July 23rd, 2015
in Op Ed
They might not like to admit it as openly as Tony Blair has, but many of the most respectable politicians in the Western world are suffering sleepless nights.
Upstart candidates and parties seem to be challenging the political establishment all over the western world. In Greece, anti-austerity party Syriza now governs and its Spanish counterpart Podemos has made significant gains.
In the UK, progressive candidate Jeremy Corbyn continues to shock by outpolling his centrist rivals for the Labour Party leadership. His popularity directly counters the belief that electability means moving to the increasingly conservative centre ground.
Meanwhile in the US, Bernie Sanders, an avowedly socialist presidential candidate in the US, is drawing record crowds, despite having been initially dismissed as a contender.
On the other side of the ideological spectrum, Donald Trump is giving his rivals a run for their money in the contest for the Republican party nomination. Relying on a toxic rhetoric of ultra nationalism, he is connecting to many voters who have lost faith in the US political process and its representatives.
Despite political differences, these campaigns all reveal the widespread popular dissatisfaction with so-called “respectable” politics and politicians. They highlight the desire to find something they can identify with outside the conventional and hollow bounds of political acceptability.
In every election there is support for candidates who set out their stall on the fringes of the political mainstream. The sacred centre is called so for a reason – it reflects a supposed middle ground between competing radical extremes. But these candidates seem to be having far more success than most. Their popularity cannot be easily disregarded. They represent a clear and present danger to perceived frontrunners.
The establishment has taken notice and gone on the offensive. As it became clear that Corbyn was a serious contender, Tony Blair emerged from political retirement to blast him and his followers. He warned that shifting back to the far left would be an ideological and electorial mistake for Labour. “People who say their heart is with Jeremy Corbyn,” he advised, “get a transplant”.
US politicians are similarly disparaging towards the upstarts. To centrist Democrats, Sanders is unelectable and indirectly helping the opposition by continuing to stand against fellow Democrat, Hillary Clinton. Many Republicans are distancing themselves from Trump after his recent comments attacking John McCain’s record as a “war hero”. They remain largely quiet on his demonisation of Mexican immigrants as “rapists”, mind you.
Straight and too narrow
These are not merely struggles between the political centre and the extremes though. These candidates all represent a fundamental defiance of “serious” politics as a whole. They are a challenge to the established democratic political class and their “legitimate” beliefs – particularly when it comes to austerity.
The eurozone crisis has, for many, turned the idea of who is and is not legitimate on its head. Germany stands accused of neoliberal authoritarianism in its support for austerity while Syriza, once seen as a group of radicals, are now seen by some as the victims of an unfair and illegitimate global order.
Bernie Sanders: causing trouble for Clinton. EPA/Astrid Riecken
In the same spirit, Sanders is seeking to reframe the debate entirely. He has repeatedly said that he likes and respects his opponent Hillary Clinton. What he objects to is the entire financially driven political and economic system that she appears to represent.
Take or leave us
This embrace of less-conventional candidates is associated with the failure of “legitimate” politicians to adequately deal with pressing problems of economic inequality, climate change and the growing power of financial capitalism – among others. Citizens are less tolerant of the politicians who find the status quo acceptable, particularly given the damage caused by their “legitimate” politics.
Here, the interests and commonly extreme policies of a small elite are portrayed as “common sense” and unassailable in their correctness. But the disastrous Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis have revealed the true cost of these “legitimate” policies and the price that will be paid for re-electing the kind of politicians who steered the world towards them.
Non-respectable politics, of course, carries its own dangers. Trump is showing how an alternative voice can be manipulated in a populist politics of blame and distraction. Yet his strategies are to be found in mainstream political discourse too. Germany can justifiably blame Greeks for their debt bondage and David Cameron can shift blame for the financial crisis from bankers to poor welfare cheats.
Voters are rightfully wary of acceptable politics in an unacceptable society. They have every reason to beware of extremism that masks itself as “centrist” and “legitimate”. If the time for “respectable” politicians is over – really, they asked for it.