Since the US electorate (or more accurately, electoral college) put a reality TV personality and real estate mogul into the White House late last year I’ve become a committed viewer of a number of US news and current affairs programmes. Several of these – such and The Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell (both on MSNBC) – have seen a significant increase in their viewing figures since Donald Trump became President. In the case of the former this has much to do with Maddow’s dogged and impressive reporting into possible relations between the Trump campaign and Russia, and in the latter case because of O’Donnell’s forensic and frequently scathing criticisms of Trump and his White House team. O’Donnell speaks from experience, having been Senior Advisor to Senator Patrick Moynihan and Chief of Staff for several Senate committees in the 1990s. He was also a writer for The West Wing. And with daily revelations of Trump/Russia links continuing unabated, Maddow, O’Donnell, and many more in the news and current affairs community in the US – that Trump insists are ‘the fake news’ – certainly have plenty to keep them busy for many months to come.
Aside from the spectacle of a President and his team almost totally unprepared for high office, and, as is now evident following his recent trip abroad, a clear preference for autocratic regimes and dictatorial leaders over democratically elected politicians such as Merkel or Macron, one of the most gobsmacking aspects of the ongoing events in Washington is the role of Republican politicians. Not to put too fine a point on it, with few exceptions – and they are very few- Republican members of Congress consistently remain silent when it comes to commenting on the numerous allegations and actual instances of what are, at the very least, ethically and morally dubious actions by Trump and his White House staff.
Examples of such behaviour are legion and so a few examples suffice. They started with the unwillingness to say anything to counter Trump’s claim that the crowds at his inauguration were bigger than Obama’s when visibly they were not. That was followed by collective silence when one of Trump’s key spokespersons – Kellyanne Conway – described a falsehood as an ‘alternative fact’. Then there was the reticence at saying anything that challenged Trump’s tweet that Obama had wiretapped that ultimate symbol of tacky décor, Trump Towers. Similar reticence met the Trump/Russia issues, despite mounting evidence of meetings between various parties and the unanimous views of all US security agencies that the Russians did indeed interfere in the 2016 Presidential election – a conclusion that Trump continues to flip-flop on. This was followed by the testimony of the former FBI Director, James Comey, that an active investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia is ongoing (followed by Trump’s firing of Comey). Finally, there’s the fact – easily demonstrable due to our ability to compare news footage – that Trump repeatedly lies about statements and claims he previously made (e.g. when campaigning Trump promised his followers that social security, medicaid and medicare would all improve if he were President. His budget proposals now aim to slash spending on all three and much more).
Of course, it can be argued that there are understandable reasons for the collective display of unquestioning Republican loyalty and subservience to their new President. Some members of Congress may fear a backlash from Trump’s supporters (mid-term elections take place in 2018). Others may genuinely share his policy platform and believe a man with no political experience and no political ideology can deliver on his campaign promises (as he’s just done by dumping the Paris Climate Accord). These are secondary factors to be sure. But the primary reason is the degree to which extreme partisan politics has now become the default setting for US politics, not just at the congressional level but, with few exceptions, throughout the US political system.
It’s not until you follow US politics for a few months that the extent and depth of this paradigm shift (for that is what it is) in the conduct of US politics becomes fully evident. Indeed, so extreme is it that it quickly becomes apparent that were it not for the separation of powers that the US constitution provides and protects (though even these protections are under attack) it’s not too much of an ask to say that with Republicans controlling the House, Senate and Presidency, and with the latter in the hands of an autocrat with key advisers who have similar tendencies, the US could easily descend into a pseudo totalitarian state. There seems little to suggest that extreme partisanship isn’t the new normal, therefore, and thus isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The question for those of us in the UK with any interest in government and politics is why should the turn to extreme partisanship in the US matter. There are a number of interrelated reasons, but here I only want to highlight three. The first is that extreme partisanship has largely been driven by those on the right of politics, particularly since Obama’s first term in office (we might ask why that particular event acted as such a catalyst). The second is the now well established but still increasing penetration of big money into politics, and by ‘big’ I mean both in terms of scale and the extent to which extremely wealthy people and corporations are able to play a crucial – but largely unobserved – role in many aspects of the US political system. This includes shaping and controlling discourse and narrative – increasingly through the use of new technology; the development and control of policy ideas and agendas; and the selection and election – and then continued support (ownership?) of – politicians.
In the UK this should worry us far more than it does our European neighbours for a very simple reason, and one that for those of us of a certain generation is connected to something we were told as kids: what happens in America always ends up here a few years later. That may not always strictly be true, of course. Thankfully baseball never got beyond being called rounders here. And I’m sure that Americans’ are equally thankful that cricket never caught on in the US. But in an earlier and more politically consensual time what that saying referred to was primarily US fashion, music and culture (with some notable examples flowing the opposite way). Obviously, the transfer process was enabled significantly by our shared use of the English language. But since the Thatcher/Reagan period a far less innocent form of sharing has become established, resulting in the ideology of the Republican and Tory parties effectively becoming one and the same – ditto the modus operandi of the Republican party. Both also share a common aim, as progressives in both the US and UK well know: the utter demise of social democracy and its initial replacement with neoliberalism as a staging point on the way to the ultimate goal – the formation of a network of seemingly independent nation states that utilise forms of managed democracy to deliver social and economic relations informed by and based on an emergent neo-feudalism.
Drawing attention to the right-wing nexus that now exists between the US and UK is not to deny that there haven’t been and aren’t continuing interchanges between liberals/progressives/Labour and Democrats. Let’s not forget that many of these relationships and networks are formed through the interchange of UK and US students at a variety of purportedly liberal elite universities. In times gone by the denizens of such institutions would have been introduced to the seminal work of Harold Laswell, an outstanding American political scientist and communication theorist who died in 1978. Somewhat ironically given what we now know about fake news and the role of technology and behavioural science in recent elections, one of Laswell’s most famous books was Psychopathology and Politics (1930), while another (witness Trump, Putin, Erdogan, etc) was Power and Personality (1948). And given that advances in artificial intelligence are now being taken as signalling a new industrial revolution it’s also worth noting that yet another of Laswell’s seminal contributions was raising the question as to whether we should give human rights to robots.
Of greater significance for the topic of this blog, however, was Laswell’s work defining politics. As the title of his book, Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How (1936) suggests, he forcefully and convincingly argued that fundamentally politics was a process of negotiation and bargaining, with the outcome being policy formulated by a variety of stakeholders/politicians to deliver agreed outputs, over a realistic timespan, using appropriate and effective processes and mechanisms. In short, a consensus that was seldom exactly what everyone would have chosen but was nevertheless fit for purpose and thus delivered what was required. For decades this was the model (paradigm) of politics that delivered so much of benefit to so many following the Great Depression and the 2nd World War and that maintained to a large extent even under the onslaught on social democratic values and beliefs of Thatcherism and Reaganomics. Indeed, speak to almost any ordinary citizen and they will tell you that they don’t understand why it is that this – Laswell’s – form of politics is no longer practiced because they recall, or if they are too young to remember, they’ve been told, how politics and politicians used to be able to do positive things that made a diffence to their lives.
Instead, in the US and increasingly in the UK we have extreme partisanship: Republicans committed to destroying (‘repealing’ sounds so much less dramatic) Obamacare despite the costs and suffering this will cause for many millions of US citizens – though most are simply poor and working class, and thus to the US lords of neo-feudalism no better than serfs. Meanwhile in the UK we have “president” May and the Tory party promising that if they don’t get what they want from the EU no deal over Brexit is a distinct likelihood, regardless of the fact that this will cause serious damage to the economy of the UK and the livelihoods of many of its citizens. Then again, they too are mostly the poor and working class, and thus, as in the US, merely serfs in the eyes of the UK’s lords of neo-feudalism. Unsurprisingly much the same can be said for the managed democracy that is Russia under Putin and his cronies. Perhaps, therefore, the idea of a global totalitarian alliance is not such a far-fetched idea after all. But for those of us who are not rich, or their servants, the death of consensus politics and its replacement with extreme partisanship will never deliver much more than poverty and misery.
Such is the life of a serf.