The rise of null politics

The elections of this motley crew, with their limited interest in liberalism, has been dubbed the ‘rise of the right’ across the world.

 Roadshow, UP Election, Elections 2017

PM Modi at a roadshow

Source: Modi/Facebook

That global politics over the last few years has seen a tectonic shift has become a trite observation by now. The evidence marshalled to establish this is well known to any observer of international politics, and revolves around the rise of populist demagogues in democracies around the world. The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, the Polish prime minister Beata Szydło, and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan are all seen as marquee products – and catalytic agents – of the global political disruptions at play. Pundits – depending on their ideological inclinations – often add Narendra Modi to this list. It was however with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States that the extent to which ancien régimes across the world has been challenged became clear. The elections of this motley crew, with their limited interest in liberalism as theorized and practiced, has been dubbed the ‘rise of the right’ across the world.

Labels being as problematic as they are, such an aggregation is of limited analytical value. But even if the right is taken – broadly – to mean a catch-all categorization of conservatives, many of these leaders are hardly conservative in the classical sense of the term. Take Trump for example, channeled through his chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon has repeatedly talked about destroying the old order in America. As a self-described “Leninist,” Bannon is precisely the kind of revolutionary Burkean conservatives have sought to keep in check. Closer to home, Modi’s economics often appear to be that of UPA III. And Modi’s foreign-policy grand strategic objectives are the same as Manmohan Singh’s.

A sign of times we live in is that one can be right-wing without sharing the traditional precepts of conservatism. But this applies to liberals as well. If by liberalism one means a core sympathy for all – even for those who share value systems different from the ones we hold dear – could Hillary Clinton, who once called Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables,” be considered a liberal? A better characterization of global politics of our age would be to call it an era of “null politics,” a politics of defeasance takes aim at the key normative codes of liberal democracies. This era of null politics is also one that inverts traditional roles. In the United States, the Democratic Party is seen as a party of Washington-Wall Street elites and the Republican party one of lower-middle-class workers – the very opposite of their historical orientation.

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The era of null politics is defined by three key characteristics.

One, null politics is fueled by dislocation. Consider the improbability called President Trump. Through the reams of commentary that has been written on Trump’s election, one strand remains visible. His rise was facilitated by a growing cultural dislocation of the American white middle-class in a country that has become – over the last few decades atleast – multicultural in a pronounced way. At the same time, the United States coastal elites have barricaded themselves in a mental utopia framed by moral relativism and globalized ethos. The middle-aged middle-class white American male – no more or no less a citizen than a young, poor, African-American woman – no longer felt at home in a country whose terms-of-engagement with its own problems was decided by these elites. American liberals after Trump’s election find themselves mentally dislocated from the core assumption that the majority enthusiastically shared their beliefs about America and the world. Hence the hashtag #notmypresident and the left-liberal histrionics following Trump’s election.

Two, null politics is fundamentally anti-intellectual. Reasoned knowledge is its antithesis. This has been discussed at length when it comes to the right. The Trump team advocates “alternative facts” and eschews evidence-based public-policy debates. And then there is Trump himself proudly exclaiming that he does not read books. But it also needs to be pointed out that the left has been equally guilty of running a full-scale guerrilla war against the (for them, antiquated) belief that there is indeed such a thing as an objective reality all can agree on. This has led to the occasionally hilarious statements from leftist icons like psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan about how the mathematical symbol for the square root of -1 actually represents the male sexual organ (you read that right!).

More insidiously, post-modernists had launched a full-blown attack on the natural sciences over the past four decades, seeing them as mere social constructs waiting to be “subverted.” This anti-intellectualism has also manifested in prominent American universities attaching “trigger warnings” – presumably to alert students to the possibility of mental distress – to famous works of literature and art. Parenthetically, as an undergraduate and graduate student at one such university (albeit more than a decade ago), my professors exposed me to the works of the Spanish painter Goya (with his gory depiction of filicide) and to Sophocles (with his tales of incest and gratuitous violence). I think I turned out fine.

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A corollary of this anti-intellectual premise is its practitioners feeding off a collective attention-deficit-disorder exacerbated by social media. Mandarins of null politics prefer tweets over opinion pieces, and opinion pieces over full-length papers and books. How needs to write a tome when you can dispense your wisdom in 140 characters?, they would argue. In the era of null politics, formulaic provocations are privileged over substantive discussions. Glib acronyms, soundbites, and hashtags abound.

Three, null politics is deeply anti-establishment. The fact that Trump is a product of an anti-establishment mood is evident. The anti-establishment mooring of practitioners of null politics is, in turn, a corollary of the dislocation that fuels it as well as the anti-intellectual stance that (partly) defines it. But in desiring to take the sledgehammer to the established order, Trump and company is not alone. Consider the Democratic primaries as a run-up to the US presidential election. Hillary Clinton found herself contending for the party candidacy with Bernie Sanders. A genial socialist who cheerfully argued for upending American economics, Sanders was backed by millennials fed on a steady-dose of self-hatred and guilt over their (white/educated/middle-class/suburban) privilege. These millenials came to age, politically, in the university-as-nanny “trigger-warning era.”

One could also argue that anti-establishment sentiments arrived in Washington not in 2016, but in 2008 when an untested and inexperienced junior senator from Chicago – Barack Obama – was elected president. The French presidential contender Marine Le Pen may be a poster-child of null politics. But if she is to be defeated, the onus of her defeat will most likely fall on the “anti-system” outsider Emmanuel Macron.

The nightmare is not the rise of the right, as many have contended it to be. The problem at hand is how to break the patterns that produced this politics of defeasance in the first place.

This commentary originally appeared in The Asian Age.

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Abhijnan Rej