This revolt of the masses has already manifested itself in Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East and has now come to America. America needs to update not only its party-political elites, but also the very principles of their relations with society, the national idea of the country and its relations with the outside world, Valdai Club expert Andrei Tsygankov writes.
Since its inception, the American political system has combined the participation of elite groups and that of the masses; the lower social strata. The system was created as a safeguard against the tyranny of an individual ruler, as well as against uncontrolled uprisings among the masses, the so-called “tyranny of the majority”. In the first of these they prevailed, and the participation of the masses in politics at the national level was, first, limited to voting in elections, and, second, subject to the voter’s qualifications. Initially, only the free, white, male population had the opportunity to vote. As for the popular democracy which was admired by European thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville, it mainly affected the regional and community level. At the national level, the main decisions were made by the elites, within the framework of the developed mechanisms of checks and balances, and society had their input at the stage of the presidential and Congressional elections.
There was nothing fundamentally anti-democratic in the system before big money came into politics. Social protests arose, but they did not threaten the system, which was distinguished by its considerable adaptability. The electoral qualifications gradually expanded; marginalised social, racial and ethnic strata were included in the system; and socio-political issues were resolved, but not completely. The situation began to change in the 1950s-60s, when the American system transformed from a potentially democratic one to an oligarchic one driven by the powerful. Under the influence of the Cold War and a series of changes in national legislation, military-industrial corporations catering to the needs of the state arose and became stronger, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke about with alarm in his farewell speech in 1961. Instead of state control over corporations, as in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the Eisenhower presidency and after him, a process emerged where the influence of corporations and the state coincided and became entangled, leading to the inevitable erosion of the latter’s responsibility to society. Along with industrial corporations, the role of bank capital also grew steadily. Richard Nixon’s decision to end the dollar’s convertibility to gold in 1971 led to an increase in the money supply and the printing of money. Over time, the dominance of the dollar has become the backbone of globalisation, undermining domestic financial discipline, fostering financial speculation and deepening economic inequality in society.
These processes in the system have given rise to two intractable problems. First, there was a strengthening of some elite groups at the expense of others. The supporters of the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, who valued the preservation of national state institutions and American democracy and considered it necessary to limit the country’s participation in international affairs through diplomacy and trade, have significantly weakened. Supporters of the global advancement of American ideals and active opposition to the USSR became stronger, dominating both politics and the media. It was these groups that formed the core of the post-Cold War system, proclaiming “the end of history” and US triumph. At the same time, the so-called “deep state” of unelected and permanently-operating bureaucratic and power elites has become more stronger. Thus, the ground arose for future contradictions within the political class.
Second, mass public participation in the system has weakened — not only at the national but also at the local level. Prominent political scientist Robert Putnam described this process as the decline of “social capital”, attributing it to the advent of television and other technological shifts. At the same time, he underestimated the role of international and intra-elite changes, which contributed to the accumulation of problems related to socio-economic development, cultural-racial relations and political participation. Generation after generation, the middle and poor socio-economic strata have failed to see the global and superpower growth of the United States provide them with economic and political opportunities.
The close interaction of the oligarchic and power elites has corrupted the electoral process. Presidential elections have gradually become the domain of the super-rich and state-linked political dynasties. Today, the election of someone from the low-income or middle strata is difficult to imagine without the decisive support of political dynasties and big business. Barack Obama’s breakthrough was made possible thanks to small donations from various groups of the population, but it would not have taken place without the support of influential elite groups. He was supported by most of the richest Americans; those who have incomes of more than $200,000 per year. According to the Pew Center, 52% of these voters supported Obama, while 46% supported his rival, Senator John McCain; 35% had supported John Kerry in 2004. The election of Donald Trump is another surprise in American politics — it is the result of his personal wealth combined with the support of the Republican establishment.
Obama and Trump
By the time Obama was elected, and certainly by the time Trump replaced him, the accumulation of issues demanding resolution had reached a critical level. Obama had hoped to avoid a revolutionary revolt of the masses and a breakdown of the system by gradually abandoning the US’ global, imperial foreign policy and improving the living standards of wide sections of society. Contrary to his predecessors, he did not intend to assert American ideals in the face of an external threat — Soviet, Islamic or Russian. But gradually, the establishment made Obama hostage to the system, forcing the “compromising” president to accept the oligarchic buyout of corporations after the 2008 financial crisis, the absence of major changes in racial-ethnic relations, and the image of Russia as a threat to American interests and values in the world. Obama’s second term confirmed that he was the president of inflated expectations on the part of everyone who had wanted America to abandon its role as a global empire. Globalisation continued, and with it the growing gap between the rich and the poor in society.
Unlike Obama, Trump was not going to compromise with the establishment, immediately announcing his intention to “drain the swamp” in Washington. In foreign policy, he was ready to abandon the image of the Russian threat, finding a replacement in “Communist China”. Like Obama, Trump has come into conflict with the dominant globalist elites. However, completely different strata of the population provided him with support — white industrial workers, part of the army, and businesses who wanted to end the policy of globalisation at the expense of national development.
Trump’s policies put him at odds with both the elites and the social strata that supported Obama — the urban middle class, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and the poor. The dominant elites have launched a series of investigations, accusing him of collusion with Russia, racism and neglecting health care. The protests, which began with massive outrage at the police killing of black former convict George Floyd, were the expression of both an elite crisis and an uprising of the masses in America. In the protests that have grown in a number of cities, Americans of all races took part in the pogroms. Their demands include not only a fight against systemic racism and for police reform, but also changes in socio-economic and immigration policies. Democratic support for the protests undoubtedly stems the Democratic agenda and their hope of exploiting a popular uprising against Trump.
It won’t be easy for America to get out of its current crisis. The described contradictions between the elites and the society have reached greatest point, at least since the Great Depression. Trump and Biden represent only parts of society; they rely on various elite and social strata and are mainly ready to protect their interests. Both are mostly satisfied with the military-industrial and corporate structure of the economy. Neither one nor the other is ready to seriously change the socio-economic and racial-ethnic structures that have developed in society. Both advocate a foreign policy of global domination and the cultivation of an external enemy. Only the principles of world domination they support differ. Trump is set to resurrect a nationalist state and fight the Chinese threat, while Biden prepares to confront “authoritarian regimes” led by Russia.
The degree of radicalisation in American society is extremely high, and it is not yet clear whether American institutions will stand the test of the 2020 elections. At the same time, in America, unlike in Russia, there is no president who is “above the battle” and holds society together with a significant ethnic majority. The elites, represented by Biden and Trump, are extremely hostile to each other and do not show a willingness to admit possible defeat in the elections. It is quite likely that the election’s result will be decided in court and on the street. If street confrontation becomes a reality, much will depend on the position of the security forces and their readiness to separate the parties supporting various candidates.
The awakening of mass politics, about which José Ortega y Gasset wrote with alarm in the inter-war period, is a poignant sign of our time. This revolt of the masses has already manifested itself in Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East and has now come to America. America needs to update not only its party-political elites, but also the very principles of their relations with society, the national idea of the country and its relations with the outside world.