"It is backed by senior politicians, government agencies, businesses, media and the academy"(JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

February 29, 2024   4 mins

Why are so many working-class voters rebelling against the centre-left? For those establishment politicians being spurned in favour of populist movements, there is a straightforward answer: the masses, in turning away, are ignorant, delusional and bigoted.

Nowhere is this more evident than in transatlantic debates over trade and immigration. Here the elite catechism goes something like this: trade and immigration benefit all citizens; as a result, those who claim to have suffered from their effects are delusional; moreover, not only are they delusional, but they are also guilty of scapegoating foreign workers and immigrants.

Note the anti-political implications of this orthodoxy. If policy disputes about trade and immigration have objective answers, like mathematical theorems or scientific equations, then public opinion is irrelevant. And if this is the case, how should a “democracy” treat its voters?

The most obvious remedy would be to introduce general-knowledge tests for voters, and those who give the wrong answer could be disfranchised. But this would be too reminiscent of the “literacy tests” once used by segregationists in the South to prevent black Americans from voting, and only academic libertarians who fantasise about “epistemocracy” truly dream of limiting the suffrage on the basis of education.

A second approach would be to appeal to technocratic authority figures, and hope that the electorate will defer to elite expertise. But this only works for those who share the elite consensus in the first place. And with increasing numbers of voters starting to dissent, elites on both sides of the Atlantic have been forced to try and mollify public opinion by two other methods: censorship and delegation of power.

During the Cold War, “disinformation” was an obscure term that referred to attempts by both the West and the Soviet bloc to trick each other with false information. In the middle of the past decade, however, the term became weaponised as part of a campaign to delegitimise Trump and other populists as subversive agents and fronts created by Vladimir Putin to destabilise Western democracies. A few years later, during the pandemic, the definition of “disinformation” was then expanded to mean any dissent from the ever-changing and contradictory edicts of centre-left national establishments.

Combined with the construction of a public-private surveillance system, which includes the monitoring of social media by government agencies, this constituted a new strain of McCarthyism, but with an obvious difference. This was a “McCarthyism of the Centre”, which is far more dangerous to liberty and democracy than the Right-wing Cold War version, because it is backed by many senior politicians, government agencies, social-media platforms, businesses, banks, media and the academy. Its enforcers are entirely insulated from public opinion: the civil services, appointed judiciaries, corporate and non-profit government contractors, and transnational bureaucracies such as the World Trade Organization and the European Commission.

“Its enforcers are entirely insulated from public opinion”

The logic of technocratic neoliberalism, then, is inherently apolitical and anti-political. It is, in effect, the triumph of de facto rule by unelected bureaucrats — public, private, non-profit. All of this follows from the belief that public opinion about certain issues, such as trade and immigration, is so wrong that it cannot be explained except as the result of a toxic mix of popular ignorance, irrationality and xenophobia.

The alternative is to treat the issues that the McCarthyites of the Centre want to remove from discussion as legitimate issues in public debate. And rather than explaining political differences in terms of education, rationality or virtue, this would require us to teach them as clashes of interests among different groups — clashes which can be ameliorated by compromise.

In the case of trade and immigration, this interest-based approach would produce something like the following counter-catechism: “Trade and immigration policies benefit some citizens, classes, occupations, and other interest groups, and harm others.”

This may only be one sentence, but it dynamites the entire foundation of technocratic neoliberalism. For if disputes over trade and immigration are a matter of conflicting group interests, then there is no single correct answer or solution that can be identified by experts. And if experts cannot dictate the correct public policy, then the conflicting interests of different groups in society must be resolved through the political process. At most, experts can play a useful advisory role, by measuring the benefits and harms of policies not to “the nation as a whole” (a non-existent group, except in political rhetoric) but to the differing groups that make up the nation. But when it comes to deciding how much weight should be assigned to the benefits for one group in comparison to the harms suffered by another, the opinion of the expert is of no more value than anybody else’s.

Like falling dominos, the rest of the technocratic neoliberal regime also comes toppling down, once it is admitted that working-class people may have legitimate interests that clash with those of their political rulers. In this world, the grievances of workers displaced by offshoring national production to low-wage workforces or forced to compete with immigrants for limited welfare services or low-wage jobs can no longer be dismissed as proof of their ignorance; their suffering is real and should be taken seriously. Nor can their complaints be dismissed as irrational scapegoating, motivated by racial prejudice or chauvinism.

None of this is to justify the demagogic anti-politics of populist tribunes such as Trump. On the contrary, the alternative to both technocratic anti-politics and demagogic anti-politics is democratic politics, defined as the balancing of legitimate but conflicting interests by elected officials accountable to ordinary voters. For both voters and the health of the nation, public policy is too important to be left to experts.

Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His latest book is Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages is Destroying America.