By Greg Godels
December 23, 2019
Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” But sometimes, even an encore leaves many people dumbstruck.
Most commentators who fill up the opinion pages of the national media of record are touting the failure of the UK Labour Party in the recent elections as a portent of the “disaster” that would await the Democrats should they nominate Bernie Sanders or Sanders-lite to run against President Trump. That, they believe, would be the farce that Corbyn’s loss portends.
But there are a few thoughtful heads, wiser thinkers, in the media who better understand history’s often more subtle messages. For Gerald Seib, the executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal, and his colleague, Stephen Fidler, a UK veteran of the Financial Times and Reuters, the victory of Boris Johnson recalls another parallel: the electoral victory of Donald Trump. And they find many signs that the parallels are overflowing with meaning and that they count as more than just interesting coincidences.
Seib and Fidler’s article, U.K. Vote Shows Remake of Conservatism (WSJ 12/14-15/2019), argues that we have entered a new era, engaging new constituencies, realignments, philosophies, and policies:
Boris Johnson’s big election victory this week drove another nail into the coffin of the brand of conservative politics Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher first rode to power four decades ago…[The] movement in the West now has become markedly more populist and nationalist, and appeals to a distinctly more working-class constituency. Fiscal restraint, once a cardinal tenet of conservatism, matters less; rewriting the rules that have governed the global economy matters more.
The article portrays a right-anchored movement in the process of shifting towards a narrow, more insular, protectionist nationalism, spurning globalism, unrestrained by fiscal austerity and market dogma, and courting the working class with promises of change and contempt for liberal elites. Like Thatcher and Reagan in the past, Trump and Johnson are now prominent figureheads of this New Conservatism, but rising stars are in, or share, power in Hungary, Italy, and Poland. Even outside Europe, India’s Modi, Japan’s Abe, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, and Chile’s Piñera embrace many features of the New Conservatism.
Seib and Fidler are perceptive in seeing Trump and Johnson as more than an aberration, a fleeting mutation of corporate Republicanism and market-crazed Conservatism. They point to their opportunistic playing to a base of petty-bourgeois and working-class voters who have been bled by the ruling class’s global restructuring and crushed by its finale, the collapse of 2007-2009:
Both capitalized on blue-collar and middle-class resentment of the financial and political elites, who, in such voters’ views, were oblivious to the way global economic trends were cutting against workers in the heartland. Brexit was the symbol of those grievances in Britain; in the U.S., trade relations with China and Mexico were the symbols Mr. Trump used.
Seib and Fidler note that Trump and Johnson “juiced their policy offers with promises of freer public spending to address middle- and working-class voters’ anger over the sacrifices they had been forced to make since the financial crash…” Johnson, they contend, “was stealing the traditional clothes of the left-wing Labour Party,” promising “spending on the nation’s public-health services, schools, policing and infrastructure.” Trump, defying a pillar of twentieth century Conservatism, “has overseen a rise of the U.S. federal budget deficit to roughly a trillion dollars annually, but can do so because low interest rates make such borrowing less painful. Mr. Johnson has relaxed the purse strings with a similar advantage.”
The Seib-Fidler thesis is that, since the collapse of 2007-2009, some on the right have drawn lessons and constructed a new political approach, turning away from internationalism, globalism, austerity, and unfettered markets. They are shrewdly and opportunistically marketing this turn as relief for a damaged, dissatisfied, and angry working class and petty bourgeoisie. Of course, there remain conservatives still wedded to the market fundamentalist, globalist approach of Reagan/Thatcher– what many have called, for better or worse, “globalization” and “neo-liberalism”– but the New Conservatism is clearly on the rise.
Liberals will cry that Seib and Fidler have downplayed the role of xenophobia in the appeal of the New Conservatives and the Johnson vote. No doubt racism and anti-immigrant sentiment play a role. But the Ipsos Mori polls show that while around 40% of voters thought that immigration was the most important issue facing voters during the 2016 Brexit referendum, that number was down to around 10% before the recent election.
Ironically, while the Reagan/Thatcher consensus swept over the political world in the last thirty or more years, it has now nested firmly in social democracy and political liberalism; the victory over Keynesian fiscal interventionism by the “Third Way” converts and the “New Democrats” makes them, now, the most committed defenders of free markets, international institutions, balanced budgets, austerity, and unprotected, decentered labor markets. Because the center-left parties of the advanced capitalist countries so readily accepted and embraced the market-fetishist ideology of the late-twentieth century, they are now boxed into a corner rigidly defending the very philosophy that brought great harm to working people, a philosophy now increasingly in the rear-view mirror of the New Conservatives.
Where the New Conservatives revamped their views in the wake of the 2007-2009 crisis, most liberals and social democrats stood pat, keeping the same cards they were dealt by the Reagan/Thatcher “revolution.”
As voters turn against the old consensus that brought economic chaos unseen since the Great Depression, they seek change wherever they can find it. In the US, they thought they could find it by electing Barack Obama. That choice proved to be ill-founded, further entrenching elite rule and austerity (sequestration!). Consequently, Trump got a chance.
Establishment Democrats (Corporate Democrats) believe that Trump, too, will fail. Of course they are right– there are only empty promises and fake solutions in the New Conservatism. But the Democratic Party leaders are foolish, if they think that Trump’s failure will bring an exodus back to a Democratic Party serving up Reagan/Thatcher-lite, a party chained to corporate-first, trickle-down economics, to fiscal austerity, to a desiccated welfare state, to making the market the final arbiter of all economic decisions.
Clearly, the Democratic Party leadership prefers to attack Trump for his lack of fidelity to Presidential mythology or through contrived fables like RussiaGate, while avoiding real policy changes that would win over an electorate thirsting for change. The results will likely be disastrous for those in need of urgent solutions. But Party bosses would rather see Trump win than surrender their staunch defense of capital über alles.
Similarly, the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, conveyed through the past leadership of Tony Blair, is so firmly rooted in the Labour Party that many of its leading figures would rather have seen insurgent Corbyn lose than surrender that legacy.
Progressives should seriously weigh whether center-left parties, even rebranded social democratic parties, offer or will convincingly press a program that addresses the carnage inflicted by an increasingly dysfunctional capitalism and that could draw working people from the false hope offered by the New Conservatism. When the old politics is thoroughly discredited, a new politics is in order. The new politics should be constructed around the path to socialism, the only road that takes working people away from betrayal and demagoguery.