Social Pathologies behind Brexit and Trump

I was either pleasantly surprised (at the perceptiveness) or unpleasantly surprised (at the hard realities it pointed to) at this blog piece.  This is hardly a unique observation for UK and Brexit.  The analogies to the movement behind Donald Trump have been frequently drawn.  This is also at the heart of some of the “ultraleftist” radical politics in South Korea and “ultrarightist” politics in Japan that drew much attention lately.  This may be true even for Islamic fundamentalism and the decidedly dangerous anti-system movements in Russia and Ukraine that is mistaken as support for “democracy” on the basis of their opposition to oft-brutal, but pragmatic authoritarian regimes.

The pathologies everywhere are the same:  the future that is being promised by the technologies of today does not look so pleasant for inviting for many people.  If anything, plenty of people are finding themselves without a clear place of belonging, a sense of purposes, without stable jobs that offer meaning, and even security for their physical and mental well-being.  Among other things, this has manifesting itself in form of increased mortality among certain demographic segments, in different societies (the study by Case and Deaton and its linkage to support for Trump have drawn much attention, but this has been seen before, in the other literally dying post-Cold War empire.)  To them, being told “America is already great” or “EU is already great” is both a lie and an insult.  If the other America is doing so well while they are literally dying, there must be something wrong with this version of future that is unfolding.

“Welfare” is not an answer to this crisis, even if it is not called such.  The point #2 raised by the post is, in this sense, extremely observant.  Since 1970s onward, the British Labour government was rather attentive in its attempt at ameliorating the declining state of well-being among those hit by deindustrialization.  However, no one was deceived by this “shadow welfare,” not least among its recipients.  The observation that Labour offered them “redistribution” but not “recognition,” that even if they were spared starving, that they were still denied the “dignity of of being self-sufficient, not necessarily in a neoliberal sense, but certainly in a communal, familial and fraternal sense,” is critical.  The problem is that while “redistribution” is relatively easy, “recognition” is not.   Indeed, what exactly “recognition” would entail cannot even be defined with clarity.

I am tempted to draw this back to the question of “trust” in politics.  Being offered sincere “help” by a “friend” whom you can trust at a personal level is not the same as that of being offered a handout by someone who does not care for your interests, needs, or values, especially if the latter comes with the expectation of servile gratitude, or at least an appearance thereof.  I’d like to draw attention, in this sense, to a peculiar paradox of electoral politics among African Americans:  in the latter half of 20th century, welfare recipients among African Americans were NOT major supporters of the Democratic Party.  Certainly, if they voted at all, they’d have voted Democrat, but their turnout was dismally low.  Those who were ready and willing to vote, in addition to voting Democratic, tended to be churchgoing old ladies with some measure of economic security.  These were the voters whose trust politicians genuinely tried to earn, rather than take their support for granted on the basis of “generosity” with public dollars, and this show of respect was reciprocated with trust.

The fourth observation, that the social sciences, in their obsession with “data” cannot even process these trends, is also spot on.  A major fight broke out in twitterverse over how liberal Barney Frank “really” was, in course of which some went so far as to invoke DW-Nominate data, as if it means anything.  (The short answer is that it doesn’t:  it is based on votes and the best it can show is that some people are very “liberal,” some are very against them–thus presumably “conservative”–and others are somewhere in between.)  The questions of “trust” and “recognition” are conceptual questions that are, at present, poorly defined.  Of course, the same is true with “ideology.”  Yet, we are substituting data and measurements in lieu of defining and conceptualizing them–literally, in case of how DW-Nominate was developed in the first place.  So we spend much time talking about data and measurements, except they mean precisely nothing.  Since we pay very little attention to variances, the statistics themselves are rather meaningless, except as fodder to stuff arguments for one side or the other with.

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