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A prominent Donald Trump sign on display in West Des Moines, Iowa in 2016. (Photo: Tony Webster/cc/flickr)

A prominent Donald Trump sign on display in West Des Moines, Iowa in 2016. (Photo: Tony Webster/cc/flickr)

Neoliberal Democrats Need to Stop Blaming the Internet and Take Some Responsibility for 2016

Perhaps we could let go of past failures more easily if it didn't look like many powerful forces were so eager to repeat them

John Atcheson

Ever since the 2016 elections, neoliberals have been looking for reasons to explain why Hillary Clinton lost and why Donald Trump won.  They've blamed the Russians, Bernie Bros, the media … anything but themselves.  Now, a new study gives them another reason—blame it on the Internet.

In his latest op-ed, Thomas Edsall featured the winning paper in the American Political Science Association’s Psychology Division, entitled  A 'Need for Chaos' and the Sharing of Hostile Poltical Rumors in Advanced Democracies, by Michael Bang Petersen, Mathias Osmundsen and Kevin Arceneaux.

The authors make a case that the internet and social media has enabled a once disaggregated minority to come together and achieve a measure of power. As Edsall writes, the paper "argues that a segment of the American electorate that was once peripheral is drawn to 'chaos incitement' and that this segment has gained decisive influence through the rise of social media."

Edsall goes on to paraphrase the paper's characterization about who is susceptible to "chaos incitement" in the following way:

            The authors describe "chaos incitement" as a "strategy of last resort by marginalized status-seekers," willing to adopt disruptive tactics.

There is a glaring oversight the author's thesis and particularly in Edsall's explanation of it. Specifically, there is no discussion about the role of the political parties and the political establishment in contributing to this marginalization.  The fact of the matter is, studies show that the number of people who are angry at the political establishment is huge, and their anger or alienation is warranted.

Petersen et. al. were specifically examining the role of the Internet, so it’s understandable that they didn't focus on other factors contributing to the rise of populist demagogues internationally.

But you can bet the neoliberals won't make such fine distinctions. Especially now that their other excuses are evaporating in the face of realty and their grip on the party is in danger.

It's obvious that the Russians didn't create Hillary's trail of corporate friendly emails; rather they exploited what was in fact a real issue. Just read them.  And the evidence is overwhelming that the whole Bernie Bro thing was created by Hillary supporters and fostered by the neoliberal media that loathed Sanders and his gang of unruly progressives.

What's missing from Edsall's analysis is that the neoliberal establishment running the Democratic Party has contributed to this nihilism by abandoning the working class and middle class voter. The fact is, they have contributed to the morally bankrupt policies that have led to the extreme income inequality that now is a fact of life for 99+percent of Americans. Adjusted for inflation, income and wealth have hardly budged since Reagan, for all but the extreme rich and corporations.

Worse, as Gilens and Page pointed out in their seminal paper—entitled, "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens"—the people have virtually no influence on politics.

No wonder people feel marginalized, and no wonder nihilism has spread.  They've been ripped off and ignored. That's not a recipe for successful participatory politics. Throw in gerrymandering, voter suppression, systematic disenfranchisement of some, and you've got a body politic that is angry, justifiably cynical, alienated, and perhaps afraid.

Edsall acknowledges as much when he says:

In that election (2016), Trump had a great deal to work with: residual anxiety over the 2007-9 recession; battles over the rights of transgender people; rising levels of social and economic inequality; employment losses driven by globalization; rampant automation; the deterioration of traditional family structures; climate change and extreme weather; and the prospect that whites would no longer be the majority.

Chaos feeds on anger and fear. Trump, Johnson and other would be despots didn't create the conditions for chaos, they've merely been adept at exploiting them. In short, much of the nihilism is an understandable response to politics as usual.

The reason this is important, is that neoliberals are likely to seize on the paper's contention that the marginalized are a small minority who embrace chaos and whose presence is magnified by social media.  In fact, there are two responses to the political and economic disenfranchisement that has dominated politics since Ronald Reagan. One is the chaos seekers the authors identify. They feed on rumor, lies, and a cultish belief in nonsense while also rejecting science, and reason.  But there's a far larger group who have simply abandoned politics as the rigged system it is.  These people are not interested in spreading chaos, they've simply concluded—accurately, I would say—that the system is designed to exploit them.

The Democrats and Republicans mainly differ only in the extent to which they are willing to represent the rich and corporate interests at the expense of the people's interest.

If Democrats and those who would oppose Trump don't realize this, they are likely to pick another neoliberal like Joe Biden, who could suffer the same fate as Clinton. It will be difficult to depose Trump with someone who doesn't acknowledge the very legitimate concerns of voters about income inequality and political disenfranchisement, and who proposes fundamental changes—one might even say revolutionary change. In short, someone like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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