On the failure of populism, left and right

As I write this article, the US elections are going south for Donald Trump. Biden looks set to win the electoral college as well as a thumping popular vote victory, the Democrats are set to hold Congress, although the Republicans look set to hold the Senate and maintain the majority of governorships. The outcome of the election may not have been the big blue landslide nearly every poll suggested it would be, but it is quite clear that the Democrats will win the election, whether by a narrow majority or a fairly decent one. Meanwhile Trump is insistent on taking the election to the Supreme Court, which is dominated by Republicans, expecting it to rule in his favour while alleging widespread electoral fraud. We could be following the election for weeks to come, but the outcome of the election itself is not important for the purpose of this article so much as what the prospective Democratic victory represents.

In my view, the fact that the Democrats have managed to win the election by offering basically nothing other than a handful of platitudes is the sign that right-wing populism in America has been an abject failure, but the failure of right-wing populism is not the only subject I want to talk about. In my view, populism in general is failing. Both the left and right populist movements have ended in disaster, and the objective of this article is to explain how and why.

I’d like to begin by focusing on right-wing populism, specifically in America, where it is represented by Donald Trump. Already the right is looking to shift blame on wherever it can, whether they’re blaming widespread electoral fraud in key swing states, or blaming Libertarian Party voters in what seems to be the mirror image of liberal vote shaming, where they blame people voting Libertarian in various key states such as Wisconsin where the party seems to have won enough votes to spoil the election in favour of the Democrats. While I think it is clear that widespread electoral fraud is indeed taking place, that in my opinion that alone cannot explain why in excess of 73 million people turned out to vote for Joe Biden, or why neither side is achieving a landslide victory.

The sad truth that Trump’s supporters don’t want to hear is that the Trump brand of right-wing populism has failed to serve the interests of the working class, from which Trump gained an influx of voters in 2016. For starters, despite Trump’s promises to put an end to the outsourcing of American jobs, and yet outsourcing has if anything increased under Trump (something Biden has been keen to point out), and firms such as Carrier which initially struck a deal with Trump has continued the practice of outsourcing and faced no action from the president. In Wisconsin, Trump made a deal with Foxconn in which they were supposed to build a $10 billion plant in the state and hire at least 520 full-time employees, for which the state of Wisconsin would give Foxconn a $3 billion subsidy. It turns out that Foxconn only ended up hiring 281 full-time employees, and it was reported that Foxconn would import Chinese workers to the new plant. So much for that anti-immigrant posturing. Assuming it turns out that no electoral fraud took place, is it any wonder why Wisconsin has flipped back to blue after voting for Trump in 2016? As if that wasn’t enough, Trump’s massive tax cuts were a tremendous giveaway for the American bourgeoisie, leaving the workers and the middle class behind.

The betrayal of its promises to the working class has soured the opinion of American workers on right-wing populism, but the nail on the coffin was Trump’s idiocy and complete political ineptitude. One of the things people liked about Trump during the 2016 election was the fact that Trump had no political experience, making him seem like an outsider to the political establishment. While that appeal was strong for people who have had enough of the corrupt political establishment, in practice it meant that Trump has no idea how to actually play the game of politics in order to get what he wanted, which meant he had no idea how to actually get his agenda done, and depended on the expertise of establishment Republicans and business leaders who were happy enough to use a narcissistic moron as the conduit and standard bearer for a radically right-wing economic agenda. Thus Trump morphed from a populist conservative into a rhetorically ferocious but otherwise mostly standard Reaganite Republican, cutting taxes and regulations while conning the working class into believing they representing them through culture war pageantry, with the added bonus of Trump’s unique ability to enrage the press and drive the national conversation. Unfortunately for Trump, millions of people got tired of his routine, and went in droves to vote him out.

In my opinion, what ultimately killed Trump’s chances of re-election were three fatal decisions. First, his constant disparaging of postal votes, which discouraged loyal Republican supporters from mailing in their ballot, giving the Democrats an absolute advantage in the postal vote which proved fatal in key battleground states. Second, his flippant attitude to the coronavirus, in which even after he was hospitalised, he treated it as it was little more than a flu as thousands of Americans have died from it, and flaunting his treatment through experimental drugs that the average American doesn’t have access to and couldn’t afford in their lifetimes. Finally, his abrupt decision to cancel stimulus talks four weeks before the election, although he changed his mind just as quickly, drastically shifted the tide of the election to Biden’s favour, as even some of his own supporters were left aghast at his apparent lack of concern for their financial welfare during what will be one of the worst winters in American history.

Thanks to all these factors, right-wing populism will likely be defeated in America, unless Trump succeeds in getting the Supreme Court to rule in his favour. But it isn’t just America where right-wing populism is suffering. In Britain it has been floundering ever since the EU referendum ended with a Leave vote. UKIP collapsed and turned into a floating joke under a succession of incompetent leaders, proving unable to survive politically without its leader Nigel Farage, who left and formed the Brexit Party, which only succeeded where Labour and the Tories seemed like they were going to ignore the popular vote on Brexit. The moment Boris Johnson was elected leader, the BXP began to decline, and in the end only got 2% of the vote. Now it’s known as Reform UK, which is competing as an anti-lockdown party. In my opinion, a major problem with British right-wing populism is similar to the US variety: it could not conceive of itself as transcending neoliberalism in any meaningful way, thus it could easily be recuperated by capitalist politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson as an ideological legitimator of neoliberalism. Now Boris Johnson looks like the standard bearer of right-wing populism, and because of his incompetence at handling the coronavirus he has gone from having a commanding Blair-like lead in April to trailing behind Labour in November. Elsewhere, other right-wing populist parties have been struggling across Europe, particularly in Italy, where Lega Nord’s lead has been shrinking, as Salvini has managed to make himself the laughing stock of the Italian right, being replaced by Giorgia Meloni of the crypto-fascist Fratelli d’Italia party as the star of the Italian right after Salvini’s attempt to grab the top job ended with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte forming a new government with the Italian Democratic Party and the Five-Star Movement, and Salvini losing his job as deputy.

These are the failures of right-wing populism, but it is not just right-wing populism that has failed. Left-wing populism has arguably done even worse. In America, where it was represented officially by Senator Bernie Sanders, the populist left almost won the Democratic primaries, and could have been facing Donald Trump, but it was hamstrung by the spinelessness and cowardice of Bernie Sanders, and was ultimately defeated when his centrist rivals all united behind the President-to-be Joe Biden, who arguably wouldn’t be on track to win the election right now if Sanders and his allies hadn’t unconditionally surrendered and agreed to campaign for him. Their surrender has enabled a resurgent neoliberal Democratic Party to emerge triumphant, after which they will quickly proceed to run a government including Republicans.

Outside America the prospects of left-wing populism are more dismal. In France, the standard-bearer of left-wing populism is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose party La France Insoumise has failed to move past third place in the polls against the towering leads of Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the two main contenders in French politics, and has been marred by infighting over identity politics. In Germany, Die Linke has failed to capitalise on popular frustration towards the neoliberal policies of Angela Merkel’s CDU-SPD grand coalition, and instead of reviving the old socialist tradition in what should be their heartland in East Germany (where the AFD enjoys popularity amongst the working class) they have settled on essentially being a German copy of Corbynism, and they are quickly becoming irrelevant as the centre of gravity in left politics shifts towards the German Greens.

Perhaps the worst failure of them all was in Britain, where the chances of left-wing populism attaining power were actually legitimate. I am of course talking about Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, which is now under the leadership of Keir Starmer. After having gotten elected leader of the Labour Party by complete chance, Corbyn went on to achieve major gains for Labour in the 2017 election, enough to deprive the Tories of a majority, and after Theresa May failed to deliver Brexit on time, there was a real chance that Labour could have beaten the Tories. That all fell apart when Boris Johnson became leader of the Tories and Labour fully surrendered to the second referendum camp, becoming a de facto Remain party despite Corbyn’s best efforts to avoid this. This is the main reason they lost the 2019 election, but it’s not the only reason Corbynism failed. Aside from the fact that Corbyn’s Labour Party was infested with rabid woke identity politics, the party pandered mostly to students and the middle class rather than the working class, hence why it was surprisingly short on genuine class politics and very heavy on liberal culture war politics, and why it targeted unwinnable Tory seats such as Uxbridge and South Ruislip and practically left heartland seats undefended. On top of that, the Corbynites had an unhealthy obsession with Israel/Palestine, which in retrospect may have been the cause of rampant antisemitism within the party, which they refuse to acknowledge even to this day.

But ultimately Corbyn made the same mistake that Bernie Sanders did, seeing the Labour right as people to co-operate with as opposed to people you actually have to exert pressure on to make them support you, and although Corbyn had much greater control over the party structure than Bernie had over the Democrats, his naivety cost him dearly, and now he’s found himself suspended from the party because his moronic public handling of antisemitism, in which he often dodged basic questions, and many Corbynites will deny that anti-semitism is even an issue despite there being mountains of evidence to the contrary, claiming it’s all part of a giant conspiracy doesn’t to stop Corbyn from getting elected.

If I had to give any sort of diagnosis as to why the populists of various stripes failed, I would point to a few obvious signs. Firstly, the right-populists could not conceive of themselves outside the bounds of neoliberal politics, and in effect became an arm of neoliberalism, the radical right wing of it if you will. Trump has in fact governed as such, and Farage was in practice a Thatcherite libertarian on economics. One thing both the right and left populists have done wrong is that they both assumed that they would sweep to power on the assumption that the silent majority already agrees with them and is willing to vote for them against the corrupt establishment. This strategy failed with both Trump and Corbyn. Both thought they could just cut through to the masses without making a real case for why you should vote for them, and with Trump it was especially bad because he could have easily hammered home Biden’s biggest weaknesses, and instead of doing that, he kept pushing the ludicrous narrative that Biden is a trojan horse for the radical left.

Because they assume that the public is already on their side and that they represent the people, populists will explain any defeat experienced by them as the result of foul play by the establishment, thus they tend to have a habit of explaining their failures through increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories. With the left-populists it’s fairly straightforward. Sanders supporters say that he lost entirely because of establishment meddling, even though if anything he had a much greater advantage in 2020 than in 2016. Corbyn supporters blame a cabal of Zionists, Blairites and the “right-wing media” for undermining his leadership. Jean-Luc Mélenchon blamed the Jews for Corbyn’s defeat, and left-populists in general have a habit of ascribing godlike powers to their class enemies. It never occurs to them that the ruling class is capable of being incompetent, or simply that they failed to win the argument. Indeed, many Corbynites didn’t even bother. They insisted that either you agree with them or you may as well vote Tory, and that’s exactly what 13 million Brits ended up doing.

With right-wing populists these conspiracy theories often get much more bizarre. Some of them are more credible, like the theory that the Democrats are trying to steal the election, which I think is somewhat credible considering the fact that we are seeing evidence of dead people showing up on the ballots and stolen ballots being found. Others meanwhile are straight into fantasy land, like the QAnon conspiracy theory, which alleges that Trump’s political opponents are a cabal of international Satanic child traffickers who are trying to undermine Trump and his attempts to thwart them, and that Trump is planning to secretly arrest and prosecute his Democratic opponents on that basis, a premise which sounds like something a fascist would be doing. Trump himself has promoted a number of conspiracy theories, including most famously the patently racist theory that Barack Obama wasn’t actually born in America and therefore unqualified to be President, a theory that was debunked when Obama published his birth certificate. He also claimed that anthropogenic climate change was a hoax manufactured by the Chinese to undermine the US economy, that Syrian refugees coming to America are actually ISIS terrorists in disguise, and one time he even implied that Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia was murdered.

Most crucially, and this is something that I see particularly with left-populists, they are bad at politics. As I mentioned earlier Trump had to really on the expertise of more establishmentarian conservatives like Mitch McConnell, his enforcer in the Senate who has occupied his seat since 1984. Many of the left-populists too had no political experience, and even the ones with minimal political experience had no idea how to play politics to their advantage. If they had any grasp on how politics works, for starters they wouldn’t be larping as 1970s-style revolutionaries because their politics isn’t remotely revolutionary, but more importantly they would be attempting to twist the arms of their rivals to try and extract support or concessions from them. A big part of politics is negotiation and dealmaking, and the establishment succeeds because they are experts at this art. Even if Bernie couldn’t have a chance at actually winning the primaries, he had a lot of clout and support that he could have leveraged in order to extract concessions from Biden in exchange for support. That alone would have, in my view, would have made support for voting Democrat much more worthwhile. That Sanders and his progressive allies did not do this and instead pledged unconditional support was a tactical disaster because it ensured that Biden does not have to care about left-wing demands at all, and that the left-populists will continue to be politically irrelevant.

With the Corbynites it’s a bit of a different story because they actually did have control of the party’s National Executive Committee, and thus were able to exert significant influence over the Labour Party even though only a handful of MPs could be considered part of the Labour left. However, we also know that certain sections of the Labour Party, namely the Labour right, were actively working to hamstring the party’s efforts, including through the redirecting of campaign funds elsewhere. The problem is that even with the machinations of the centrist opposition, the Labour left was ultimately quite soft in their approach, in part because Corbyn’s attitude was very much the same kind of nice grandpa act that Bernie Sanders pulled. Here’s a pro tip for anyone interested in politics: nice guys finish last, always have done and always will. Bourgeois politics is cruel and competitive. To get far enough to actually do something requires you learning certain skills that a lot of leftists can’t be asked to learn because they think it’s beneath them, and this reluctance to learn these skills, such as negotiation, persuasion, problem-solving, etc., is one reason why you see them constantly failing nearly everywhere.

This is the ugly truth that the true believers don’t want you to hear, but it doesn’t have to be bad for us on the left. In fact, there are lessons we can learn going forward in another part of the world. One of the few bits of good news we got all year was from last month, when the Movement for Socialism returned to power with a huge popular mandate after previously having been ousted in a fascist coup. It is tempting to look at this as evidence that socialists can get into power through the vote alone, but that’s not quite all there was. Remember, the interim government was trying to stop MAS from coming back to power through all available means. In order to oppose them, MAS needed to organise on the streets in order to make life difficult for them and force them to hold the elections. It was through democratic struggle that the Bolivian left won the day, and not just by telling people to go vote, and that’s the lesson. You need to be prepared to go out on the streets to organise for workers rights and get your party involved in working class communities and their struggles. The electoral strategy can work, but you have to do other things alongside it in order for your party to be taken seriously.

As for the right-wing populists, their future is going to look quite grim for a little while now that Trump looks set for defeat. In America in particular, they face a stark choice. They can either continue their slavish, vicarious attachment to the Reaganite Republicanism of the establishment right through Trump and consign themselves to minority party status, or they can take the path suggested by people like Josh Hawley, which is to build a multi-racial working class coalition based on socially conservative populism. The opportunity for such populists to arise could feasibly emerge considering this is the only path available for the Republican Party to electoral relevance, and this is a view that has been echoed by prominent right-wing populists such as Saagar Enjeti on numerous occasions.

And it is this particular possibility that I believe we need to prepare for. If we fail to do the work that needs to be done to win back the working class, the populist right will, and they won’t be the same Trumpian idiots that just got defeated in America. It will be a new breed of right-wingers that will have learned the lessons of 2020, and they will reject the old libertarian economic theories and instead form a new ideological framework by combining social conservatism with economic populism, and on top of that will likely have people who actually know how politics works on their side. This will be a winning combination in the next election, especially if the left doesn’t abandon its commitment to cultural liberalism and identity politics and instead embraces a fully pro-worker, pro-liberty and pro-humanist politics. There will be no return to the pre-Trump era. This is the future of politics. We can either adapt and have a real chance of changing the world for the better, or we can allow ourselves to become irrelevant.

Marxist Humanist. For liberty, peace, democracy and socialism.