Saturday, August 26, 2017

A unified theory of democracy, culture wars, and populism

I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Leonard Cohen, Democracy
I have a theory on why culture wars and populism are ascendant in leading democracies. This perspective draws on the recent experience of US and India - respectively the oldest and the largest democracies with liberal constitutions.
At first glance, it's challenging to draw useful parallels. US is wealthy, powerful, and brash, India is none of those (yet). US has been engaged in a multi-decade global war, India has been (for most part) inwardly focused. US has been the leading light and both winner & loser from globalization, whereas India has (for most part) been an unqualified winner from this phenomenon.
But look through the surface differences and a remarkably similar dynamic presents itself. Both nations have absorbed socio-economic shocks that have remade their politics in very similar ways.
In this blog-post, I lay out what this remaking looks like, why it spells terrible news for liberalism in both nations, and what is to be done to reclaim the liberal space.
The Liberal Compact
India has long presented itself as a liberal and secular democracy. There is some truth to this, at least historically.
Before 1991, when India shed decades of post-Independence socialism to unchain its economy, India's relatively stagnant social order consisted of a tiny elite lording over a continent full of poverty. The Congress party, the establishment of the day, secured its repeated parliamentary majorities by serving up liberal, secular rhetoric to the elite and socialist, communal sops to the poor. This was its liberal compact.
Of course, there were social resentments of the kind we see today even then. Kashmir, Punjab, Mandal Commission, Shah Bano, and before all this Naxalbari are well known fault lines. But none of this really made any dent on Congress' political success.
Why is this? Simplistically put, the elite trusted Congress to safeguard their liberal cocoon while the poor could be bought off with socialism. It was hard to unmake this compelling equation.
1991 changed everything. This economic shock led to the emergence of a vocal, ambitious middle class who resented the (smug, corrupt, self-important) elite and rejected the (failed, false, facetious) socialism of the Congress.
This middle class sought an identity (and values) different from that of the elite and prosperity greater than that of its parents. Congress' vaunted liberal compact became a millstone that eventually sank it.
America had a different dynamic. It's liberal compact was built on the promise of the "American Dream" for its vast middle class and civil rights for its urban poor. As long as the middle class had stable jobs, disposable income, and fat pensions, it (except in war years) swallowed its resentments against the liberal elite. The urban poor saw some spillover prosperity too but it was civil rights that cemented them to the liberal rhetoric of the Democratic Party.
Victory in the cold war, globalization, 9/11, and the Great Recession changed all this.
America found itself, for the first time since the Great Depression, with recurrence of poverty. It's middle class was on the back foot with jobs going abroad, incomes stagnating, and pensions vanishing. It's urban poor wanted more than civil rights rhetoric and began resenting how The Democratic Party took their votes for granted.
Barack Obama promised hope and change which drew America to him (twice). But while he did offer fleeting hope, there was scant evidence of change in his record. The liberal compact fell apart.
Bottom line is that both India and America maintained their respective liberal compacts through promises that were exposed by shocks to their systems. The consequence was the structural fading of the Indian National Congress in India and the rise of Donald Trump in America.
The New World Order
Politics abhors a vacuum and something had to fill the space vacated by the liberal compact.
In India, Narendra Modi seized the moment of Congress' collapse by reshaping the winning political message. He discarded the liberal elite (who were too few in number to matter anyway), embraced the ambition of the middle class by promising good governance, and kept in place populist economic schemes largely inherited from the Congress. Crucially, he stoked culture wars in a bid to permanently discredit the secular, liberal, western worldview of the social elite.
In America, Donald Trump acted likewise. He discarded the liberal elite (calling them the swamp), embraced the ambition of the middle class by promising to make America great again, and talked up populist economic schemes targeted at the rural poor (mostly White) and asserted that the urban poor (mostly Black) had nothing to lose by abandoning The Democratic Party. Crucially, he stoked culture wars in a bid to permanently discredit the secular, liberal, globalist worldview of the social elite.
Narendra Modi has ambitious (if careful) rivals and Donald Trump could yet be impeached but what they have already done to break the liberal compact and reshape the politics of their respective nations is here for good. All the king's men and all the king's horses can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
In India, Congress party is a shadow of its past self, rudderless, confused, incoherent, irrelevant. In America, despite the daily social media revulsion at Donald Trump's words and actions, the (liberal) Democratic party has lost election after election at both the Federal and the State levels for years now. The Republican Party controls the Presidency, both houses of US congress, a majority of governorships and state legislatures, and is in a position to remake the Supreme Court.
This is not politics as usual. This is a new world order.
What is to be done?
As a liberal myself, I take no pleasure in describing the bleak future for the values I prefer. But we can't begin fighting back if we don't come to terms with our comprehensive defeat.
This defeat is not due to Russian interference in American elections or social media aggressiveness of the BJP in Indian politics. This is structural and, unless we come to terms with this, we are lost.
There are a few directions that we the liberals can explore.
1. Courts
American courts have stopped President Trump's most egregious executive orders. India's courts have also shown recent spine (for example on the landmark ruling making privacy a fundamental right, something opposed by the Modi Government).
Journalist and commentator Barkha Dutt exulted in a recent column that India's privacy ruling is a "manifesto of hope and freedom". She is right but with a caveat. If liberals have lost the politics and are left only with the courts to salvage their world, I fear this is unsustainable. Courts, in the long run, reflect the dominant political dynamic and, both in America and India, the shape of the courts will inevitably become the next political battle line. The culture wars and underlying resentments will move from the elite to the courts and nothing would have changed.
2. Patience
The pendulum of democracy swings when least expected (as Theresa May recently found out in UK) and maybe we will get lucky sometime soon.
While Narendra Modi's politics are structurally strong and the opposition stands depleted, his performance (especially on the economy) has not kept pace. Jobless growth and needless antics (e.g., demonetization) can yet leave him with a weaker majority in 2019 General Elections. He may even lose a state election or two.
Likewise, Donald Trump's crass personality may leave him with few allies even within his own party. He can also be hobbled or even impeached by the fast spiraling investigation into Russian meddling in his election as President.
Liberals may yet have a pulse but, let's face it, the underlying structural weakness will not go away. Besides, no one ever won a war by being passive.
3. Fighting back (smartly)
The third option, the only real one in my humble opinion, is to fight back in a smart way.
I don't mean doubling down on failed ideas (e.g., socialism and communal pandering in India) or adding fuel to cultural fires (e.g., Antifa violence in US and symbolic pulling down of statues in America).
I mean crafting a winning strategic positioning that will appeal to the new social balance. If the liberal message has failed, we need a new message instead of repeating ourselves hoarse in growing indignation.
Here's what I think the new liberal positioning ought to be:
Embracing markets-based (not subsidy-driven) empowerment of the poor by offering a hand up, not a hand out, accommodating cultural differences of the conservatives (a "we leave you alone if you leave us alone" compact), and demanding more social conscience from the elite. 
Populism targeted at the poor is like pandering targeted at minorities. It may work in the short-run but is long-term unsustainable. Empowerment is the key to changing lives. It's an optimistic, non-cynical, approach that works by removing every possible hurdle for the poor to bootstrap themselves out of poverty.
Fighting culture wars is pointless, mainly because they are unwinnable except over generations. We don't have that much time. Better idea is to enter into a d├ętente where we replace the rhetoric of mutual insult with one of grudging accommodation. This should preserve sufficient liberal space for us to breathe while diffusing resentments that come from imposition of liberal values on unwilling minds.
Finally, as the fortunate and privileged elite, we have to be seen as caring for those left behind. Our attitudes of social interaction have to reflect this. We can't wall ourselves off in our liberal, cappuccino cocoons behind great big walls and armored gates. If we want the new world order to make space for us, we have to make space for it.
These positions can help calm the waters and reset the politics. And buy us breathing room to wait for the next turn in the story of democracy when liberalism can be ascendant again. There are times when survival to fight another day is victory in itself. Let's get smart and survive instead of walking into the buzz saw of certain and permanent oblivion.