn’t stopping Sanders, though, from making a great deal of hay out of his outsider status, and the fact that he isn’t Hillary.

However, whether I support them or not, both the Bernie and the Trump campaigns represent an inflection point in our political structure and guiding ideas – possibly a critical inflection point. The political and mass-media institutions which have been carefully constructed with the purpose of bringing popular opinion into alignment with the policy preferences of cultural elites, of financial elites and of the deep state, are weakening. They are weakening because they have run up massive deficits against the public trust. Ordinary citizens have been told that our beefed-up and heavily-intrusive national-security infrastructure would keep us safe, and yet we see a world that is more insecure than ever and a political class which is not only dismissive but even contemptuous of our fears. We have been told that the technocratic (but largely privately-administered) tweaks to our economic system in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 are causing the economy to improve, and yet far too many of us are continuing to struggle to make ends meet. In response to this, only the same ideological talking points of commanding-heights capitalist management on the ‘left’, and vulgar-libertarian market fundamentalism on the ‘right’, are being offered to us. This is broadly exemplary of what the excellent Chinese social historian Wang Hui referred to, in his own context (though applicable also to ours), as the ‘depoliticised politics’ of the elite.

The fractures between the will of a growing section of the populace on the one hand, and the governing philosophies in our ‘depoliticised’ political establishment on the other, are rapidly growing more apparent – even to the ideological apparatus of that establishment. Expect to see the opinion more and more explicitly voiced as time goes on, possibly well after the election cycle, that certain ‘undesirable’ segments of voters ought be actively disenfranchised, for the sake of preserving the republic. Our political system is very rapidly losing its veneer of democratic legitimacy, and the Bernie and Trump campaigns are bearing witness to that in some rather embarrassing ways.

The subject of legitimacy is not a particularly comfortable one to bring up, as it calls into question the very governing logic of democracy. It is often more tempting to dismiss such talk as reactionary or impractical when someone (someone such as, for example, Chinese Confucian philosopher Jiang Qing) is so gauche as to broach it. And the subject becomes even more difficult to broach in a nation like ours which is founded not on a common language or religion or history, but instead upon an ideology which admits only one possible source of legitimacy (namely, the consent of the governed) to the exclusion of any other (historical continuity or divine sanction). But clearly, governments require legitimacy to function, and when it becomes clear that their legitimacy has run out completely, their collapse can be sudden and unforeseeable. We’re running up very close to the edge of the fiction that our state is being run in response to the consent of the governed. Perhaps it’s time to re-examine the question of legitimacy.

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