The American Elite’s Political Crisis

The current crisis in the US Right and the insurgency from the Left are shattering the consensus forged over decades and centred on the might of the market. A major political realignment may be in the offing.

The American elite is facing a political crisis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The American elite is facing a political crisis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

American sociologist Alvin Gouldner once noted that if there is an iron law of oligarchy, there must also be an iron law of democracy. Power is all too frequently concentrated in fewer hands, corrupting democracy in the process and debasing the broader political culture. But nothing lasts forever and perhaps the most dangerous time for any system is when its guardians are most comfortable, made complacent and even smug by the feeling of “we’ve never had it so good”.

For the American political elite – regardless of their party affliations – 2016 must increasingly feel like 1973: then, the elites complained that the biggest threat facing them came from “a highly educated, mobilised, and participant society”. To many, that’s democracy. To elites, as Bill Domenech noted recently, mass mobilisations look like chaos and disorder. In 2016, just like in 1973, elites want to shepherd the enraged sheep back into their pen to resume their allotted place, voting every couple of years and otherwise enjoying life as consumer-sovereigns. But the sheep don’t appear to be listening at the moment because the market is not delivering.

The current crisis in the US Right and the insurgency from the Left are shattering the consensus forged over decades and centred on the might of the market. But the mental universe of elites has rendered invisible the plight of the many while they’ve been enjoying the spoils of privatisation, the profits of globalisation and the licence of corporate non-regulation, presided over by a political class more or less completely in the grip of Wall Street mentalities. They do not see that the world has moved on, that there are working and middle class people whose living standards and prospects bear no relationship to the classless utopia or American dream of some golden age. In truth, the golden age disappeared around 1973 and, for minorities, its lustre was a mere mirage.

The pent up rage on the Right represents the shrill cry of people in the shadows upon whose psychic and social plight Donald Trump’s demagoguery has shone an energising ray of light. Many of them would hardly shrink, might even celebrate, the subliminal slogan at the heart‎ of Trumpism – white, working class power. It may be a road to nowhere but division by mobilising resentment and pain through irresponsible, but well thought out, knee-jerk bigotry and ethnocentrism. Yet its adherents look to a golden past when America was theirs, as was the world. At home and abroad, they see defeat and humiliation at the hands of lesser peoples, including a supposed Muslim foreigner in the White House. So they want their country back and to make it great again. In this scenario, perhaps Trump is like Benito Mussolini restoring the Roman empire. Racial antipathy among marginal white workers appears to have conjoined two forces that conventionally pull in opposite directions; class matters in America but in usual ways. President Barack Obama has unwittingly proved a prime target for racist anti-elitists.

The frustrations of the many young workers and middle classes rest on the Left with Bernie Sanders’s socialism. The under-thirties don’t care about the Cold war and its constructed ‘Red Scare’ that the over-fifties were force-fed and imbibed for decades after 1947; they want Swedish welfare capitalism in spades, to be relieved of lifelong indebtedness incurred at college and the costs of corporate-controlled healthcare. They would rather divert war spending to building a new America worthy of the American dream, tax the rich, stem the flow of big money into politics, and restore the healthier public political culture of the 1960s – built by a mobilised, educated and participatory populace who had had enough of racial and gender oppression, militarism and war, and a corrupt, arrogant elite.

Sanders talks the politics of class, which actually accords with the cry of white workers backing Trump – but the latter cannot see past their identity politics of ethno-racial loss. So the two groups with so many complaints and demands in common remain divided, one of the reasons sociologist Werner Sombart gave over a century ago in answer to his question: “Why is there no socialism in the United States?”

With Ted Cruz still on the margins of the Republican elite’s affections, only Hillary Clinton stands unequivocally for defence of the existing system, explaining why Republicans – the creators of “Stop Trump” organisations – may end up holding their noses and voting Democratic in November. But they may not get the chance if Sanders continues to surprise by adding more wins to add to his current 11, especially in big states like California and New York.

The short term political prospects are pretty bleak and Americans are prepared for a bumpy ride into the summer nominating conventions. But the discontent is so intense that there’s likely to be a correction. The US system has proved very flexible in the past, including when it was captured by corporate money and then recaptured/recalibrated by more enlightened elements allied with reformist politicians. The Gilded Age of ‘robber barons’ – Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt et al – in the 1880s and 1890s gave way to leftist and conservative progressivism (both state building programmes against the excesses of the market); in turn, progressivism gave way to red scares after 1918 and the free market jamboree of the ‘20s that ended in the Wall Street crash of 1929. The New Deal of the 1930s inaugurated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt just about outlived the second world war but came under the intense scrutiny of the FBI and McCarthyism. And the pendulum swung again with the Great Society programmes under Lyndon Johnson, and again with Reaganomics in the 1980s and 1990s (by then known as the Third Way).

Major party realignments in the US seem to happen every 30 or 40 years – 1896, 1932/6, 1968, possibly 1994. The country may be heading towards another one, although it is early days still. The Republican party’s days look numbered, while the Democratic party is reeling under the Sanders insurgency. That’s the terrain on which a new politics will probably emerge, but only if organised constituencies develop to maintain pressure on their leaders to remind them where their interest lie. Gouldner’s iron law of democracy demands it.