Monday, May 1, 2017

What Brexit vote, Trump and Clinton mean for America

By Ted Morgan

Published in the Morning Call  (c)

Can we reclaim democracy?

Back in the mid-1990s, political scientist Benjamin Barber wrote the book, "Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World." McWorld represents the globalizing culture of capitalism. Jihad refers to reactions to the spread of this culture, not only Islamist extremism but all forms of ethnic nationalism or racist xenophobia.

Barber maintained that the two forces feed off each other, and the corporate media play a crucial role in this process. Whereas Jihad is fed by emotion, often reflecting yearning for a mythical past, McWorld offers the "rationality" of the market and illusions of a universal future. From the perspective of the market, Jihad is irrational and dangerous. From the perspective of Jihad, McWorld threatens one's sense of place, one's religious beliefs and traditions, even one's identity.

Crucially, Barber argues, Jihad and McWorld interact to undermine civil society and the democratic institutions of the nation-state. That is the issue we face today: Can we escape the no-win choice of Jihad and McWorld and reclaim democracy?

We have before us two prime examples of Barber's thesis at work. Donald Trump and the British vote to exit the European Union represent Jihad, and Hillary Clinton and the EU and British establishments represent McWorld.

Trump has tapped into angry frustrations among sectors of the population who have long felt the world is leaving them behind. He has used vitriolic attacks against the alleged threat of immigrants and Muslims as key elements in his campaign pitch, but what is crucial is the way he has presented himself — as a bombastic, tell-it-like-it-is guy willing to throw away the conventions of civil politics. His angry outbursts express and legitimize what his constituents feel — anger that they're losing out. For decades, people drawn to Trump have been told that they are victims of the liberal establishment and its Big Government.

Ironically, Trump succeeds because of a foundational McWorld institution — the entertainment medium of television news, which spreads a culture of drama, personalities and conflict that grabs our attention and plays on our feelings. This is a world of images and sound bites, not sober political realities. Trump's recent attacks on NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership resonate well with people whose economic security has been shattered by "free trade" agreements.

In the context of Great Britain, similar dynamics are at work. The "Leave" campaign emphasized the loss of Britain's control within the EU, highlighting the fear of increasing hordes of immigrants from the Middle East. Clearly voters were angrily disenchanted with the self-serving rhetoric of political elites; clearly they feel they've had enough, whatever the outcome might be.

The alternative we are presented in both cases is a defense of the institutions of McWorld — ultimately the investment markets and the globalization of capital. Not surprisingly, McWorld also sells itself to voters via fear — most fundamentally the fear of economic and political instability.

In the case of Clinton, her campaign rhetoric promised "progressive" solutions because, as she put it, "I believe in progress." However, the central drive for many pro-Hillary voters is fear of — you guessed it — Trump.

Yet, the Clinton campaign has already undercut most of the progressive challenges coming from the Bernie Sanders camp, to say nothing of reversing some of Clinton's own campaign rhetoric. In a June 29 piece in Politico, platform-drafting committee delegate Bill McKibben described how the Clinton delegates voted en masse to defeat amendments challenging the TPP and supporting Medicare for all, and helped defeat five amendments to combat climate change. Presumably, then, if you fear her opponent enough, empty rhetoric that disguises business-as-usual becomes more acceptable.

Ditto with Brexit. The panic in the world's markets and dire warnings of spreading economic recession in The New York Times, Britain's Guardian and other establishment media play on our fears, while exaggerating the benefits of McWorld. Thus, for example, the Times warned on June 25 that Brexit would weaken institutions and alliances that have "helped guarantee international peace and stability for 70 years." (Note to the Times: The United States has been at war for 40 of those 70 years.)

The two fatal flaws of Jihad vs. McWorld are: 1) neither provides a path to a livable world for all humans, and 2) their dynamic interaction spreads the belief that there is no alternative.
Yet in Britain and elsewhere around the globe, many on the left envision a different form of democratic globalization, responsive to the needs and aspirations of all people. In the United States, Sanders articulated a vision that could lead us toward that alternative and a far more democratic world — if we joined the political revolution.

Ted Morgan is professor of political science at Lehigh University and author of "What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy."

Copyright © 2016, The Morning Call

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