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How to beat the politics of punishment

Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

June 3, 2019   3 mins

Rahm Emanuel is best known in the UK as President Obama’s chief of staff – very much the ‘tough cop’ of the administration.

At the end of 2010, he quit Washington to run for mayor of Chicago. In 2019, having won and completed two terms, he has some characteristically blunt words for his fellow Democrats. In an op-ed for The Atlantic, he explains what put Trump in the White House:

“…a full-on middle-class revolt against the elites and the privileges they hoard. For all the focus on inequality and social justice, this middle-class revolt is the most important barrier standing between Democrats and the White House. They can’t afford to ignore it.”

He says that the debate over whether Trump supporters are driven by “economic or cultural grievances” is missing the point. Rather, his argument is that the extraordinary surge in anti-establishment politics has been driven by the extraordinary sequence of mistakes made by the establishment – and its failure to accept responsibility for them:

“Think of what’s happened over the past decade and a half. America endured a war sold on false premises, a bailout of bankers issuing entirely toxic debt, and a massive public effort to prop up auto executives who were building cars that weren’t selling. Is it any wonder so many middle-class taxpayers resent the elites? The middle class has been forced to bail them out from their own mistakes time and time again…”

If voters were motivated mainly by their own insecurities, then what they’d mostly want from government is help. They might be angry about a lack of action, but they’d still be looking to the elites for solutions.

What Rahm Emanuel gets is that the voters see the establishment as the problem:

“Democrats have become increasingly cognizant of the anger, but too often they’ve drawn the wrong conclusions. The answer certainly isn’t socialism. Middle-class voters currently presume that elites already control the government—so why would they want to give the bureaucracy any more power?”

The establishment failures that he focuses on – Iraq, the banking meltdown and the near-collapse of the American auto industry can, to varying extents, be laid at the door of Bush administration and therefore the Republicans. Unlike in the UK, where the centre-Left was thoroughly implicated in the disasters of military intervention, the financial crisis and the precipitous decline of manufacturing employment, in the US the Democrats were the ones who stepped in to sort out the mess.

Yet while the Obama administration stabilised the situation, they allowed the elites to escape responsibility for their recklessness. Emanuel reveals that as White House chief of staff, he’d argued that the bankers should receive some “Old Testament Justice” and that government should deliver it. He lost the argument, but in the process the Democrats lost the trust of millions of voters – who instead turned to Donald Trump as an imperfect, but available, means of punishing a guilty establishment for its many sins.

The politics of punishment can take other forms, of course – which is why I think Emanuel is misinterpreting the fad for ‘socialism’ in today’s Democratic Party. The appeal of leftist figures like Bernie Sanders isn’t primarily about more government intervention, but about finding a weapon to strike back against a hitherto untouchable establishment.

In Britain, it’s why Jeremy Corbyn did so much better in 2017 than Ed Miliband in 2015 – Corbyn’s obvious unsuitability for office was a feature not a bug.

Just before the 2015 election, David Cameron tweeted the following:

“Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband”

As the Twitterati say, this Tweet has ‘not aged well’ – not since Cameron called the Brexit referendum, lost it and left the government to sort out the ensuing democratic crisis.

But what Cameron’s critics miss is that even at the time his message was a failure. The reason why Miliband did so badly in 2015 was not because voters expected ‘chaos’ from him, but because they didn’t really expect anything at all. In trying to make him look dangerous, Cameron was inadvertently doing him a favour – or, at least, he would have done had the message cut through. The result in 2015 shows that it didn’t. The Conservative vote barely budged, while the votes Miliband needed to win went to UKIP, the SNP and the Greens (all anti-establishment parties in their various ways). Meanwhile, the Lib Dems, the protest party that joined the establishment, saw its vote collapse. The Conservatives only won by default.

The political landscape in 2019 looks very different. But is it? Voters are still angry. They still want to lash out. They’re still reaching for the instruments of punishment – just not the same ones.

I believe voters would rather have justice than revenge. So, if moderate parties want to win they must present themselves as dispensers of justice.

Rahm Emanuel puts it this way:

“Democrats need to be the ones demanding that those who fall short, no matter how privileged, be made to answer for their own decisions.”

Quite right – but to be credible, sensible politicians must separate themselves from the establishments they’re supposed to be keeping in check.

It’s not until the elites are more frightened of the moderates than the populists that politics will return to normal.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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