Left and Right are Irrelevant

I intend to write a bit more, over the next few days and weeks, about what has happened and what might happen and what needs to happen in America, from a Canadian perspective. I have said many times that while Canada needs to broaden its socio-economic (political and trading) base to be be less reliant on the USA, we must always maintain America as Priority 1 in almost all our policies.

Professor Daron Acemoglu of MIT, in an article in Foreign Affairs, picks up on something I have said many, many times: the electoral demise of Donald J Trump does not spell the end of Trumpism. The conditions that that made it possible for him to win the presidency have not disappeared, because, he says, “the Trump presidency arose from deep fractures in U.S. politics and society, and Americans must understand and address these if they are to prevent similar forces from once again seizing the nation. The roots of Trumpism don’t begin or end with Trump or even with American politics—they are closely connected to economic and political currents affecting much of the world.” And make no mistake, the conditions which led to Donald Trump in the USA exist in most if not all Western countries.

Professor Acemoglu writes that “The United States was ripe for a populist movement by 2016, and it remains so today. Vast inequalities have opened in the last four decades between the highly educated and the rest and between capital and labor. As a result, median wages have been stagnant for about 40 years, and the real earnings of many groups, especially men with low education levels, have fallen precipitously. Men with less than a college degree, for example, earn significantly less today than their counterparts did in the 1970s. No serious discussion of the political ills that have befallen the United States can ignore these economic trends, which have afflicted the American middle class and contributed to the anger and frustration among some of the voters who turned to Trump.” And they turned, first to Ronald Reagan and then to Trump, because the Democratic Party and the university-educated American elites and the mainstream media ignored their plight and, by 2020, refused to even recognize that they were entitled to a voice.

The root causes of these inequalities have proved surprisingly difficult to pin down,” Daron Agemoglu says, and he speculates that “The rise of new, “skill biased” wunder technologies, such as computers and artificial intelligence, has coincided with a period of singularly low growth in productivity, and analysts have not convincingly explained why these technologies have benefited capital owners rather than workers. Another frequently cited culprit – trade with China – is clearly a contributing factor, but Chinese imports really exploded only once inequality was already rising and American manufacturing was already on the decline.” I maintain that the economically sound decision to move good paying but low skill jobs overseas ~ see my oft-repeated comments (link above) about ‘Allentown‘ ~ led to one of the main fissures in modern society and to the replacement of the solid, socially moderate “working class” with a frightened “precariat” which exists, perched precariously on the lower rungs of society, always only one or two pay-cheques away from financial disaster. Professor Acemoglu says that “European countries with similarly huge trade inflows from China do not show the same extent of inequality as the United States,” and while that is true in absolute terms, those same jobs were lost in Europe and a precariat is growing there, too. And, he says that “deregulation and the demise of unions in the United States [cannot] account for the disappearance of manufacturing and clerical jobs, for instance, as these losses are common across essentially all advanced economies.”

Notwithstanding the Lighthizer Doctrine which provoked a trade war that aims to redress the dignity deficit, Professor Acemoglu says that “economic inequality has become a source of cultural and political volatility in the United States. Those who have failed to benefit from economic growth have become disillusioned with the political system. In areas where imports from China and automation have led to the loss of American jobs, voters have turned their backs on moderate politicians and have tended to vote for those who are more extreme.” I think that he, and all of us, need to look beyond just the measurable “economic inequality” and look more deeply at the social inequality that now exits, and it exists in Canada, too, between the university-educated middle class and the fast growing precariat. After offering some fiscally unsound bromides with which I do not agree, Daron Acemoglu gets to the right answer: “The United States,” he says, but this applies to Canada, too, “needs to create good – high-paying and stable – jobs for workers without a college degree, and the country is far from a consensus on how this can be done.

One way to do it, in Canada, and this requires that federal and provincial governments a) work together towards a common goal, and b) remember that there is only one taxpayer, you and me, is to have a permanent programme of infrastructure maintenance. In other words, every harbour and airport and road and bridge has a fully-funded lifecycle maintenance programme, too. If a road is important enough to build it is important enough to keep in good repair. There are not many photo ops to be had for doing routine maintenance on a bridge, and that, it seems to me, is why so many politicians ignore preventive maintenance and then waste money on emergency repairs.

Professor Acemoglu also says, and I agree, that “Together with economic resentment has come a distrust of all kinds of elites. Much of the American public and many politicians now express a mounting hostility toward policymaking based on expertise.” He says that trust in our institutions, including the judiciary, legislatures, the central bank, and various law enforcement agencies, has collapsed and he notes that “Neither Trump nor recent party polarization can be held solely to blame for this anti-technocratic shift.” It is a global phenomenon that has been growing for decades. I, personally, saw it begin, on the streets of America, Canada and Europe in the 1960s.

But, I think Daron Acemoglu falls into a trap of his own making when he says that “Populist movements thrive on inequality and on resentment of elites. Yet these conditions alone don’t explain why American voters in 2016 turned right rather than left as inequality rose and the very wealthy benefited at ordinary people’s expense.” This is classic left-wing cant but it doesn’t even come close to explaining why “In the United States, a right-wing populist movement stood ready to make itself the vehicle for the grievances of regular people and to marry those grievances to a stance that was anti-elite, nationalist, and often authoritarian.

President Trump is not a “right wing” politician. He’s maddeningly “centrist” and even “left” on many, many issues. Professor Acemoglu is on firmer ground when he says that “Right-wing populism did not emerge in the United States because of Trump’s deranged charisma. Nor did it begin with the news media’s infatuation with his outrageous statements, or with Russian meddling, or with social media. Rather, right-wing populism resurged as a potent political force at least two decades before Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party – remember Pat Buchanan?” Mr Buchanan was, indeed, a “right wing populist,” but President Trump owes little to him. I suspect that the terms “left” and “right” are useless when discussing populism because the people at whom successful populists aim their message, the working class and the precariat, are, generally, in the mushy middle on most issues. Most people in the working class and the precariat are too busy struggling to get by to think about politics. What Donald J Trump did, and what most successful populists do, was to enunciate their fears and to promise to fix some of the problems. Most if the real problems are very, very hard to fix and the simplistic solutions ~ “I’ll build a HUGE wall!” ~ are usually wrong and impossible to achieve, anyway. But that didn’t really matter. It was enough for 70 Million Americans that President Trump, and only Donald Trump, ever spoke about what matters to them. Professor Acemoglu is very correct to say that Trumpism is not dead. Not all of the 77+ Million votes cast for Joe Biden were against President Trump’s policies; many were against him, personally because many millions of Americans liked his message ~ they voted for Republicans for Congress ~ but they saw that he is a deeply flawed person.

There are less flawed people, America Firsters who can likely beat almost any Democrat, waiting in the wings …

.. those are just a few of the names being bandied about, already, in the media. Most are fiscally right of centre but socially moderate, most are pro-defence and willing to get tougher with China. Most understand that, as Bloomberg Business week says, “For the first time in decades, the world faces a series of pressing challenges that are bigger than any one country can solve on its own … [and] … The hard choices we face require even more global cooperation,” not isolationism. They are neither “left” nor “right,” they are more principled politicians who use populism as a political tactic, not as their grand strategy.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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