Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Some Uncomfortable Lessons that Progressives Can Learn From Steve Bannon: A Canadian Green's Perspective

In an effort to understand the apparent anarchy that's seized the White House since Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20th, the U.S. news media has been devoting a lot of ink to Trump campaign advisor and former Breitbart News editor, Stephen Bannon (for some good examples, see: "What Steve Bannon really wants,"Gwynn Guilford and Nikhil Sonnad, Quartz, February 3, 2017; "The World According to Bannon," Alexander Livingston, Jacobin, February 7, 2017; Bannon also appeard on the cover of Time Magazine, with articles available behind an internet paywall).  Pundits are pointing to Bannon, whom Trump recently promoted to National Security Advisor, as the beating ideological heart of the whole Trump operation.  Where Trump himself may be a narcissist, at times prone to being at odds with his own words, Bannon's vision offers a clear way forward for the new administration.  And if the Trump regime decides to pursue this vision, woe be to the world – because Bannon wants to take America to war.

Bannon actually believes that America, and what he calls the “judeo-christian west” are already at war – with the forces of radical Islam – even though many in the west either don't recognize it or choose to ignore it.  It's been reported, however, that a growing confrontation with Islam – to prevent the establishment of a new Caliphate – is a task that Bannon sees as a self-evident necessity if America is going to be great again (see: "Steve Bannon's war with Islam: Trump may not even understand his adviser's apocalyptic vision," Jaal Baig, Salon, February 5, 2017).

The Usefulness of Terror

It's easy for progressives – and indeed, for most rational individuals – to dismiss the idea that the West must devote its resources to confront radical Islam.  Actual evidence, produced by security experts throughout the world, provides a clear picture of the depth of the risk to the West that Islamic extremists are: minimal.  The Islamic world is no more ready to unite in a holy war against the West under the banner of a resurgent Caliphate than Stephen Harper is at cashing in his Conservative Party card and joining the New Democrats.

Yes, acts of terrorism – some committed by Islamic extremists, foreign or domestic, are responsible for the loss of lives and damage to property.  However, most of these acts of terrorism perpetuated by Islamic extremists are occurring in Muslim-majority nations.  While there have been a number of high-profile terrorist actions committed in western nations, the scale of damage has been extremely modest – and certainly not even close to approaching the carnage that is wrought on our streets every day by distracted drivers, or to the gun violence that plays out in North America's largest cities.

But Bannon and his followers really believe this stuff.  Fact and evidence just don't matter to right-wing ideologues.  Indeed, the thing to do nowadays is to label those who present facts and evidence as the basis for an argument as being part of a “fake news” conspiracy.  As fakery, facts and evidence are easily dismissed – and the fictional narrative of the alt-right replaces reality with a compelling fairy story – one not to be told to children at bedtime, however, lest they be kept up all night with nightmares.

America's Racial Divide

Feeding Bannon and his followers is a xenophobia that has always found a home, if only lately occasionally a mainstream one, in America (and to a much lesser extent, in Canada).  America's race-divided past remains a prominent political issue even to this day, 130 years after the U.S. Civil War, and almost 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King.  There have been those who have closed their eyes to this reality – wishing to pretend that the racial issues that have divided the U.S. in the past have been addressed, if not completely satisfactorily, than at least to the point that the nation has been able to move on.  Many of those who have viewed America's race issue through this lens are comfortably ensconced in the Democratic Party.  Although groups like Black Lives Matter have recently risen to prominence through their efforts challenging the continuing disenfranchisement of racial and other minorities, many Democrats and other liberals continue to ignore the importance of systemic racism as a U.S. Political issue.

But xenophobia and racism persist.  Whether it has been growing, or has simply emerged more into the open thanks to enablers like Bannon and Trump (and in Canada, people like Stephen Harper, Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch), it's hard to deny that race is again an outward point of division in North America in a way that it has not been since the 1960s.

With this in mind, a question needs to be asked: Can progressives find any common ground with the likes of Stephen Bannon and Donald Trump?  The answer is – perhaps surprisingly – Yes.  I'll look at this now in greater detail – and after doing so, I'll offer some advice for a way forward that I think will unsettle some progressives and those in the environmental movement – especially those who continue to identify as classic liberals.

Being Progressive

First, a thought experiment.  When you heard that Trump was going to pull America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), essentially killing the deal, how did that make you feel?  When I first heard, my reaction was mixed.  My first thought was, Good for Trump to keep an election promise – goodness knows we could use a little of that here in Canada.  My second thought went to the nature of the TPP – good riddance to a bad deal for Canada.  But my third thought went to how this was going to be interpreted by mainstream political pundits in the U.S. and here in Canada.  Clearly, they were going to get this one wrong.

I self-identify as a progressive, as I'm sure that many of the readers of my blog do.  The Green Party, which has been my home now for these past 10 years, is, in my opinion, Canada's only progressive political party that contends elections on a national basis.  I realize this opinion is at odds with the opinions of many New Democrats, who consider their own party to be the one and only progressive party.  And clearly, the mainstream media likes to lump most Liberal parties into the progressive mix, with self-professed feminist Justin Trudeau presumably the King of all things Progressive (see: "Chris Selley: Trudeau has been anointed the global standard-bearer for 'progressivism'. That's just bizarre," the National Post, January 5, 2017).

What does it mean to be a 'progressive'?  Clearly, there is no single definition, but prerequisites appear to be a dedication to equity, social and environmental justice.  Lately, however, the media has been identifying a liberal commitment to globalization – often in the form of international “free trade” deals – as another criteria for progressivism.  This probably comes as a surprise to many progressives – especially the ones who have railed time and again against sovereignty-destroying trade deals that lead to the off-shoring of jobs and the hollowing out of communities (see: "Justin Trudeau is Not Your Friend," Jordy Cummings, Jacobin, September 9, 2016).

Trade and Globalization

The mainstream media and Liberals have mis-read progressives' criticism of trade – and indeed of globalization in general.  I know I don't speak for all progressives, but generally progressives tend to be concerned about workers in both Columbus, Ohio and Kolkata, India – given that, in both cases, workers are actual people.  What progressives seek is equity and promotion of human rights – something that our so-called “free” trade deals are at odds with, due to the way in which they assist in concentrating wealth into the hands of the already wealthy, at the expense of the rest of us.

Progressives aren't against trade – fair trade.  What we oppose are star-chamber like clauses in free trade deals that bind the hands of democratic governments in order to promote the interests of for-profit multinational corporations.  But classic liberals like Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Tom Mulcair like these deals because they create freedom for capital – which is one of the tenets of liberal economic theory.

Of course, capital can be pretty free to run around on its own without the impetus of Chicago School neoliberals that want to temper the power of democratic governments.  In the 20th Century, John Maynard Keynes and his followers provided a pretty good program for international capital that led to the success of the global system post-World War II (at least in the West) – the system dominated by an America where the gap between the rich and poor was drawn closer than at any other time in history.  But the multinationals weren't making enough money, so the neoliberals embraced disaster capitalism and debt financing to create wealth which largely went to benefit those who were already rich.

The result: governments saddled with debt, giving away taxpayer money to rich corporations while those same corporations moved both capital and jobs offshore.  As good, well-paying jobs (many unionized) were replaced with tentative, unstable and low wage service jobs ('McJobs'), people looked about for answers.  For the most part, fingers weren't pointed at Wal-Mart, the source of affordable consumer goods – now mostly produced outside of North America.  Fingers also weren't pointed at the fossil fuel companies who lobbied governments to keep the price of burning their products artificially low.  Consumer goods (stuff) and cheap energy have remained high-demand items, so the governments that have supported keeping prices down through making globalization easier for corporations and passing on today's costs to future generations have remained relatively popular.  In doing so, however, governments have undermined our democratic institutions.

Identifying the Correct Problem Statement

Progressives, you know this.  This isn't news for you.  In Canada, the Green Party has a suite of policies adopted by members that, if ever implemented, would lead to greater instances of equity for people, fairer trade agreements, getting the price of energy right, and restoring the health of our democracy (see: "Vision Green", Green Party of Canada).  What progressives might find interesting, however, is that these same points – which we must acknowledge are contentious to liberals – are largely the same ones that Bannon and Trump based their successful 2016 Presidential campaign on.

Sure, there were Trump's racist and misogynist overtones that were clearly attractive to some.  And yes, Bannon and Trump, who are climate change deniers, clearly lack an understanding of what the real crisis facing America is - but the right-wing media in the United States has been on a mission now for years to convince Americans that climate change is left-wing plot.  In place of the climate crisis, Trump has his twin crises of radical Islam and immigration – the second of which is arguably at least a real issue for America, and not a trumped up social construct in the way that radical Islamic extremism is being portrayed (and by acknowledging the reality of the issue, I am in no way condoning Trump's solutions).

I suspect many progressives – who have never visited Breitbart News or an alt-right website, or who have never tuned into Alex Jones and InfoWars – might be surprised to discover that Stephen Bannon and Naomi Klein have both been talking about the same thing for years – what Bannon calls the “crisis of capitalism”.  It's disconcerting for me, as a Green and a progressive, to realize that at least in part, Bannon and Trump have identified what the real problem is today in the world at the beginning of the 21st Century.

The Project to Reform Capitalism

During the U.S. election campaign, it wasn't Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton who was talking up the need to reform capitalism – despite some mealy-mouthed efforts where she claimed that she would cancel the TPP.  It was Democratic Party nomination contestant Bernie Sanders who rightly pointed to the current situation of injustice and inequity that is rooted in the disaster capitalism of the neoliberals.  In the lead-up to the Democratic Party convention, many pundits were astonished to discover that many Sanders' supporters said that if Sanders didn't get the nomination, they might very well have to go over to Donald Trump.  They recognized that Trump at least, for all of his bombast, racism and misogyny, identified one of the primary culprits which they believed needed to be sorted out.  Clinton and most of the Democratic Party, however, would and could never admit that neoliberal economic policy – disaster capitalism – was at all responsible for the ills of American society.  The nation, they believed (and continue to believe, as far as I can tell) would go on, with some minor tweaking here and there.  Liberals always believe that muddling through with minor, incremental reform, represents the best course of action.

But the times have changed – and systemic reform is needed.  Clearly, many Sanders supporters weren't prepared to offer their votes to Clinton – the candidate least likely to initiate any substantive reforms.  Of course, many other Sanders supporters acknowledged that the sorts of reforms on offer from Trump would actually take America – and the rest of the world along with it – to a place much darker and less equitable than exists today.  Some – quite rightly, in my opinion – turned to Jill Stein and the U.S. Green Party.  Other Democrats ridiculed Stein – and some believe to this day that it was Stein that cost Clinton the White House (see: "So We're Still Blaming Jill Stein and Jim Comey, Huh?" Jim Newell,, December 2, 2016).

Now, put aside for a moment how it is that Americans could buy into the notion of billionaire Donald Trump as an anti-disaster capitalist freedom fighter for the little guy.  A lot of what Trump/Bannon were selling was compelling.  Cancelling sovereignty-destroying trade agreements.  Withdrawing from the international community as part of an effort to put the interests of America first.  Throw in a Mexican wall to appeal to the xenophobes and a war against Islamic extremism for the Breitbart/InfoWars conspiracy theory alt-reality crowd, and the campaign sold itself against Hilary Clinton, candidate for the neoliberal status quo party.

I would suggest that Democrats and other liberals take a good look at how things are unfolding in America right now.  Trump is doing much of what he said he would do on the campaign trail.  Expect more of it.  Although Trump has ham-fisted a number of signature initiatives, leading to record-low approval ratings, much of what he is doing remains popular with a certain segment of voters – those who have rejected the neoliberal status quo.

Resistance and an Emergent Opposition

Resistance to Trump is growing – and as a Green and a progressive, I think that's clearly a good thing.  Right now, the focal point of resistance efforts has been Trump himself – and a desire to undo some of what Trump has already undone.  At some point, however, the Resistance will have to confront a stark reality – what will it offer Americans instead of Trump? To be effective, Resistance must become Opposition.  Those that expect a Democratic Party entrenched in its support of neoliberal disaster capitalism to be leading the Opposition have misread the times.  In short, liberals aren't equipped to offer solutions in opposition to Trump, because they are wedded to their own version of reality – one which may not be as devoid of facts and evidence as Trump's – but one which is clearly not based on the facts and evidence that good public policy ought to be based on as we head deeper into the 21st century (see: "The wages of liberalism is Trump," The Left Chapter, November 9, 2016).

At the very heart of liberalism today remains the desire to free capital at the expense of everything else.  Until true reformers emerge, liberals will have increasingly little value in any leading role in opposing fascism.  While I understand that consumerism, cheap energy and inaction on climate change remain very popular today, the next generation has already begun to reject these 20th century values in favor of the progressive values I outlined earlier: equity, social and environmental justice – values which are at odds with those of today's liberals – whether they admit it or not.

If Democrats try to lead the opposition to Trump, Trump wins.  And that's a problem, because Democrats are best positioned to be the leaders, given that they are the only other political party represented in Congress.  The media will look to Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and California Governor Jerry Brown to lead the anti-Trump charge.  The expectation exists, based on 150 plus years of history, that the task of politically opposing Republicans must fall to Democrats.

America, however, would be better served if the Democratic Party simply faded away – voted itself out of existence like the U.S.S.R. under Gorbachev, as an acknowledgement that its time in history has come and gone.  Of course, Democrats have another option – reform from within.  That's what Bernie Sanders wanted, and we all know where that got him.  I have zero expectation that the Party of Wall Street could sufficiently reform itself to the point that they walked the talk.  Here in Canada, we saw Justin Trudeau and his Liberals pretend to be reformers while campaigning in 2015 – but who have consistently failed to act in any meaningfully progressive way (well, meaningfully to progressives, if not the mainstream media).  The realities facing American under a fascist Trump regime are much more grave than those facing Canada in 2015.

The Opposition Must Reject Both Conservatives and Liberals

As it morphs from Resistance to Opposition, the Opposition should look to real reformers like Jill Stein and the U.S. Green Party to lead the way.  Bernie Sanders ought to publicly distance himself from a Democratic Party that has nothing to offer Americans in the 21st Century (save for it not being Trump), and take on a real leadership role.  Rooted in Green values that are fundamentally at odds with neoliberal disaster capitalism, the Opposition must reject both Republicans and Democrats alike.  The Leap Manifesto may be a rallying point for a way forward for the Opposition.

I know this is difficult to hear.  And I suspect that for many readers, it's difficult to believe – and after reading this far, I'm sure many will write me off as a long-winded quack.  I get it.  We all share a recent history where the world was enriched by liberalism and capitalism - and cheap energy.  But liberalism and capitalism have changed.  Neither remains sustainable going forward into the 21st Century.  Neither is equipped to confront the crises which we now face: the crisis of climate, and the crisis of democracy.

Progressives, the hard reality is that we know Trump and the right-wing are not our friends.  What we must learn, accept, and act on is the reality that liberals, who seem to us to be softer, and less sinister, are also not our friends, as they stand in the way of real and necessary progress.  Liberals – their values and solutions – must be rejected out of hand.  Their policies have ignored the erosion of equity, social and environmental justice, have precipitated the crisis in democracy, fuelled the climate crisis, and have led to the rise of fascism in the West.

Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Justin Trudeau, Chrystia Freeland, Rachel Notley and Tom Mulcair – these liberals are not our friends. Their support of a 20th Century world view and economic status quo mean that they have nothing to offer us in the 21st Century.  It's time that we put them on a shelf in the cupboard of history and closed the door.  If we continue to let them run amok, and assume leadership roles in the Opposition, Bannon and Trump win.  It's that simple.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)


Rod Morley said...

Based on my many years of political involvement, I would have to say the reason that Trumps is based on a few reasons:
1. The actual contempt that both Parties have for the electorate. Clinton basically ran the Democratic Party that ran this last election through her operatives and proxies. There was no "Democratic" element to this Party Hillary wanted to win and she had everything in place for her to win, except the fact that enough Americans saw what she had in place and wanted nothing to do with it. She is the reason Trump won.
2.Somehow I don't believe the powers behind Trump truly believe in what they say. I can't help shake the fact that they used this Xenophobic BS only to gain power and further their goals.
3. We truly do not have a Democratic system of Government anymore. The economic and political power has shifted to Corporations and the people who run them, until the people of the West realize this and take actions to regain power for the general public and have start to once again have legislation that aids the general public, then all we have are multi million dollar theatre called elections.

Rod Morley said...

Sorry the first line should read Trump won.

Sudbury Steve said...

Thanks for sharing your comments, Rod. I share a lot of your concerns. I'm very concerned about corporate-style elections coming to Canada - although I've seen much thrown up over the years to prevent the worst of the excesses of the American System - especially after Citizens United. But I also know that a majority government can change the rules here quite quickly. I don't expect that to happen, but I suspect that many didn't expect Trump, either.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!