I find myself drafting this in Denver, Colorado, on Independence Day 2020, COVID-19 having caught me and Kate at her home on this side of ‘the pond’.
Our neighbourhood of small detached houses, close to downtown, shows the best of the US. In these hard times, it is above all friendly and mutually supportive. Like much of Denver it is also liberal and welcoming – signs in gardens welcome new neighbours in multiple languages or express their support for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ and abortion rights, science, and equality. While starting to gentrify, the neighbourhood still embodies the multicultural community of equality of opportunity and hope captured in the Statue of Liberty’s welcome to the world’s ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’.
This year, Independence Day has felt a time of national reflection as much as of celebration. In the last months, the fractured response to COVID-19 has been followed by the death of George Floyd and the strong re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. These have mobilised a counter voice to the right populism that has recently dominated US politics.
Cas Mudde’s 2004 description of the characteristics of right populism (1) often feels like play by play calling of recent US politics. He describes right populism as a thin-centred ideology which champions the interests of the ‘pure people’ and their traditional values against the threat of elites (including academics and international organisations) and their perceived support of minorities and cultural liberalism. The sense of threat is used to justify increased political control, including over public service appointments and the judiciary, and a retreat from multilateral internationalism.
Here in the US, the ‘pure people’ of the populist right are primarily working white people in the rural Mid-West and South. Their life experiences are very different to the urbanised coasts and big cities. They represent an important part of the US historic self-image as pioneers, homesteader, and self-made men – and they have felt devalued by, and distant from, urban cosmopolitanism.
Right populism has represented the views and interests of these ‘pure people’ in supporting traditional high carbon industries and reduced environmental standards. Restrictions have been placed on immigration and imports in the name of protecting traditional American jobs.
Powerful existing symbols and narratives have been selectively amplified – the right to bear arms, abortion control, stripping back the State, removing ‘socialist’ healthcare and welfare that ‘costs the worker to the benefit of the idle’, promoting ‘traditional values’, fundamentalist Christianity, the military and the flag.
Increasingly, too, the distribution of powers – carefully established by the founding fathers on Montesquieu’s model (2) to avoid the monarchical despotism they had just fought so hard to leave – has been subjected to increased executive control in the name of the ‘pure people’.
Over the past months, COVID has come to challenge the basis of this populist politics. Denial of science and talk of ‘fake news’ is tricky against the realities of mass death. Diminishing the role of the State and opposing social regulation and welfare sits badly with a creaking health system and mass unemployment. Attacking the ‘enemy within’ jars with a need for national unity in the face of a common threat.
In the context of COVID, what right populism has to offer is the personal freedom not to wear a mask, to open the economy in the face of health advice, armed militia protesting against public health safeguards, vague promises that all will be well and conspiracy theories throwing blame on foreign powers.
The balanced system of Federal government was the first to bring out counter narratives. Governors and Mayors proved ready to take difficult actions to limit the impacts of COVID in their areas- shutting down all but ‘essential’ businesses and mandating masks. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chart-filled and closely argued TV briefings were followed more avidly than those from the White House.
COVID also quickly threw into sharp relief the racial and social inequalities in US society. As in the U.K., It has claimed many more minority victims, often health and key workers. Data obtained from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention by the New York Times (3) show that Latino and African American residents across the Unites States have been three times as likely to catch the disease and almost twice as likely to die from it as their white neighbors. Lay-offs, furloughs and school closures have thrown many onto the mercy of food banks and limited welfare support. Inequality of access to the internet has become clear as work and school have moved online.
It is in this context that the death of George Floyd mobilised such pent-up anger and brought alternative, inclusive American narratives to the fore. Compared to the quashing of the earlier Black Lives Matter protests – the kneeling for the anthem in 2016 which cost Colin Kaepernick his NFL career – this feels different.
Major sports, retailers, sponsors, and investors have got behind Black Lives Matter. Universities, sports clubs, pop groups and food manufacturers are changing historic names. Statues are coming down. The Confederate flag is now banned from NASCAR, the archetypal motorsport of the South and is to be removed from the Mississippi State flag. NFL games will begin with ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’- known as the Black National Anthem – ahead of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. The upmarket district of Stapleton here in Denver will no longer be named after a Ku Klux Klan mayor from the 1930s. Unity is the theme of TV celebrations of Independence Day.
Against this, right populism continues to offer the ‘pure people’ the promise to ‘safeguard our values’ against enemies within.
What are we to learn from this? Perhaps, that alternative narratives are always there and ready to offer a different understanding. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in 1841 (4), the stuff of politics is the primal opposition of ‘Past and Future, of Memory and Hope, of the Understanding and the Reason’.
If the US is to live up to its motto of e pluribus unum, it will need to find ways to rebuild narratives and actions that bridge its social and political divides. Perhaps the elections here in November will provide an opportunity for people to begin to find ways to do so.
Distinguished Visiting Fellow
This blog draws upon collaborative research on right wing populism undertaken for a forthcoming Special Issue of Sustainability on ‘Governance for Sustainable Development in Troubled Times’ by the Guest Editors, Professor Susan Baker and Matthew Quinn.
(1) Mudde, Cas, ‘The Populist Zeitgeist’, in Government and Opposition 39 (4), Sept. 2004
(2) Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de, De L’esprit des Lois, 1748
(3) Oppel Jr., R. A, et al., ‘The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus’, New York Times, 5 July 2020
(4) Emerson, Ralph Waldo, The Conservative, lecture delivered at the Masonic Temple, Boston, 9 Dec. 1841