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What’s the Matter with the World? A Commentary on the Rise of Populism

Richard Falk - 24th July 2017
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In this introspective piece, Richard Falk explores why so many in his social cricle missed the worldwide rise of a counter-globalization movement and the return of the nationstate.

What’s the matter with me?

To avoid any impression of condescension, I will begin with a humbling root question, “What’s the matter with me?” After all, I have become deeply aware in recent years of how out of touch intellectual elites generally are with wider public sentiments in America and several foreign societies that I have visited in recent years. I had my own trouble as long ago as the 1970s grasping the grassroots strength of Nixon’s ‘moral majority,’ which I haughtily dismissed as the ‘immoral minority’ (perhaps, the precursor of Hilary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’). The inspiration for this essay comes not from self-scrutiny but from a rereading of Thomas Frank’s non-prophetic, yet deeply illuminating, much discussed, and influential 2005 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.

Frank is non-prophetic because he presupposes that cultural values (family, tradition, flag) rather than material concerns would remain at the heart of American distress. Trump rode to power on a demagogic appeal (the great leader heeding the voice of the people while scorning the political establishment), mobilizing his base with inflammatory promises about jobs, jobs, jobs (obviously a campaign ploy never meant seriously), blaming neoliberal capitalism, unfavorable international trade deals (especially with China), and telling American workers that illegal and unwanted immigrants (that is, Mexicans and Muslims) were stealing their jobs by accepting lower pay and dispensing with benefits, and in the case of Muslims, endangering their safety. By and large, Trump put the right-wing cultural agenda to one side, which is hardly surprising given his own freewheeling Manhattan celebrity life style, including overtly sexist powwows with the notorious Howard Stern and Trump’s vulgar Access Hollywood tape with Billy Bush, the randy nephew of George W Bush. The deeper meaning here is the scary confirmation of the susceptibility of the American working class along with some wily opportunists to demagogic appeals, scapegoating, intimations of racism, and glimpses of a possible fascist future for the country.

There are two distinct concerns regarding this tendency toward misperceptions of political reality in America, and elsewhere, that overlap: one is being out of touch with the swift currents of opinion that have abruptly emerged in recent years to sway the multitudes in diverse populist directions, although more effectively on the right, but also on the left (Bernie Sanders’ class warfare against the 1%); the other is the failure of the more moderate strands of society to understand and offer credible alternate responses to what is at the root of this unexpected particular political swing, which could still turn out to be nothing more than skillful, imaginative, and unscrupulous grassroots organizing, but more darkly conceived might be disclosing a torn social fabric that seems beyond repair, and offering a healthy serving of red meat for an historically attuned demagogue.

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What’s the Matter with the World? A Commentary on the Rise of Populism