The prophesied Blue Wave was an uneven ripple which left an already belligerent president of the United States evermore defiant. Fielding questions from a press corp assembled together in the West Wing of the White House, broadcast to the US public and beyond, a truculent Trump stayed “on-rhetoric”, emphasizing his centrality in what is now accepted by all sides of the American political commentariat as the American economic miracle of low unemployment, roaring economic growth, stock market appreciation, and quarter-on-quarter job creation. One journalist after another was met not with responses to their questions, but with varying reminders about Trump’s America First policy, rising to its most incendiary moment when Trump stated emphatically that he finds the Chinese Made in China 2025 plan “insulting”: implying that the notion of countries putting into place a set of programmes and policies geared at raising their economic profile towards the top of the global economy is now seen as a threat to the US’s national security and is thus unacceptable to the US. Aspirations to develop economically must henceforth be considered in conjunction with what would be deemed acceptable by the United States, so that different national ambitions should give way to American hegemonic convenience, especially in cases where growth is propelled by export-led trade policies in a global economy denominated in Dollar terms. Here, the long touted low prices that accrue from greater competition and production efficiencies in the global economy which would benefit consumers, come into conflict with the relative competitiveness of prominent nations which is critical in building and sustaining global influence. Hence the merging of economics with national security concerns.
I think the new NAFTA agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, also reflects this doctrine particularly in the sections governing how the 3 countries can enter into bilateral agreements with so-called non-market based economies: conditions very likely targeting future agreements between Canada and PR China.
While Trump’s comments during the West Wing presser were directed at PR China, countries and blocs within striking distance of the American economic footprint globally, or within their regions, would have taken note, namely the fissiparious EU, Japan (which was mentioned during the occasion in relation to US importation of Japanese cars), Brazil (which is now going to be willing to enter the Trumpian fold and blueprint under the dispiriting election of Jair Bolsonaro: whom Wall Street and even some Canadian business interests especially in mining and extractive industries are enthusiastic about) and India (an emerging giant with a huge appetite for energy and military weapons). This new doctrine is not merely targeting the absolute economic sizes of specific countries and its resultant influence, but the global and regional implications emanating from the rise of such emergent economic powers. All global and regional interests will be expected to align themselves to the overarching vision demonstrated through explicit policies, acts of Congress and presidential (or executive branch) actions undertaken by the American government going forward (a prospect I do not envision being reversed even after Trump leaves office). Sadly, I do not see much resistance to this general direction of American hegemony from the current opposition party in America. The Democrats, seem to aspire to the same goals albeit while managing a very heterogeneous political base against corporate interests that are very well entrenched in their policy making, who insist upon a politics of niceties, of pleasantries, of erudite speeches, and heartwarming eulogies. The Democrats want an America First policy which doesn’t forget how to send warm greetings before it speaks; and which contains within it the ability to project and parade the full range of emotions and sensibilities which characterize the diversity within its base, and which is plump with a punctilious diplomacy of genteel performances. So that Democrats in the main (excluding the progressive and leftist insurgency on their margins) remain ostensibly uncommitted to any tangible alternative policies: they still speak through the corners of their mouths about healthcare reform vis-a-vis the possibility of universal coverage or a public option; their position on a jobs programme remains ambiguous even after Nancy Pelosi, the most likely candidate for Speaker of the House, spoke following the midterm elections; their immigration position remains unconsolidated even as they themselves presided over a massive deportation drive during the Obama presidency; their position on permanent wars? Slippery and servile, including on other pertinent matters like criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, electoral reforms, and so on.
This inability to function more than just an obstructive political formation against an unhinged presidency, with clearly articulated positions on matters which seem to have broad support among the Democratic base as well as among the Independents, and which would attract huge numbers of new voters and aspirants of political office to form their next crop of leaders from among millenials and the __00s generation, might be what has attenuated the much anticipated Blue Wave over this past midterm election. And more importantly, it has perhaps enabled the mainstreaming of Trump, and of Trumpian politics and economics, by cementing the illusion of there being “no other alternatives” to the current abrasive, winner-take-all, approach.
Caught between corporate interests and a base which is growing increasingly sceptical of corporate America, this tendency to obfuscate alternatives makes short term cynical political sense, as the embattled party attempts to manage the domestic electoral landscape, even as it cedes the agenda setting prerogative to Trump and his party. The effects of this abrogation on their part is corrosive both to their own party and the society more widely, over time.
But internationally, it also contributes to the political forces which are energizing the militaristic realism which itself has been helped by the wide availability of technologies and expertise needed for the creation of highly destructive weapons. The availability of such technologies and expertise mean that even with relatively smaller military budgets, nations and states can aspire to the acquisition of weapons which enable them to possess powerful defensive deterrents, and significant offensive capabilities by which they can pursue their own strategic interests outside of the formal international system. This is conducive for the evisceration of the said system, including the UN whose already problematic oversight functions are further undermined. (The preservation of the international system as it is, is critical for the US and the western bloc being that the UN architecture was explicitly crafted to protect the vital interests of the victor nations after 1945. The UN has tremendous influence over smaller, periphery countries with whom it has partnered as a major humanitarian and developmental assistant over the decades. Also, especially when larger nations commit to implementing UN resolutions against smaller countries, effects of such resolutions, though not always behavior modifying, have been devastating economically and socially to the sanctioned nations. This influence is however of no threat to the Big Five, who sit permanently on the UN Security Council welding vetoes to block actions which might be antithetical to their interests. Jettisoning this great advantage, mitigated as it may be by the veto powers of the other 4 countries which possess them, only to inherit anarchy in its stead seems foolhardy.)
But additionally, the increasing availability of military technology and expertise also levies upon the US — as per the Trump doctrine — exorbitant new expenses on an already bloated military budget, as it strives to counter all such emergent capabilities wherever they might be — not necessarily in readiness for war, but because this would be the most fitting response of a global hegemon or a sole superpower. By definition, a superpower must have the capacity to dominate militarily in the most regions, in the most theaters of conflict, in comparison to or against its most prominent competitors (allies and adversaries, respectively) and all other less significant state actors. This means, if military competition is primarily against Russia or China for outright military supremacy over the next decades, then all Russia and China would have to do is continue building up their own domestic military capabilities while depending on the natural externalities and economies of scale which accrue from technological advances to enter global arms markets, to eventually find their ways into the arsenals of smaller states, thus keeping the US military perpetually overextended. This is to say — when President Putin or Chairman Xi speak of a multipolar world, they are speaking of an international system which presently has one superpower (the US), and several regional powers (like Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and so on) whose military might the US has to reckon with while attempting to maintain dominance over all other less visible actors in all other theaters of US strategic interests irrespective of whether these nations are adversaries or allies. This configuration allows the military costs of Russia, China and the other actors to remain low and focused on technologies that seek to achieve clear advantages in limited potential theaters of combat, while those of the US — with an asymmetrical hegemonic incentive to police them and the rest of the world — very high and perpetually rising to counter every possible advantage achieved by any state actor, friend or foe, in every important theater.
Obama, in spite of his flaws which I have been critical of in other articles, seemed to understand this — and sought to extricate America from this self-enforcing, potentially intractable, vicious cycle of ever increasing military obligations and budgets intended to meet ever increasing and perpetually evolving “threats”. The Democrats, unable to extricate themselves from their own involvement in the “military industrial complex” failed to effectively defend their president on this issue in the face of Republican attacks, especially as Obama tried to avoid launching another Middle Eastern war after a red line had been crossed in Syria following an alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad’s forces. Today, still without a response — even as proposals are suggested from the Democratic party’s leftwing — the party has relegated itself to a mere moderator of a permanent war agenda whose popularity continues to dwindle as squalor compounds at home, and whose pace and substance are set by the villain-in-chief himself, Mr Donald Trump, and his party.
Going forward therefore, the midterms will most probably reignite the civil war inside the Democratic party which grew cold as emphasis was put on the elections. Some of the newcomers in the House of Representatives run on platforms which were critical of the centrism which underpins Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi’s incrementalist approach. Eying another election in just 2 years time, these new congresspersons will most likely put pressure on the old guard of the Democratic party within Congress to address the progressive’s expectations, so that should such proposals be met with resistance, a new wave of activism and pressure reminiscent of but potentially more vicious and damaging than those of the 2016 elections should be expected in anticipation of the party’s primaries and convention for 2020.
Pelosi and Trump thus find themselves similarly backed into their separate corners. Based on Democratic party behavior in the past, I expect the old guard to most likely enable a minimal understanding with the incumbent and his party, to focus on bipartisan efforts which would present an image of work and busyness, to inundate the liberal leaning cable networks with bipartisan news, and thus suffocate progressive demands by marginalizing and maligning them as fringe: which, as seen in 2016, is a sure recipe for a civil war. This also means Democrats will neither fully commit themselves to investigating Trump nor block certain aspects of his agenda wholesale. Most likely, they will leave foreign policy as well as covert military operations to him as any commitments in this realm would needlessly burn political capital in a sphere they don’t intend to alter very much in the future. Rather they will focus on domestic politics — in the social and cultural realms — knowing full well that they have the cover of a Republican senate to whom they can ascribe blame for any lack of tangible progress.
The fact that in spite of all that Trump has said and done in the past 2 years has not led to an outright take-over of both houses in Congress should signal to an already conservative Democratic leadership that it should be possible to carve out a reliable voting base out of centrist, center-right and center-center-left politics, without going into center-left, social democratic, andleftist iterations. This will sit well with their sponsors and with the American liberal media establishment at large which has not suffered left leaning politics to date. But — as I have mentioned before elsewhere — the focus on the very important cultural issues including the especially crucial protection of identities, sexualities, ethnic minorities and so on, without an equally strong commitment to systemic reform in the political economy hollows out the substance of these commitments. This is because class is extremely influential in determining the extent to which various forms of stigma, prejudice, and different forms of social and political marginalization are experienced, especially in a society that already prides itself as liberal in the classical sense. The failure to appreciate this fact has had the pernicious effect of making identity, sexuality and other critical aspects for addressing social inequality, seem elitist — casting them as the concerns of people who already have healthcare, housing, educational prospects, job or employment prospects, access to justice and good legal representation, and so on. The sociopolitical conclusion of which debases what is now referred to by right-wing detractors as “identity politics”, who present it as a form of politics underpinned by heightened sensitivity in service of the protection of elitist fads, in defense of what are nothing more than the prevailing tastes of the day, expressed as a series of lifestyle choices bent on cultural decadence. These assertions are a clear distortion of what the goals are, and what is truly at stake, from this brand of activism.
Moreover, those without the privileges which mark and ascribe class positionality are maligned as activists of welfare, a discourse which feeds readily into other prevalent ideas and prejudices, such as the racist tropes which portray African Americans as exceptionally prone to state welfare due to their unwillingness to work. I thus attribute the collapse of the Social Democrats of the West, and the impending implosion of the Democratic party in the US, to this inability to bind cultural emphases with concrete policy agendas intended to address economic and social inequalities — as well as their unwillingness to address the out of control international militarism and permanent state of war which is being enabled by their vacuous domestic politics.
Ironically, it is the far-right which seems to be promising and attempting to implement just these sorts of programmes for their bases albeit only after immigrants (the dreaded others) from the Middle East, Central and South America, Central Asia and Africa have been removed from among them. The new government of Italy, for example, wrote a fiscal budget, recently rejected by the EU, which was Keynesian center-left in many ways except that its spirit and intent was to target and benefit true Italians only. Similar efforts and visions can be seen in Austria and Hungary: in which a primary identity believed to be of an authentic nation, buttressed by an authentic culture, are the basis for a form of neo-nationalist socialism which intends to direct state largesse to those assiduously designated as its legitimate citizens and beneficiaries. On the center-left however, liberal-led culturalist programmes through which so many, including myself, hope to find social, economic, orientational and racial equality are paraded, made to march clumsily to the austere beat of a neoliberal centrism which ultimately works to eviscerate them of all substance and to ultimately undermine them — along with us.
But we will see.
Hopefully more Jeremy Corbyns emerge to help lead the left into just such an undertaking which combines professed values of all forms of social equality with the requisite economics domestically and the requisite foreign policies abroad. Failing which, more Trumps will continue to emerge, with each successive one more sophisticated and dangerous than the last.
And so, I do not see much hope in the Democratic party as it is today — I am afraid — unless a drastic shift occurs in the coming weeks or months within it from its left, paving the way for bright new leaders such as the just elected Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with re-elected progressive champions like Tulsi Gabbard and Ro Khanna — people prepared to match social convictions with public policy and economic programmes at enormous costs to themselves as smears befall them.
Once more: we will see, on the other side of this rather shy Blue Wave.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.
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