Brilliant Piece by Packer on Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt

Posted on 13 November 2016

Characteristically brilliant piece in the New Yorker about the election and the state of US politics by George Packer (of the Unwinding). Usual combination of novelistic incident and colour with a sharp eye for the larger changes and their implications:

Note: this piece was published on Oct 31st before the election

A few years ago, on a rural highway south of Tampa, I saw a metal warehouse with a sign that said “american dream welding + fabrication.” Broken vehicles and busted equipment were scattered around the yard. The place looked sun-beaten and dilapidated. When I pulled up, the owner eased himself down from a front-end loader, hobbled over, and leaned against a pole. He was in his fifties, with a heavy red face, dishevelled hair, and a bushy mustache going from strawberry blond to white. He wore a blue short-sleeved shirt torn at the tails and shorts that exposed swollen legs. He had powerful forearms, but his body was visibly turning against him. The corners of his mouth sloped downward, in an expression poised between self-mockery and disgust at the world. It was a face that invited human exchange—a saving grace in a ruined landscape.

His name was Mark Frisbie. When he was younger, a girlfriend had asked him, “Are you the Frisbee from Wham-O?” Frisbie retorted, “Sure, that’s why I live in a trailer with no front porch and drive a pickup instead of a Porsche.” At the age of fifteen, Frisbie began working for a farm-equipment manufacturer; he stayed for three decades, until he launched American Dream. He went into business to please his father, he said—“Then the bastard died on me.” After spotting the metal warehouse, Frisbie agreed to buy it, for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The next day, the woman who owned it got a call from a man in Georgia offering four hundred and fifty thousand. But she and Frisbie had already shaken on the deal, and she wouldn’t back out.

“Barter and a handshake used to mean something,” he said. “Not anymore.”

It was the depth of the recession, and Frisbie’s customers had grown scarce, demanding, and unreliable. He was down from half a dozen employees to himself and his stepson, William Zipperer. (Frisbie had five children.) The government was killing him with regulations, and one law had required him to build a fence around his repair yard. Politicians did nothing to help him. “They all steal,” he said. “They’re just in it for themselves.” The house behind his shop was a drug den. His wife had lost her day-care center to bank foreclosure. Frisbie had spent four days at a local hospital for back and chest pain, running up a sixty-thousand-dollar bill. The doctor was Arab or Indian, and his accented English was barely intelligible to Frisbie, but he picked up on an accusation that he was shopping around for pain prescriptions. Mexicans were moving in; Frisbie and his wife wanted to move out. As we talked, two Latinos were stuccoing a gas station across the highway.

Americans like Mark Frisbie have no foundation to stand on; they’re unorganized, unheard, unspoken for. They sink alone. The institutions of a healthy democracy—government, corporation, school, bank, union, church, civic group, media organization—feel remote and false, geared for the benefit of those who run them. And no institution is guiltier of this abandonment than the political parties.

So it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise when millions of Americans were suddenly drawn to a crass strongman who tossed out fraudulent promises and gave institutions and élites the middle finger. The fact that so many informed, sophisticated Americans failed to see Donald Trump coming, and then kept writing him off, is itself a sign of a democracy in which no center holds. Most of his critics are too reasonable to fathom his fury-driven campaign. Many don’t know a single Trump supporter. But to fight Trump you have to understand his appeal.

Further down, he explains the move of the Democrats away from the unions and blue collar towards an aspiring meritocratic middle-class post McGovern in 1972. On the Clintons who were a central part of this move:

This spirit followed Bill and Hillary out of the White House. The conflation of virtue and success guided the family foundation they created, the celebrity-studded charity events they hosted, their mammoth speaking fees, their promiscuous fund-raising.

The aspects of identity. The strong strain of class – and superiority and elitism – in cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism:

In 2004, the political scientist Samuel Huntington published his final book, “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity.” He used the term “cosmopolitan élites” to describe Americans who are at home in the fluid world of transnational corporations, dual citizenship, blended identities, and multicultural education. Such people dominate our universities, tech companies, publishers, nonprofits, entertainment studios, and news media. They congregate in cities and on the coasts. Lately, they have become particularly obsessed with the food they eat. The locavore movement, whatever its benefits to health and agriculture, is an inward-looking form of activism. When you visit a farm-to-table restaurant and order the wild-nettle sformato for thirty dollars, the line between social consciousness and self-gratification disappears. Buying synthetic-nitrate-free lunch meat at Whole Foods is also a way to isolate yourself from contamination by the packaged food sold at Kmart and from the overweight, downwardly mobile people who shop there. The people who buy food at Kmart know it.

That sformato line is truly brilliant:

When you visit a farm-to-table restaurant and order the wild-nettle sformato for thirty dollars, the line between social consciousness and self-gratification disappears.

Class Politics vs Identity Politics

For Democrats, the politics of race and class are fraught. If you focus insistently on class, as Bernie Sanders did at the start of the campaign, you risk seeming to be concerned only with whites. Focus insistently on race, and the Party risks being seen as a factional coalition without universal appeal—the fate of the Democratic Party in the seventies and eighties. The new racial politics puts Democrats like Clinton in the middle of this dilemma.

On a cynicism and the fashion for uncompromising “it can’t be fixed”:

Coates’s writing in “Between the World and Me” has a stance and a rhetorical sweep that make the give-and-take of politics seem almost impossible. Somewhere between this jeremiad and the naïve idea of inevitable progress lies the complicated truth.

[ed: I sense a deeper point. The overall turn of a younger generation towards cynicism, an “it’s all just shades of grey” moralistic relativism, a lack of hope and purpose, a hunkering down into a solipstic self-involved consumerist stupor and identity obsession. Where disengagement is justified and even energised by a form of outraged nihilism.]

But identity politics breaks down the distinction between an idea and the person articulating it, so that before speaking up one has to ask: Does my identity give me the right to say this? Could my identity be the focus of a Twitter backlash? This atmosphere makes honest conversation very hard, and gives a demagogue like Trump the aura of being a truthteller. The “authenticity” that his followers so admire is factually wrong and morally repulsive. But when people of good will are afraid to air legitimate arguments the illegitimate kind gains power.

Loury said. “How are there not white interests in a world where there are these other interests?” He continued, “My answer is that we not lose sight of the goal of racially transcendent humanism being the American bedrock. It’s the abandonment of this goal that I’m objecting to.”

The painful confusion of cause with purpose, anger with an agenda, words with actions and process with outcomes that is so evident in Occupy, Black Lives Matter and elsewhere on the progressive side of things.

Loury pointed out that the new racial politics actually asks little of sympathetic whites: a confession, a reading assignment. Last August, Black Lives Matter activists met with Hillary Clinton backstage at a town hall on drug abuse, in New Hampshire. In a rare moment of candor and passion, Clinton made the case for pragmatism and, above all, legislation. As a camera filmed the exchange, one activist, Julius Jones, spoke of “the anti-blackness current that is America’s first drug,” adding, “America’s first drug is free black labor and turning black bodies into profit.” Jones told Clinton that America’s fundamental problems can’t be solved until someone in her position tells white Americans the truth about the country’s founding sins. The activists wanted Clinton to apologize.

She replied, “There has to be a reckoning—I agree with that. But I also think there has to be some positive vision and plan that you can move people toward.” She asked Black Lives Matter for a policy agenda, along the lines of the civil-rights movement.

Jones wasn’t buying it: “If you don’t tell black people what we need to do, then we won’t tell you all what you need to do.”

“I’m not telling you,” Clinton said. “I’m just telling you to tell me.”

Jones replied, “What I mean to say is that this is, and always has been, a white problem of violence. It’s not—there’s not much that we can do to stop the violence against us.”

As the conversation ended, Clinton said, “Yeah, well, respectfully, if that is your position, then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems… . I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart.”

Rise of the Republicans

A switch of roles:

While the Democrats were becoming the party of rising professionals and diversity, the Republicans were finding fruitful hunting grounds elsewhere

Liberals are becoming elitists:

To some liberal analysts, this crossover practically violated a law of nature—why did less affluent white Americans keep voting against their own interests? During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama spoke to an audience of donors in San Francisco, and analyzed the phenomenon as a reaction to economic decline: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

… Obama was expressing a widespread liberal attitude toward Republican-voting workers—that is, he didn’t take them seriously. Guns and religion, as much as jobs and incomes, are the authentic interest of millions of Americans. Trade and immigration have failed to make their lives better, and, arguably, left them worse off. And if the Democratic Party was no longer on their side—if government programs kept failing to improve their lives—why not vote for the party that at least took them seriously?

The inverted logic. Recipients of government support now either resented it (in itself or for underperforming their expectations) or they were not recipients but saw others playing the system. Either way the less well-off turned away from the Democrats, the big-state party:

In 2009, during the debate over the health-care bill, one protester at a town-hall meeting shouted, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” In 2012, the Times posted an interactive map of the country’s “geography of government benefits.” The graphic showed that the areas with the highest levels of welfare spending coincided with deep-red America. During the Great Depression, the hard-pressed became the base of support for the New Deal. Now many Americans who resent government most are those who depend on it most, or who live and work among those who do.

Brilliant summary of how the Republicans managed to forge an unlikely alliance of blue-collar whites and business interests (whose economic interests are largely opposed):

Since the eighties, the Republican Party has been an unlikely coalition of downscale whites (many of them evangelical Christians) and business interests, united by a common dislike of the federal government. To conservative thinkers, this alliance was more than a political convenience; it filled a moral requirement. Irving Kristol, the father of neoconservatism, was an early apostle of supply-side economics, but he also wrote numerous essays about the need for a revival of religious faith, as a way of regulating moral conduct in a liberal, secular world. For ordinary Americans, traditional religion was a bulwark against the moral relativism of the modern age. Kristol’s pieces in the Wall Street Journal officiated at the unlikely wedding of business executives and evangelical Christians in the church of conservatism—a role that perhaps only a Jewish ex-Trotskyist could take on.

A New Political Landscape

During the Great Recession, I visited many hard-hit small towns, exurbs, rural areas, and old industrial cities, and kept meeting Americans who didn’t match the red-blue scheme. They might be white Southern country people, but they hated corporations and big-box stores as well as the federal government. They might have a law practice, but that didn’t stop them from entertaining apocalyptic visions of armed citizens turning to political violence. They followed the Tea Party, but, in their hostility toward big banks, they sounded a little like Occupy Wall Street, or vice versa. They were loose molecules unattached to party hierarchies—more individualistic than the Democrats, more antibusiness than the Republicans. What united them was a distrust of distant leaders and institutions. They believed that the game was rigged for the powerful and the connected, and that they and their children were screwed.

The left-versus-right division wasn’t entirely mistaken, but one could draw a new chart that explained things differently and perhaps more accurately: up versus down. Looked at this way, the élites on each side of the partisan divide have more in common with one another than they do with voters down below. A network-systems administrator, an oil-and-gas-company vice-president, a journalist, and a dermatologist hire nannies from the same countries, dine at the same Thai restaurants, travel abroad on the same frequent-flier miles, and invest in the same emerging-markets index funds. They might have different political views, but they share a common interest in the existing global order. As Thomas Frank put it, “The leadership of the two parties represents two classes. The G.O.P. is a business élite; Democrats are a status élite, the professional class.”**

The political upheaval of the past year has clarified that there are class divides in both parties. [Sanders (socialist) vs Clinton (centrist), Trump (reactionary) vs Tea-Party Republicans (no moderate Republicans left)]

Distrust and Transparency - Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Another lapidary and razor-sharp observation on the difficulty of doing necessary politics in an age of distrust and radical transparency:

… when Clinton told one audience, “You need both a public and a private position,” she was describing what used to be considered normal politics—deploying different strategies to get groups with varying interests behind a policy. … “It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually get where we need to be,” Clinton told her audience. … But Americans today, especially on the Trump right and the Sanders left, won’t give politicians anything close to that kind of trust. Radical transparency occasionally brings corruption to light, but it can also make good governance harder.

What is important is the link between a culture of cynicism and distrust and transparency. They feed each other. With distrust comes an obsession with transparency – that’s the only way to keep those pesky pols and self-serving bureaucrats in line and ensure they don’t get up to stuff. Whilst, on the other hand, transparency feeds our sense of distrust – even if no-one is doing anything corrupt, the basic process of politics and the horse-trading it necessitates are fairly unedifying to watch (Mark Twain: “no-one who likes sausages or laws should see them getting made”).

The Reactionary Right

As Packer’s rightly points out what is happening on the right is not conservative but reactionary – and radically reactionary at that. People have become anxious – often, rightly so. The certainties of the past have fallen away and no new ones have come to replace them. Of course, just like revolutionaries, reactionaries must inevitably be disappointed – and also like revolutionaries they may leave untold destruction in their wake.

“Reactionaries are not conservatives,” the political essayist Mark Lilla writes … Though the phrase [Make America Great Again] invoked nostalgia for an imagined past, it had nothing to do with tradition. It was a call to sweep away the ruling order, including the Republican leadership. “The betrayal of élites is the linchpin of every reactionary story,” Lilla writes.

The Trump phenomenon, which has onlookers in Europe and elsewhere agog at the latest American folly, isn’t really exceptional at all. American politics in 2016 has taken a big step toward politics in the rest of the world. The ebbing tide of the white working and middle classes in America joins its counterpart in Great Britain, the Brexit vote; Marine Le Pen’s Front National, in France; and the Alternative für Deutschland party, which has begun to threaten Angela Merkel’s centrist coalition in Germany. To Russians, Trump sounds like his role model, President Vladimir Putin; to Indians, Trump echoes the Hindu nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even the radical nostalgia of Islamists around the Muslim world bears more than a passing resemblance to the longing of Trump supporters for an America purified and restored to an imagined glory. One way or another, they all represent a reaction against modernity, with its ceaseless anxiety and churn.

Celebritization

A generation ago, a Presidential contender like Trump wasn’t conceivable. Jimmy Carter brought smiling populism to the White House, and Ronald Reagan was derided as a Hollywood cowboy, but both of them had governing experience and substantive ideas that they’d worked out during lengthy public careers. But, as public trust in institutions eroded, celebrities took their place, and the line between politics and entertainment began to disappear. It shouldn’t be surprising that the most famous person in politics is the former star of a reality TV show.

Trump is horrific

… Anyone who votes for Trump —- including the Dartmouth-educated moderate Republican financial adviser who wouldn’t dream of using racial code words but just can’t stand Hillary Clinton – will have tried to put a dangerous and despicable man in charge of the country. Trump is a national threat like no one else who has come close to the Presidency. Win or lose, he has already defined politics so far down that a shocking degree of hatred, ignorance, and lies is becoming normal.

A need for a sense of community, of nation

Nationalism is a force that élites always underestimate – that’s been a lesson of the year’s seismic political events, here and in Europe. It can be turned to good or ill, but it never completely goes away. It’s as real and abiding as an attachment to family or to home. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” Trump declared in his convention speech. In his hands, nationalism is a loaded gun, aimed not just at foreigners but also at Americans who don’t make the cut. But people are not wrong to want to live in cohesive communities, to ask new arrivals to become part of the melting pot, and to crave a degree of stability in a moral order based on values other than just diversity and efficiency. A world of heirloom tomatoes and self-driving cars isn’t the true and only Heaven.

A great point, though I am not sure Packer walks this to its inevitable and challenging conclusion for the Democrats and others on the centre-left.

More and more, we live as tribes. It’s easier and more satisfying to hunker down with your cohort on social media than to take up Obama’s challenge and get in someone else’s head. What’s striking is the widespread feeling that liberal values are no longer even valuable – a feeling shared by many people who think of themselves as liberals.

Summary

  • Democrat moved away from the working class: “… the Democrats were [1990s] becoming the party of rising professionals and diversity”
  • Republicans are now in an odd, and very precarious position. Their alliance of pro business interests and downscale whites is volatile and likely untenable. Conservatism wedded to demagoguery has turn into reaction – a state that is as dangerous and as it is unstable.
  • Both parties are now internally divided by class and largely incoherent. Yet no obvious new way emerges. “… [I]t isn’t possible to wait around for demography to turn millions of disenchanted Americans into relics and expect to live in a decent country. This election has told us that many Americans feel their way of life is disappearing. Perhaps their lament is futile … [B]ut it shouldn’t be dismissed. “
  • Trust and cynicism have corroded the foundations of decent politics.
  • The future is unclear and bleak, at least in the near-term.