This op-ed was originally published on The Wire: http://thewire.in/2016/04/04/to-the-american-establishment-mass-mobilisations-are-an-excess-of-democracy-27279/
In the WASP, male-dominated establishment spread across both parties and based on corporate wealth and mental universes constructed by elite universities, foundations and think tanks, participatory democracy appears as disorder and chaos.
An un-American set of institutions have been running America, a land supposedly free of aristocracies or ruling classes, or any other classes, for that matter. Yet, while around half of all Americans now say they’re working class, the rest remain in a beleaguered middle class, and they all seem to know about the 1% that controls America.
Donald Trump rails against the establishment, as does Ted Cruz, his Republican challenger for the party’s presidential nomination. Famously, the GOP’s establishment is said to dislike Cruz, but maybe not so much as they fear Trump. The democratic socialist Bernie Sanders attacks the establishment and says that Hillary Clinton is part of it due to her Wall Street connections. The establishment, then, appears to encompass both main political parties or, as Tanzania’s former president Julius Nyrere famously suggested, America is a one-party state with two parties.
In 1975, the Trilateral Commission, an elite international organisation founded by David Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Columbia University professor and, later, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, issued a candid report on how democracies function and when they don’t. And their diagnosis and prescriptions seem apt for American establishment mindsets today and their likely responses to the crisis that is apparent in the US political system.
According to Samuel Huntington, Harvard professor and author of the US section of the Trilateral Commission’s report, The Crisis of Democracy (1975), the 1960s were a “decade of democratic surge and of the reassertion of democratic egalitarianism,” undermining democratic government. Opposition to the Vietnam war, racism, the oppression of women, corruption in government led the people to question “the legitimacy of hierarchy, coercion, discipline, secrecy, and deception – all of which are…. inescapable attributes of the process of government.”
Too many people, Huntington argued, mobilised and participated far too much and caused an overload on the system. “Previously passive or unorganized groups in the population, blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students, and women now embarked on concerted efforts to establish their claims to opportunities, positions, rewards, and privileges, which they had not considered themselves entitled [to] before.” The root of the problem is that there is an “excess of democracy,” he insisted.
There was a golden age that Huntington yearned for – the age of President Harry Truman, who was lucky enough to “govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers.” A small number of men ran America – the president and his executive office, the federal bureaucracy, US congress “and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private establishment.” He could have added Harvard and Yale and the other ivy league universities that spawned the managing ideologies and state intellectuals in the postwar military-industrial complex. But the picture of what good government looks like is clear – and the people are conspicuous by their absence.
And Huntington’s attitude echoes that of American Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, who noted, “The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and, however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true to fact. The people are turbulent and changing, they seldom judge or determine right.”
Herein lies the clue to what the American establishment really is: a male-dominated set of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, with some minority clones in high positions, spread across both main political parties, based on corporate wealth (Wall Street), and mental universes constructed by elite universities, foundations and Washington, DC-beltway think tanks.
In this logic, participatory democracy appears as disorder, chaos, and a crisis. All those young people behind Sanders – that’s a problem; all those marginal white workers backing Trump need to know their place.
The establishment’s problem is that too many Americans have rejected Huntington’s diagnosis and cure: from the Tea Party to the Occupy movements, Americans have had enough and the left-right split in American politics seems to be constructing the basis of a new politics. The precise contours of this new politics will become clearer over time but the insightful conservative intellectual, Bill Domenech, has an interesting if worrying scenario for the future of the GOP should Trump’s ideas triumph (including Trumpism without Trump, though he (Domenech) does not take the logic so far):
“….it would set America’s political path on a direction along the lines of what we have seen in democracies in Europe,” Domenech fears.
The GOP would split and its principal faction would be dominated by a reactive white identity politics, declasse elements pitting their demands and dreams of restoration to cultural and political power against other ethnic identities in a nation heading for ‘majority-minority’ status in the next quarter century (non-hispanic whites will be a minority by around 2050, according to demographers). This is, for all intents and purposes, a new party dominated by White Power. Yet, Domenech speculates that US politics could resemble those of France, divided between “on the one hand, a centre-left/technocratic party, full of elites with shared pedigrees of experience and education, and on the other a nativist right/populist party, which represents a constant reactive force to the dominant elite.”
Trump’s “brand of conservatism is frequently xenophobic, anti-capitalist, vaguely militarist, pro-state, and consistently anti-Semitic. If you criticise Donald Trump, it is exactly the sort of hate mail you should expect to receive,” Domenech laments.
As an analyst of the Right, Domenech is insightful but as to the Left, he has little to say. With wins in six of the last seven Democratic primaries and caucuses, bringing Bernie Sanders closer to Clinton’s pledged delegates tally, there may well be no centre-ground in American politics by the summer of 2016. If Clinton wants to co-opt the youthful energy of the Sanders campaign, she will have to move a lot more convincingly to the Left. As Dan Cantor, the executive director of a pro-Sanders labour-backed progressive party with deep roots in New York politics says, “The political revolution is growing. Every day, Bernie Sanders is inspiring Americans to take the brave step of voting for the future we want to see, and not just what the political and financial elite tells us we’re allowed to have.”
According to Ralph Nader, consumer rights advocate and independent presidential candidate in 2004, “should Clinton overcome Sanders, the Democratic party will continue to be the champion of war and Wall Street…. But perhaps after the comparative success of Sanders’s campaign, this state of affairs will invigorate more courageous candidates to follow his lead in challenging establishment, commercialized politics.” Socialism without Sanders.
Whatever happens, the American establishment’s crisis of “too much democracy” ruining their attempts to continue politics as usual looks likely to continue for some time yet, mobilising new groups of voters, realigning party politics, and re-energising the broader democratic political culture. But don’t expect the establishment to do nothing to derail, channel or dissipate discontent. A crisis is also an opportunity, after all.
Inderjeet Parmar is a professor of international politics at City University London.