Janan Ganesh: Angry voters are nostalgic for powerful elites
Trump and Brexit show that what voters really want is a paternalistic government
In his new book, MP Douglas Carswell argues that people want a small state over which they can exercise round-the-clock democratic mastership through some kind of digitised hive mind. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images
Raised in the Depression, the novelist and Nobel laureate Saul Bellow never forgot the bond between immiserated Americans and their posh, semi-foreign power-hoarder of a president. “The unemployed masses, working stiffs, mechanics, laid-off streetcar conductors, file clerks, shoe salesmen, pants pressers . . . They trusted only [Franklin] Roosevelt, a Groton boy, a Social Register nob, a rich gentleman from Harvard and Hyde Park.”
Voters do not mind elites if they fulfil the terms of their position, which is the active use of power for the material betterment of the people. The trouble seems to start when they do not behave as elites at all, when they stay their hand and profess impotence against global forces. At that point, the working stiffs question the point of their superiors, who, like absentee feudal lords, enjoy the trappings of power but observe none of its duties.
The West is not in revolt against elites. The people who voted Britain out of the EU and Donald Trump into the White House, and who might elect Marine Le Pen as president of France next month, are nostalgic for a time when elites were more, not less, powerful. Their Eden tends to be the middle third of the previous century, when barons at the top of government, business and organised labour conspired to maintain full employment.
Corporatism was elitism in practical form. Capital flows between countries were policed by even remoter elites in the institutions set up at Bretton Woods, itself an elite gathering to shame any Bilderberg weekend. Migration was managed by elites.
To read about the architects of that era is to bathe in shameless, seigneurial elitism. The economist John Maynard Keynes, the diplomats Henry Kissinger and George Kennan, Robert Schuman and other founders of the European project. They were extreme in their isolation from normal people. Some had beliefs that touched on the pre-democratic. But that was the point: it was their expert imposition of order on chaos that was so prized, and so missed when that order turned to flux in the 1980s and beyond.
I write this with a liberal’s wince but 2016 exposed a large, unmet demand for paternalist government. A decisive number of voters are ravenous for authentic elitism. Their quarrel is with the cipher elitism of the Davos age, in which politicians get elected only to claim powerlessness against the global maelstrom of capital and people, where the biggest businesses as big as Google play down their own power in favour of a “networked” world.
Angry voters do not want a putsch against elitism. If anything, they want its restoration. They want the ordered world they grew up in, when a measure of central direction kept jobs secure and neighbourhoods familiar. They see modern elites as lax parents, not strict ones, unconscionably passive during the past few decades of foreign economic competition and breakneck social change. They demand proper elites, elites who use their power.
They do not demand the libertarian dreamscape of Rebel: How to Overthrow the Emerging Oligarchy. In his new book MP Douglas Carswell cites Brexit, his electoral success in one coastal town and indeed any event that takes place in real time and space as proof that people want a small state over which they can exercise round-the-clock democratic mastership through some kind of digitised hive mind.
The trouble is that “oligarchy” is a serviceable description of the social system that angry voters miss. A system of large companies with implicit political duties to maintain jobs onshore, of government as a screen between worker and market, of the armed forces as a large employer and source of cultural mores, of immigration levels set by tight diktat rather the interplay of supply and demand, of free exchange as a curbed and conditional thing.
Bellow said that while lesser presidents had intellectual doctrines, Roosevelt got by with two words of Isaiah: “Comfort ye”. He told insecure voters that they were not alone, that he would protect them from life’s vicissitudes with all the fiscal largesse and technocratic smarts the republic could bring to bear.
That contract spread across the postwar West. The masses deferred to elites as long as the elites managed the masses’ exposure to the brute realities of the market. The fraying of that contract led to the bitterness of today.
Would that Carswell were right, but it does no good to hear a cry for freedom where there is actually the opposite. In 2016, voters did not ask elites to abdicate their power. They punished elites for prior abdications of power.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017