The core orthodoxies of neoliberalism are under attack by populist forces, and commentators are scrambling for a response. Some are suggesting more left-wing red meat. Others, a moment of self-reflection. But a number of pundits are doing that most noxious of political commentary pastimes—equating right and left responses to the failures of globalization and advocating that “elites” should fight back against the forces of inconvenient democracy.
It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses
Magazine writers aren’t generally responsible for their headlines, but this one captured the flavor of Traub’s screed, which declared:
It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them. Is that “elitist”? Maybe it is; maybe…it is now elitist to believe in reason, expertise, and the lessons of history.
If you’re wondering what form the elite uprising against the “ignorant people” would take, Traub proposes:
Chunks of parties from the left and right of center could break away to form a different kind of center, defending pragmatism, meliorism, technical knowledge and effective governance against the ideological forces gathering on both sides…. The party of accepting reality must be prepared to take on the party of denying reality, and its enablers among those who know better.
In typical Serious Person form, Traub frames the problem as the center vs. ideologists “on both sides”; as Foreign Policy’s blurb puts it, “it’s not about the left vs. the right; it’s about the sane vs. the mindlessly angry”—a framing belied by the fact that all of Traub’s criticisms are aimed entirely at the far right.
But never mind this, people are angry and Traub is on the case. “The issue, at bottom, is globalization,” writes Traub:
Brexit, Trump, the National Front and so on show that political elites have misjudged the depth of the anger at global forces and thus the demand that someone, somehow, restore the status quo ante…. With prospects of flat growth in Europe and minimal income growth in the United States, voters are rebelling against their dismal long-term prospects.
Funny, that doesn’t sound so “mindless”—it sounds like there are real grievances driving popular anger. But rather than proposing solutions that would address these problems, Traub instead suggests that globalization’s losers be politically sidelined, replaced by a “reformed center” that “would include the beneficiaries of globalization and the poor and non-white and marginal citizens who recognize that the celebration of national identity excludes them.”
Traub calls this putting “the fist-shakers on one side and the pragmatists on the other”; one could also describe it as a policy of letting those who don’t benefit from globalization fend for themselves, and labeling them “deluded” if they’re unhappy about that.
Next up is Bloomberg’s Justin Fox with “Voters Are Making a Mess of Democracy” (7/6/16) — a polemic sharing Traub’s distaste for democratic input but put in a more extreme, Glenn Beck-esque “just asking questions” interview form. He leads off with this white-hot take:
As one political theorist recently wrote, “The basic problem is not that most voters seek to maximize their self-interest, but rather that most voters lack the knowledge necessary to make informed political judgments.” Or, “The uncomfortable truth is that the best (perhaps only) way to reduce the political influence of ignorant voters is to deprive them of the vote.”
Disenfranchisement as a means of protecting elite interests is now being floated, unironically, as something worthy of consideration. Fox attempts tolampshade hang this rather offensive notion by asking us to bear with him:
Meanwhile, in East Asia, not-exactly-democratic regimes have over the past half century achieved some pretty spectacular results for the people they govern. Singapore is the most obvious example, and Bell devotes a lot of ink to it in his book, but there’s also Hong Kong, pre-democracy Taiwan and South Korea, and — since its big economic-policy turn in the late 1970s — the People’s Republic of China.
So because economic systems that lacked democracy “achieved some pretty spectacular results,” the whole democratic idea is to be reexamined. Without a clear definition of democracy (somehow Venezuela—which just had elections where the “regime” lost by a wide margin—doesn’t qualify), it’s difficult to pin down his point. This appears to be because it’s a point being argued in bad faith: Fox’s problem isn’t with too much democracy per se, it’s with too much democracy when it veers from the editorial stance of Bloomberg News.
This is an ethos that animates much of the post-Brexit elite panic: voting as audition. Like a bottle of wine at a restaurant, votes are something the public presents to the elite for them to taste, spit out and reject if they feel the need to do so.
It’s a habit shared by Business Insider editor Josh Barro, another pundit who’s taken boring appeals to elite superiority to almost self-parody levels:
Republican officials aren't alarmed by Trump's Muslim ban idea because it's unpopular, but because it is wrong. Sometimes, elites work.
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) June 17, 2016
This is why the influence of elite opinion is an important check on majority rule. https://t.co/7cJ2eq7K6y
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) June 17, 2016
Elites are usually elite for good reason, and tend to have better judgment than the average person. #confessyourunpopularopinion
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) December 4, 2013
This is why the public should be kept away from policymaking. https://t.co/Sc5TuUnI1m
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) June 24, 2016
The counter to those who argue for the sanctity of democracy is that many forms of government, including our own, already have checks against the forces of demagoguery and the proverbial mob mentality. But to respond to recent populist pushback by moving the goalpost of democratic control isn’t a principled stand, it’s cheating—cheating that requires no reckoning of mistakes that were made.
From the 2008 crash to the Iraq War to inequality to elite immunity from prosecution, there are legitimate criticisms of the order these pundits seek to protect. That right-wing charlatans have managed to couple those critiques with nativism doesn’t mean these grievances aren’t real and in urgent need of addressing. Indeed, it means addressing them is more urgent than ever.
The response to right-wing forces emerging in Europe and the US should be to examine the underlying ideological assumptions of globalization and see how these co-called “elites” could better serve the interests of voters. But to do this would require that they and their court pundits possess, if only for a moment, the one thing they lack above all else: self-awareness.