(Above photo is © The Wall Street Journal)
At almost the last minute, the elders of the US Republican Party seem finally to be in revolt against the populist takeover of ‘the Grand Old Party’ (GOP), a takeover that began with Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. His semi-insider’s rebellion against Washington, which morphed into the Alt-Right Tea Party, has now hopefully ended with the failure of an armed insurrection seeking to prevent the democratic transfer of power to President elect Joe Biden.
Gingrich at least had an electoral mandate for a ‘Contract with America’ that threatened to limit federal government rather than overthrow it. However he also showed his contempt for Washington by bringing government to an almost literal standstill rather than budge on the assumed overriding legitimacy of his radical right agenda. Forward to the Noughties and Senator John McCain, a man with a ton of personal integrity, believed he could utilise the insurrectionary strength of the radical right-wing activists (who’d by this stage arguably taken over the grassroots of the GOP), by appointing their cheerleader Sarah Palin as his running mate. His failed presidential bid was the death-knell of her political career, but it also emphasised how much power this activist strain with an ingrained hostility to the workings of the federal state had in the Republican Party.
Then followed two terms of a Democrat president of partly African-American heritage, who tried to reconstruct aspects of the big state in medical care and who sought to roll back the imprisonment of US foreign policy to the preferences of unreliable Middle Eastern allies and armchair big power strategists. Obama himself symbolised something ethnically new, but his greater offence for some was returning the US to the politics of Robert Kennedy: radical amelioration. In the late ‘60s big spending Republican Richard Nixon utilised the social and economic fears of white working and middle class America but he would have barely understood the radical GOP elements that venerated Vietnam vet McCain would try to contain two nearly four decades later.
Yet this GOP trend’s name, the Tea Party, was a highly conscious evocation of America’s contemporary birth in trauma against established power: British colonialists in the original version, sclerotic federal state power in its more modern incarnation. That original American Revolution never wholly abandoned a suspicion of perceptibly overweening power, and this arguably ideological tendency would soon play its part in fuelling a civil war. America’s militia and anti-state tradition, born in revolt against the British, never completely died, finding an ongoing outlet in the constitutional right to bear arms.
Tea Party 2 never went away either. Donald Trump has always played to a GOP base that has continued to be driven by those who for the most part aren’t well off, are overwhelmingly but not exclusively white, and who strongly distrust federal government. The vocalised references heard in yesterday’s insurrection to wanting to take back control of ‘our building’ (the Capitol) may not have been informed by a deep appreciation of their nation’s history. However it reflected a deeply engrained wellspring of opinion in the US, one greater than Donald Trump’s articulation of it.
If the state is acting in a way that your American political tradition informs you is beyond its historic remit, and if those who will once again take over its machinery embody a political culture that favours centralising state power to further general liberty when you see state power as something that takes liberty away, then it’s time for action. The absurdities of alleged electoral fraud are as nothing compared to an electoral outcome that was ‘stolen’ in the sense that an American political tradition, a reimagined celebration of independence in 1776 (a date etched on many of the flags yesterday), has been defeated. This defeat has been wrought by those coming from what these insurrectionists see as an alien American tradition, one that in some of their eyes now even extends to the occupant of the vice-presidency too.
The politics of those who articulate their ‘imagined’ version of correct political tradition are rarely pretty. Arguably Trump is simply the most successful cypher for it in contemporary global politics. No fascist, this man’s ideological simplicities are grounded in a very genuine American political tradition of hostility to the centralised state even as he paradoxically displays an authoritarian’s disdain for ‘states’ rights’. While loving the shiny phallic delights of American armaments, and the money and perceived jobs that come with them, Trump has never been that keen on actually using them, unlike the great majority of his post-1945 predecessors.
Those in revolt outside and even inside the Capitol building yesterday can find many bedfellows across global politics. Only a few though can boast that their commander in chief is actually the nation’s too (if only for another two weeks in the US case, rather longer in Brazil and Hungary). However the politics of dissenting tribes, often organised in militias or at least rebellious groups, is a growing feature of politics globally. In the Middle East it arguably never went away, but it’s growing. In Iraq and Yemen for example it is rendering states an even greater fiction than they were under would-be strong men who were personally powerful while their governments barely functioned.
Virtual tribes in the west gain greater strength from the perceived outrages of the ‘other’ against which they essentially define themselves. Brexit Britain, at least for its more vehement supporters, is reimagined as a sovereign nation that has ‘taken back’ political control. However as the UK heads to its inevitable break up, power in its English rump resides with a largely unaccountable elite drawn from a mostly narrow and incestuous economic network easily able to incorporate a few wetbacks. For members of the UK tribe that defines itself against Brexit’s leaders and followers, then political majorities matter less than an imagined version of what is right, moral, even somehow more caring, regardless of the democratic inequities of European Council and European Commission decision-making.
The popular understanding and acceptance of democracy as an elected, accountable platform for the creation of politically acceptable compromise, is almost dead. Its procedures don’t have to be interrupted, as they were in the Capitol yesterday, by men wearing Ku Klux Klan or Nazi insignia for what the radical left once branded as ‘bourgeois democracy’ to be seen as at best ineffectual or at worst a tool of cultural or class enemies. Make no mistake there are many on the European far left who can only dream of a relatively safe opportunity to ‘occupy’ legislatures seen as the plaything of political enemies. The ‘greater good’, projected proletarian power, or a militant attachment to the UK’s inevitable ‘European destiny’ are all seemingly acceptable justifications to discredit democratic decision-making if the cause is supposedly just enough.
In writing this though I am struck by the fact that democracy in its indirect, representative, form is not proving able to meet one of the fundamental prerequisites of government: providing security and protection. Social contracts are often mentioned en passant by western politicians. However, as the arguable basis of governance, and of the slow and sometimes violent evolution of democracy in Britain for example, social contracts require an exchange of the state or sovereign’s protection for popular consent to their rule. The contemporary assertion of identity politics across the political spectrum throughout the west (and beyond) is evidence that the old democratic political compact has already broken down. The inability of so-called sovereign governments to meaningfully address global environmental collapse – surely the ultimate test of social security and protection for all their peoples – is making a mockery of the basis of democratic consent to political power. Without consent then what we in the west call democracy cannot function. Shared consent to our rulers, and shared agreement to the basis on which they rule over us, is ebbing fast, and not just among radical right insurrectionists in the US.