In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, many social scientists found themselves rummaging in their professional toolboxes for something that might help to explain what had just transpired. Some happened to be working on related topics or in related locations and drew on their research to suggest possible interpretations. Others drew on their analytical-political tools to theorize about democracy and populist politics or about people and places they knew little about.
Two themes emerged as particularly noteworthy. The first is the need to bracket revulsion and try to understand the “new other” that voted for Brexit, that is, by most accounts, the white working class left behind by globalization, alienated from mainstream political institutions and therefore susceptible to reactionary populism peddled by political opportunists. The second is the view that political liberalism is in serious risk of being deposed as the “house ideology” at the foundation of public institutions (Westbrook 2016). To put it another way, liberals seem to be at risk of becoming a constituency without institutions—an unprecedented development in a polity that has for long thought of itself as a liberal democracy.
The US election suggests that the crisis of political liberalism as a “house ideology” is a transnational phenomenon. The political force of the “new other” is thought to have serious repercussions for liberal freedoms, minority rights and the practice of politics as we know it. It has therefore generated powerful and powerfully felt reactions ranging from trauma diagnoses to calls for immediate political mobilization. I want to suggest that there is a relationship between these two themes—the need to explain the “new other” and the view that political liberalism is in danger—and that understanding this relationship is crucial for orientation in a world that seems to be shedding its skin.
So what is this “new other”, whose mores require an explanation and whose political force causes so much concern? Let me turn to three attempts to answer this question. One is an Open Democracy interview with the Berkeley-based sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild about her book Strangers in Their Own Land, which is based on 60 interviews with Louisiana Tea Party supporters and Trump voters. Another is a TED talk by the Oxford-based international relations scholar Alexander Betts called “Why Brexit happened – and what to do next”. And the third is a Washington Post article by a US-based journalist Stephanie McCrummen entitled “Finally. Someone thinks like me”.
In the interview, Hoschshild tells the audience that five years ago she wished to leave her political and social enclave in Berkeley, California and go as far toward the opposite pole as possible. She ended up in southern Louisiana among Tea Party enthusiasts. Hochschild wanted, as she puts it, to disable her “political alarm system” and “see what it felt like to be them”. She sought the “deep story”, namely that which remains strongly felt after the facts and judgment have been removed. On the basis of 60 interviews, she describes a deeply felt sense of injustice without any hope of moving ahead. She argues that her interlocutors came to Trump reluctantly—they did not think he was “their man”, but also did not feel spoken to by the Democratic Party. The message addressed to the liberal-left audience is this: the other, whom you cannot speak to because he or she seems morally reprehensible, even repulsive, is your alienated ally, a natural liberal-left constituency that has been neglected. She concludes the interview by saying that there are long-term possibilities for crafting a shared politics because there is “crossover thinking” about issues that matter, such as livelihoods and the environment.
Stephanie McCrummen agrees that the Trump voter has suffered at the hands of the state and capital. Melanie, the main protagonist, was raised in a family of coal miners and railroad men and went to work for the railroad herself. She was sexually harassed at work, could not find justice, “began to see [...] how the world worked,” and turned towards Trump. “He really does love us”, Melanie is quoted as saying at the end of the article.
Alexander Betts, also addressing a like-minded audience, argues that the new political fault line lies between those who benefit from globalization and those who fear it. Betts suggests that “liberal internationalists”, like himself, who have spent virtually no time in the areas that voted for Brexit, must try to bring the left-behinds into a common space of social and economic inclusion.
The underlying message in all three interventions is that the “new other” is not all that different, and that there are redeemable elements in its constitution that can be saved for left-liberal politics. The other message is that “we”, those who are not—or not yet—“strangers in our own land”, don’t know the backwaters of our countries and need to do something about it lest liberalism be, indeed, deposed as a “house ideology”.
The need to know the “new other” is noteworthy, because the liberal-left thought it did know it as its dispossessed constituency and because knowing the other has a history. As liberal-left scholars will know from postcolonial critiques of liberalism, that which is known and understood can be governed through inclusion, whereas that which is inscrutable, like India was for John Stuart Mill (Mehta 1999), must be governed through containment. It seems striking, then, that familiar tropes of unknowable and morally reprehensible others-cum-marginal subjects to be saved are shaping the liberal-left response to both Brexit and Trump. Moreover, this “new other” must be known and remade not only for the sake of its own salvation, but also to salvage liberal-left politics and liberal institutions. If this is not done, the “new other” is a threat to the liberal public sphere, already struggling to hold its own against “post-truth politics” attributed to Putin and Trump alike.
This brings me to the second theme, namely the concern about the vulnerability of political liberalism as the “house ideology”. I am wondering about how this widespread concern is to be reconciled with earlier critiques of political liberalism as a civilizational project that attempts to remake a variety of “others” embedded in non-liberal practices and traditions. The immediate answer is that the “new other” is differently racialized. Recent critiques of political liberalism were formulated from the perspective of minorities suffering from racism, whether in the former colonies or at home. The “new other,” on the other hand, is located in the underbelly of Western societies and associated with the racist margins from which the previous “other” had to be protected (whether through radical politics or through more liberal inclusion).
But there is another possibility. It may be the case that previous critiques of liberalism depended on the durability of liberal institutions. As long as liberalism remained the “house ideology”, its critics could assail it without thinking about real alternatives. It was, after all, the “end of history”. Now that the system seems in jeopardy, there is little enthusiasm for dismantling it; partly because an alternative is not readily available, and partly, perhaps, due to the institutionalization of a stable and mutually reinforcing relationship between liberalism and its critics across academic and political institutions.
In that context, I see this double move to know the “new other” and to defend the “house ideology” as a reinforcement of the old hierarchies that have shaped political liberalism for centuries. In a book called Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, Philip Mirowski has argued that, in the face of financial crisis, most liberal economists, like true believers, redoubled their efforts despite irrefutable evidence that their faith was faulty. Moreover, their faith had spread widely and had become the dominant “deep story” impervious to criticism. Something similar, it seems, is happening with political liberalism after Brexit and Trump. At a time when liberal political institutions are at a breaking point, long-time critics of liberalism are mobilizing to maintain them. Should not the liberal-left, therefore, be studied alongside the “new other”?
Mehta, Uday (1999) Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Westbrook, David (2016) “Losing Our Manners: The Current Crisis and Possible Durability of Liberal Discourse." Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology website, October 27, 2016