Kent academic explains 'what now?' for US after presidential election

Dr. Albena Azmanova is Reader (Associate Professor) of Political and Social Thought at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies . A prominent critical theorist, political commentator and activist, she writes about contemporary capitalism, social justice and democratic process. She is the author of Capitalism on Edge (2020) and The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment (2012), which appeared in Columbia University Press’s series ‘New Directions in Critical Theory” .

In this interview, InQuire asked Dr. Azmanova about the recent US elections and what they mean for the world. In her last book, which the U.S. economist James Galbraith has described as ‘the big-think book of our time’, she claims that neoliberalism is beginning to morph into a new economic system – ‘precarity capitalism’ – characterised by immense uncertainty for all. InQuire's Alex Charilaou sat down with her to discuss the recent US presidential elections.

After years of rhetoric and division, how was Trump able to diversify his base and ultimately win 10 million more votes as compared with the 2016 election? Along with this, why did the Democrats underperform so majorly compared to the polls (both for the presidency and down-ballot)?

Despite managing to insult every demographic group over the course of his term as President, Donald Trump increased his vote among black and Latinx voters, women, and the LGBT+ communities. In fact, he only did worse among white men without a college degree. This came as a surprise because pundits and scholars approached the elections with the wrong assumption — that the working class is a guaranteed Democratic constituency, and that cultural minorities are loyal to the Democratic party because of its flagship policies of non-discrimination (Biden’s embarrassing “you ain’t black if you support Trump”).

It seems to me that economic considerations in this election trumped cultural identities (pun intended). Note that 80 percent of those who declared that the economy is their top concern (26% of voters) supported Trump.

The great value of Trump to the GOP is this: the GOP can take for granted the vote of what Anthony Barnett and Adam Ramsey have called 'a coalition of marginalisers' (wealthy bosses, Washington lobbyists, conservative Catholic congregations, corporate predators, much of the media-entertainment complex, the growing mercenary industry, realtors and bankers) but Trump delivers, like no one before him, also some of the vote of the impoverished working class. These are people who care not so much about inequality (the rallying cry of the Left), but above all about job loss (loss of livelihood). Significantly, Trump has been popular in states where inequality is relatively low, but the economy is in trouble — where precarity reigns. While the Democrats have been very vocal about inequality, they have not come up with solid plan for job creation and, in the public mind, are associated with the ‘neoliberal globalism’ that drained the US from industrial employment.

How will the GOP do without Trump? What will Trump do in the next four years, and will he run in 2024?

If they are clever, they will continue courting the working-class vote – working class conservatism is a growing phenomenon. This is particularly spread among the Hispanic community on grounds of their affinity to Catholicism.

I have no idea what Trump will do. I suppose members of his family might try to run for the presidency – there is a dynasty syndrome in the US: the Clintons, the Bushes, why not the Trumps.

How will the Biden/Harris years look?

With a split Congress, reforms (on the environment, healthcare, jobs, wages) will be close to impossible. The population will blame this on the Biden administration, and this will eventually alienate further those who cast their vote for Trump and might even radicalize them. I think the process already began with Kamala Harris’ victory speech from the podium of the Biden headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware: “Our very democracy was on the ballot in this election, with the very soul of America at stake…you ushered in a new day for America”. She was addressing those who voted for the Biden-Harris team, but all Americans were listening. And the 70 million people who voted for Trump heard that they are the ‘deplorables’ who lost the fight for the American soul. It is this hubris of the Democratic establishment that alienates the working people. As a person whose political affinities are firmly to the left, I say this with great regret.

What does this election result mean for the climate, capitalist decline and the re-emergence of fascism? How did this election fit in with your hypotheses in Capitalism on Edge?

In Capitalism on Edge I observe that the hallmark of contemporary capitalism is the spread of precarity — massive social and economic insecurity afflicts not just what the economist Guy Standing has called ‘the precariat’ (akin to the proletariat), but the 80 per cent, if not quite the 99 per cent: men and women, young and old, skilled and unskilled, the middle classes and the poor alike, even the affluent. This precarity has been generated by a policy set (neoliberal globalisation) which imposed liberalisation of labour markets and cuts to social spending for the sake of (purportedly) ensuring the competitiveness of the US in the global market. This was a policy line that Republican and Democrat elites equally espoused. It is quite likely that this consensus will be restored. The Democratic Party had made a welcome shift to the left, under the impact of the Democratic Socialists. However, with split Congress, only policies of a broad common denominator will be able to pass. This means a return to the neoliberal status-quo which is supported by the corporate oligarchs who are sponsoring both parties.

What does Biden mean for US foreign policy, e.g. China, Brexit? It’s one of the only areas where the President has quite a lot of autonomy sans Congress.

Rebooting the Trans-Atlantic alliance is likely but in what direction that alliance will go is another issue — it will be important for the EU and the US to join forces in reshaping globalisation by incorporating stringent labour and environmental standards in trade agreements. In this way, they can insulate our societies from the noxious competitive pressures from China. (When competition is based on price — as it is currently the case between the EU/US and China — this creates pressures for sacrificing labour and environmental standards). As to the military side of foreign policy: the US president might have relative autonomy from Congress on this, but is he (will Biden be) autonomous from the military-industrial complex that stands behind the US interventionist foreign policy? The most positive statement I can make on this is: the jury is out.

What will be the legacy of the Trump years?

Trump’s legacy will be enormous — he has brought the economy back centre-stage into political debate, he has shown that the Democrats cannot take the working-class vote for granted, and he has incurred an important shift in attitudes to China — which the Western powers will continue to treat as a 'systemic rival' rather than as a 'strategic partner'. By straying from some of the policy orthodoxies of the Republican party he has catalysed internal splits within the two big political families of the Left and Right. And he has woken us all up from the comfortable credulity that noxious phenomena such as white supremacism and autocratic rule are things of the past. This is good political material to work with -- politics will be fascinating -- to ponder, study, and sort out.

My reading of the situation is overall depressing. But another path is available, be it less likely. A second common denominator between the two parties (apart from both of them serving elite interests) is their competition for the working-class vote because this vote has become volatile and will decide future elections. This could induce a move to the left within both parties. This would amount to a tectonic shift in American politics. To this I say: Hallelujah!

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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