You Can’t Keep a Lid on Discontent Forever

Preference falsification is “not necessarily a bad thing,” observes Paul Starr. Indeed, if we always revealed what we think about the clothing choices of every acquaintance, life would become pretty unpleasant. The art of living together in comfort requires certain differences in taste to remain private. Bradley Birzer reinforces the point in noting that most of us want to be left alone in many contexts and to be free to decide for ourselves without interference. We want to keep politics out of spheres we consider private.

Yet if nothing were politicized, there would be no civilization. Precisely because we live together, there are issues on which policies must be adopted that will affect us all, even if satisfying everyone perfectly is impossible. Examples include national defense, controlling epidemics, and traffic rules. On such matters, finding the best balance among many tradeoffs requires everyone to be open about their knowledge, aspirations, apprehensions, and expectations. Disappointments are easier to accept if everyone has been heard and conflicting agendas have been reconciled through meaningful compromise. When these ideal conditions are met, the imperfections of adopted policies will be viewed as the costs of accommodating diverse constituencies fairly. Even individuals who dislike specific policies will consider the political process legitimate.

Politics loses legitimacy insofar as it excludes from consideration certain preferences and thoughts. When the fear of being ridiculed, belittled, and stigmatized makes certain groups censor themselves, disappointing policies are no longer acceptable. Yes, open conflict may be avoided, at least for a while. It may seem to groups with a voice in the political process that social problems are being solved through the triumph of superior ideas. In certain cases, the apparent harmony might even become genuine over time; absent public support, the concealed preferences may wither away. The American “melting pot” is replete with examples of old-world preferences that gradually lost appeal after disappearing from public view under pressures to appear “American.” To fit in, immigrants grudgingly gave up authenticity; their children would not even contemplate living differently from their native peers. For the second generation, authenticity meant living like an American, not clinging to ancestral customs.

But when core economic and social interests are involved the truncation of public discourse is unlikely to end as happily. Consider jobs, government subsidies, or wealth redistribution. On such matters, preferences are far more resilient, and disappointments are felt far more deeply than on those involving ancestral customs. Because perceived indignities and injustices are relived repeatedly, excluding them from public discourse breeds sustained anger, and political insiders draw growing resentment. Conspiracy theories that demonize some conception of the “establishment” start to circulate more or less clandestinely, usually through media that the politically connected scorn as backward, reactionary, and misinformed. On the surface, politics will seem relatively calm, but this situation cannot last forever. At some point, the frustrations will spew out, like lava from a long-dormant volcano. When that explosion occurs, the elites accustomed to ignoring the masses will be unprepared to counter the populist leaders who emerge to fill the void. The fates of many so-called establishment candidates in the 2016 Republican primary illustrate the point. So does the degree to which establishment candidates in both parties have had to pander to newly energized constituencies.   

As Sean Trende notes, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are not the first American presidential candidates to champion outsider causes. If they have been far more successful than their predecessors, this is partly because they have gone much farther in dissociating themselves from the establishment.

Sanders has taken economic positions that, in a normal presidential election year and against a Republican establishment ticket, would guarantee the Democratic Party a loss unseen since McGovern’s epic defeat in 1972. Bucking the Democratic establishment, he favors fundamental wealth redistribution, not token adjustments to the tax code. In favoring protectionism and military retrenchment, he puts himself at odds with major Democratic funders. He also identifies with the victims of ongoing global economic trends and with young cohorts who feel threatened by outside competition in ways their parents never were.                    

For his part, Trump gives voice to masses that have suffered from particular Republican orthodoxies. By demaning, mocking, and insulting individuals and groups respected by both wings of the political establishment, he signals that under his leadership long-suppressed policy preferences would become legitimate. He gives respectability to feelings and inclinations long delegitimized as signs of bigotry, prejudice, sexism, and racism. None of this means that his goals serve authenticity per se. His hostility to critics indicates that he wantes merely to recompose the establishment, not to make policy debates more open, more honest, more inclusive, or more civil. Under a Trump administration, so it seems, some of today’s policy elites would have to watch what they say.

As I pointed out in my lead essay, there is a difference between legitimizing existing grievances and solving them. Should Sanders or Trump make it to the White House, their followers are bound to be disappointed, because there are no quick-fixes to the problems that account for their frustrations. The proposed unorthodox policies could make them much worse. Whatever the outcome of the race for the White House, the entire American establishment, including career politicians, the super-rich, academia, the press, the high professions, big business, and major civil society organizations, now has fair warning that the stability of the American system of governance requires addressing the problems of groups that have not shared in the fruits of globalization. To dismiss the cries of Trumpists (or of Bernie-fans) merely as expressions of bigotry or prejudice is to be in denial. If statistics compiled by the New York Times are any indication, a sizable share of Trump’s support comes from groups that have never been associated with ethnically or racially charged causes.   

“Why now?” asks Trende. The honest answer is that we will never know exactly why it happened in 2016 rather than 2012 or 2020. Major shifts in public discourse are inherently unpredictable because they involve incentive changes that feed on themselves through processes discussed here, here, and here. The early supporters of this electoral cycle’s “authenticity candidates” encouraged others to join in, and as the responses to the candidates made them bolder still, their support expanded further. Evidently the silent masses had grown enough and were sufficiently angry to enable candidates addressing their concerns credibly to succeed where earlier authenticity candidates failed. Neither Sanders nor Trump could have known that their messages and styles would resonate as they have. They must have been surprised like the rest of us.

The United States is now experiencing a political convulsion that, in certain respects, resembles  recent eruptions elsewhere. The relatively bloodless fall of several communist regimes in quick succession in late 1989 stunned the communist establishments, the participants in the demonstrations that brought them down, the distinguished scholars of Eastern Europe, the CIA, and the KGB. It surprised even East European dissenters who had predicted that some day the Soviet Empire would fall like a house of cards because it was sustained by endemic lying. The revolts known as the “Arab Spring” offer another example. They stunned not only Arab constituencies but all manner of experts. These revolts exposed grievances that had never come into public view. For a while, entrenched bureacracies came under scrutiny. 

These East European and Arab examples reveal that the outcomes of authenticity-promoting revolts are not foreordained. The East Europeans managed to solidify the transformation of their societies by tying themselves to the West while the Soviet Union (and then Russia) remained in shock. By contrast, the Arab Spring turned into a deep winter, except possibly in Tunisia, because the victims of corrupt Arab regimes live in societies with weak civil societies and limited experience with civic organization.

The United States is unlikely to follow the Arab pattern. As we have understood at least since Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the United States has a rich tradition of civic activism. Someone will organize the newly energized American constituencies to give them a permanent place in American politics. They will find voices in both major parties, conceivably even in new parties.                 





Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Democratic politics requires not only compromise, but some degree of incoherence. Politicians naturally strive to create winning coalitions, but sometimes that can mean promising the impossible or simply just the mutually incompatible. We may hate this fact, and yet it is not so clear how to do anything about it. Without a degree of compromise, democratic institutions could actually collapse. Timur Kuran argues, ultimately, that those who are willing to compromise need not be any less authentic than those who promise that they never will.

Response Essays

  • Every social interaction demands a sort of public performance. If we take performance and authenticity to be antithetical, then all of social life is inauthentic. And yet, says Paul Starr, that isn’t so bad. It’s probably for the best that we carefully manage our impulses while out in public, and we perhaps should not complain about politicians who carefully manage their impulses while governing. Modern politics, though, puts the business of image management front and center, with speechwriters, consultants, strategists, and the like all discussing publicly exactly how a candidate should manage his or her image. This may seem problematic, yet, as Starr argues, even the appearance of authenticity requires a good deal of artifice to sustain.

  • Sean Trende compares the measured, thoughtful political speeches of the mid-twentieth century to those of our own era. He finds that politicians like Everett Dirksen, or even Franklin Roosevelt, would fare badly today simply because of their highbrow rhetoric, which is no longer politically acceptable. An affected folksiness is almost a necessity nowadays. And this we call authenticity. In the Internet era, candidates must connect not only with elites, who formerly channeled both funds and votes, but also with non-elites, who are increasingly an essential donor class. Like all other donor classes, this one intends to get its money’s worth.

  • Bradley J. Birzer looks at some key figures from the history of liberty: What did they think of authenticity? What role did it play, for example, in republican Rome? Or at the American founding? He concludes on a pessimistic note: Our Constitution has failed, he writes, and although most people of good will are uninterested in politics, their uninterest does not yield freedom. Perhaps only a handful of politicians throughout history have failed to be corrupt, and among the American founders, not a single one believed, at the end of their lives, that the American experiment has been a success. Authentic or not, politics is concerned with grabbing ever more power, and it’s quite uninterested in anything else.