The Agenda

Will Wilkinson on Populist Mandates

You might appreciate Will Wilkinson’s latest:


When Mr [Christopher] Hayes says that “very powerful interests will brand this as ‘left’ rather than 99%”, he is right, if by “very powerful interests” he means “all the Americans who recognise that the 99%-er message is coming almost entirely from the left”. This is certainly a large and powerful group, commonly knows as “Republicans”. Leaders of the tea-party movement early on went out of their way to insist that theirs is an ideologically ecumenical movement, but I think we all knew this was nonsense. Similarly, there is no real framing battle over the Occupy Wall Street/99% movement. It is a movement of the left, even if antagonism toward Wall Street is a bipartisan passion.

Why then do smart progressives like Mr Hayes want to insist that the “We are the 99%” message is a non-partisan one? Well, a populist mandate is nice to have. Progressives have seen the electoral consequences of the tea-party movement’s successful occupation of the populist low-ground, and they’d like to occupy it for a little while, too, perhaps to similar electoral effect. But there’s more to it than that. The 99% message is an economic class-war message, even if it puts all but 1% of us on the righteous side of the class divide. Economic class-war messages are of the left just as surely as American-authenticity culture-war messages are of the right. Moreover, the “we are the 99%” rhetoric nicely reinforces what I like to call the “progressive master narrative”, according to which runaway economic inequality enables an enormously wealthy elite to gut our democratic institutions and bend them to their mean designs, overriding the authentic will of the many. If it happens that a majority of Americans oppose the particular policies that progressives favour, this is just evidence that our democracy has been largely captured by the rich already. If conservative populism expresses any authentic, native ideological instincts, it has been co-opted by plutocrat running dogs like Americans for Prosperity, the likes of whom also blind the public to the really crucial truth: that there really is a class war—that it really is us, the 99%, against the crooked, opulent remainder. That’s the objective reality of the situation. If we fail to see it, we’re probably being used. Those who would resist the “99% v 1%” framing in favour of the “left v right” framing are probably unwitting tools acting against their own objective interests. That the “left v right” framing seems so obvious only goes to show just how low we’ve been brought. So, Obama 2012!

Inevitably, this reminds me of attention-blindness. The left believes that the right is willfully inattentive to plutocrat-driven injustice. The right believes that the left is willfully inattentive to how the real world works.