The Collapse of Representative Democracy in the UK and US?– Kenneth Surin
by Kenneth Surin (Duke University)
The informed person aware of the recent political situations in the UK and US will certainly be cognizant of their political travails.
There was the recent Brexit vote in the UK which culled several major politicians, including the Conservative prime minister David “Dodgy Dave” Cameron, but which is also being used by Labour’s Blairite faction to fabricate a “leadership crisis” for a leftwing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has been unacceptable to the Blairites from the beginning.
In the US, Donald Trump is the Republican presidential candidate despite being repudiated by the party’s establishment.
The choice of the Democrats, Hillary Clinton, prevailed in the face of growing evidence, courtesy of Wikileak email disclosures, that her surrogates had sabotaged the campaign of her main opponent, Bernie Sanders. These disclosures also indicate the strong possibility that the patronage-based system of “super delegates”, not reflective of the actual voting outcome in a primary, may have been rigged in Clinton’s favour.
Clinton’s surrogates are now blaming Putin for these email leaks, charging him with “seeking to interfere in the US’s democratic process”.
In a moment of delightful irony, the Clinton camp is seemingly unaware that their own behind-the-scenes attempts to derail the Sanders’ campaign typify the very charge they level against Putin. Dear old Vlad is damaging the US’s “democratic process” because his supposed proxies revealed how Clinton and her allies undermined this “democratic process” by their underhand manipulations against Sanders!
The two-party system in the UK and US disenfranchises a large swathe of voters seeking alternatives to the crippling centrist conjunctions bedevilling both systems– though the outcome of the Brexit referendum (with voting patterns that were anomalous because regionally-based), and the Republican choice of Trump, and the strong showing of Sanders, indicates that these systems may be under pressure from voters fed-up with a two-party system and the stifling convergence this promotes.
Gender aside, how is Hillary Clinton any different from Mitt Romney? Gender aside, how is Theresa May any different from Tony Blair? No one can really tell. So it is up to their respective spin doctors to establish phony demarcations between virtually identical politicians, based on how well they dress (or don’t, in Corbyn’s case), or bow to dignitaries deemed by the mainstream media to matter on a day to day basis (well, the queen always, a Saudi or central Asian despot perhaps today or tomorrow), or fictions about what Angela Merkel really thinks about them when she brushes her teeth, and so on.
Interestingly enough, it is two politicians of starkly contrasting political styles– Trump and Corbyn—who will have little or none of this fluff, and who are seeking to dismantle these sham centrist convergences.
Corbyn, even his opponents admit, is a decent and principled politician who’s been in the fray for decades. Trump by contrast is a chancer.
But both are rocking their respective political establishments, and receiving mainstream vituperation in the process.
When the right-wing newspaper columnists George Will and David Brooks in the US can’t abide a right-wing politician, something useful and perhaps important may be happening; and the same is the case in the UK, with the supposedly “liberal” Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Freedland displaying an uninhibited abhorrence for the most left-wing politician to lead the Labour party in decades.
A paralyzing neoliberal consensus, existing from the time of Reagan and Thatcher, is starting to be snipped away at the edges, and the ideologues upholding the purported “centre” of this consensus, and their media mouthpieces, simply can’t bear the prospect!
We are seeing the first stages of a collapse of representative democracy in both countries. The US in any event is now a fully-fledged plutocracy, according to a recent study by Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page.
Nowhere at the recently concluded Democratic National Convention were the issues of inequality and class been mentioned, apart from the speech by the head of the North Carolina NAACP, the Reverend William Barber. Barber apart, no one at the convention podium is reported to have challenged the neoliberal status quo, though the full spectrum of American identity politics was on display throughout the Convention (unlike the previous week’s overwhelmingly white Republican National Convention).
To state the obvious: for Dems “identity” is a version of multiculturalism disabling a radical politics (the Dems’ veneer of “inclusivity” based on identity masking exclusions based on class), while for Repubs “identity” is a version of a comprehensive white nationalism disabling any kind of real, let alone radical, politics. For anyone one on the left, both options are crippling.
As my Duke University political science colleague Jerry Hough points out (we should remember that his book Changing Party Coalitions: The Mystery of the Red State-Blue State Alignment appeared 10 years ago), neither of the American parties caters to the median voter, since
both parties have structured their economic policy so as to try to maximize support in the upper class of the population—the 25 per cent of the population that makes above $75,000 a year in family income. Without any meaningful choice on economic questions, voters have been forced to choose between the parties on cultural issues alone.
The UK is rapidly following the example of the US in realizing a “spin and branding + spectacle” post-politics. This is intensified by the growing contribution cybertechnology makes to the society of the spectacle, effectively combining managed citizenship with politics-as-the-orchestration-of-images.
Thus Dubya Bush was seen landing on an aircraft carrier in his flight suit (with the notorious ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner behind him); Margaret Thatcher, carefully cultivating her “Iron Lady” brand, loved being televised riding in the turret of a massive tank with the Union Jack flying beside her during election campaigns; the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein (with the Stars and Stripes attached to its head), when the first phase of the American invasion of Iraq was completed, turned out to be a carefully-staged media event and not a spontaneous act on the part of Iraqi citizens.
Politicians now flock to disaster sites like vultures, knowing camera teams will be there to show them, “up close”, in their “leadership roles”.
In an era where citizens are managed and dragooned as never before, the question of political change poses itself ever more urgently.
A managed populace, bound to the seemingly unending succession of spectacles that are now the focal point of contemporary political campaigning in control societies (to use Gilles Deleuze’s term), and facing the unremitting mutual permeation of bios and nomos, faces massive hurdles when initiating political change on behalf of the underprivileged and socially vulnerable.
The government in such a control society is likely to defuse opposition to its ruling élites by recalibrating, expeditiously, its strategies of citizen management and by the creation of new spectacles.
Every now and then a chaotic moment intervenes, as it did in the UK after the Brexit result, and who knows what may transpire with the impulsive and vainglorious Trump before November’s election.
Our biggest challenge is to harness a radical politics to these chaotic irruptions.
Featured image credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UA72SU71b9w