Sunday, January 7, 2018


In 1979, Ernesto Laclau published “Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism” in which he stated that populist movements emerge in a moment of crisis in which one sector of the ruling class (which can be located anyplace on the political spectrum) attempts to gain the upper hand vis-à-vis other fractions by appealing to popular sectors. That juncture is a moment of risk for those in power because with the mixture of political and social instability, infighting among the elite and widespread discontent, any outcome is possible. Populist leaders who call for reform within the system often lose control of the movement they helped initiate. In other cases, populists end up riding the radicalization wave, as was the case of Chávez (as I argued in “Revolutionary and Non-Revolutionary Paths of Radical Populism: Directions of the Chavista Movement in Venezuela” Published by Science & Society in its April 2005 issue - For these reasons, ruling class ideologues have always so forcefully denounced populism of all stripes.

Laclau’s thesis is applicable to the current state of U.S. politics which is characterized by a legitimacy crisis in which the entire political class along with leading government officials from Supreme Court judges and congresspeople to the corporate media are held in disrepute by the vast majority of people. There is a head-on clash between the right (represented by Trump and Bannon) and the center represented by the national leadership of the Democratic Party. The rejection of establishment politics voiced by the right discredits the system. The disrepute is now exacerbated by infighting within the right itself, between Trump and Bannon. Many people react to the discord by embracing a plague on both your houses attitude. In this case the two “houses” are the right (the Trump-wing of the Republican Party) and the center (the Clintons, Obama, etc.). 
When White House senior advisor Stephen Miller makes a complete a** out of himself on CNN by refusing to answer any of journalist Jack Tapper’s questions and instead insisting that he be given three minutes to espouse the virtues of his boss Donald Trump, it’s hard not to sympathize with Tapper. But the fact is that Miller is right (though for the wrong reasons) when he talks of CNN’s consistent distortion of news. Miller is tapping into the widespread belief that the establishment media presents news in a misleading if not deceptive manner, as is demonstrated by public opinion polls. 
Prior to the 2016 elections, Julian Assange argued that the Trump candidacy presented the left with an extraordinary opportunity to advance, as the representatives of the status quo knock themselves out or shoot themselves in the foot. For expressing this viewpoint, Assange was trashed by the Guardian which unjustly accused him of favoring Trump. I myself would have preferred Clinton and I don’t underestimate the danger that Trump and his cronies represent. But obviously Trump is benefiting from widespread and deep discontent. As his supporters or those who voted for him come to realize that he is not delivering and is reneging on all of his reformist proposals and promises, they will not necessarily return to the center, be it that of the Republican or Democratic Party. Indeed, the Democratic Party pro-establishment leaders have refrained from focusing on the real issues that affect people’s lives and instead harp on Trump’s gaffes and Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 elections (as if Washington doesn’t do the same in countries throughout the world).
It’s quite possible that with the “death of the liberal class” (as liberal-turned-leftist journalist Chris Hodges put it), large numbers of people will realize that the populist right represents more of the same, or is even worse than the political class that is so discredited, and will begin to consider the proposals put forward by the socialist left, be it those of Bernie Sanders or of other leaders and groups which represent a real alternative to the current system that is incapable of reforming itself. The same scenario may play itself out in Europe as well, as discontent members of the popular sectors come to realize that the right-wing populist alternative is no alternative at all, and if it is, it’s not one to be embraced.


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