Trump and Brexit

If educated progressives are so smart, why is right-wing populism winning?

On the fake sophistication of cosmopolitan respectability.

Moderate educated progressives across the West are currently horrified by the recent successes of right-wing populist politics, from Donald Trump in the US to Brexit in the UK. But underneath this public performance of shocked horror coming from the typical cosmopolitan progressive today, hides a curiously under-discussed paradox. If the forces of ignorant hate suddenly appear to be winning, then shouldn’t the sophisticated and morally enlightened be clever enough to understand what is happening and do something to stop these trends? If we are so smart and moral and our understanding of the world so much more reasonable and broad and sophisticated, then why are we so puzzled and terrified at the election of Donald Trump or the vote for Brexit? Shouldn’t we be able to understand it and act with our greater moral and empirical sophistication to resist and reverse these developments? If close-minded and hateful ideas and actors are gaining political ground, then why are we not clever enough to understand what is happening and act in order to change it?

I believe the most likely answer is that educated progressives are significantly less clever than we pretend to be; indeed, if one is really shocked and horrified at the election of Trump or Brexit, the truly clever and ethical thing to do would be to think really hard and honestly about whether one has possibly been deeply mistaken about something, somewhere along the line. Of course, almost nobody does this, largely because those whose job it is to think and speak in public get paid (in money or else cultural capital) to assume the position of knowing more than someone else. There is no market for people who want to reflect at length about the ways in which they have been dumb, so all we ever hear or read is educated progressives pretending to be smart, no matter how badly they seem to be losing their battles and misestimating events. Shock and horror are natural enough responses, but that’s the problem: shock and horror are the easiest and most immediately reasonable responses to any turn of events that reveals something about one’s basic worldview to be mistaken when that basic worldview nonetheless remins tightly held.

I think the real reason educated progressives are so confused and terrified is that the politics of educated progressivism is itself one of the key drivers of right-wing populism and, potentially, fascism. I will try to explain why but, at the outset, it is crucial to see how this very possibility is almost by definition unthinkable in the worldview of the educated progressive, whose most charasteristic mental and political operation is to use their educational resources to navigate themselves into those positions that are the most correct, the most true, the most good. Whether they are conforming themselves to the correct and the good, or conforming the correct and good to themselves, is typically undecidable to an external observer; whichever the case may be, the crucial point is that the educated individual is able to do this more effectively than the uneducated individual, and it helps them get ahead of the uneducated, both economically and socio-psychologically; but if, in the final analysis, the educated have made certain systematic mistakes, it becomes an especially dangerous problem for the long-run dynamics of a political system. Such a problem is especially dangerous because the educated are appointed by institutions to be the chief intellectual error-correctors; if the intellectual error-correctors are systematically erring, then the only mechanism for the political system to correct itself will be through the brute force of those individuals and groups who have no resources or opportunities to sublimate their political interests into respectable language games.

It is the educated who, without knowing it, blinded by their overly effective skills in manipulating symbols, have increasingly made the world in their own image but otherwise uninhabitable for those without access to the knowledge economy and cosmopolitan sociability.

The political style of educated progressives is: convert your personal interests into a moral language that you believe is good for everyone, then do everything you can to make that moral language dominant, even against anyone who disagrees or does not understand you. A key point is that this style is brute force, it is simply brute force sublimated to the “higher” level of language, symbols, and morals. It is brute force because, often quite explicitly, educated progressives do not care if some people disagree or do not understand; typically, educated progressives proudly proclaim that the opinions or ignorance of bigots (defined as those who do not know, understand, or agree with the preferred vocabular of educated progressives) should be overridden by collective political power. The magic of this style is that educated progressives sincerely believe they are not operating with brute force but are simply effectuating the triumph of reason and morality.

The educated progressive gambit works for a while, and educated progressives get to feel like they are living at the frontiers of moral historical progress, but the very rope that educated progressives use to pull themselves above ignorant bigots is the very same rope with which they suddenly find themselves being hung. And that’s because you cannot effectuate real historical progress of any kind whatsoever by using unequally distributed resources (education) to promote your own interests (international jobs, working in the culture industries, etc.) while proudly dismissing the thoughts and feelings of those you find repulsive in large part because they do not have the resources to dissemble their own self-interest into respectable language as you do. If this is your method of advancing social justice, you’re actively begging right-wing demagogues to rise up, because your entire method involves using your educational privileges to push those you call bigots even further and further away from being able to promote their interests through non-violent channels. This in no way justifies or apologizes for fascists, it only seeks to give an honest and non-self-serving account of the real causes behind such awful political formations.

Many educated progressives, openly or secretly, really do not want uneducated right-wing people to have a public voice equal to their own. Their intellectual style demonstrates this quite undeniably. But educated progressives have made the mistake to believe this can work indefinitely. Perhaps educated progressives have begun to really believe that uneducated conservatives with so many unsavory notions are sub-human. Well, it turns out no group of human beings will tolerate for very long having their thoughts and feelings and interests defined in advance as outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. Any group of human beings treated this way will eventually prefer to adopt an ethos of violence against any and all untrusted out-groups, rather than try to play a peaceful language game the rules of which are quite literally determined (and frequently, aribitrarily changed) by those with opposite interests.

We have underestimated the violence of the educated progressive political style; it has been at once an ethical and strategic mistake, and now educated progressives are losing because of it. For educated cosmoplitan types, it feels natural that we are all part of one world. But people do not automatically have access to the world, or even a world. Worlds are constructed. It is the implicit claim of liberal cosmopolitanism that we are in one world. Ergo, if for any reason one cannot participate in the norms of liberal cosmopolitanism, such a sorry soul is for all intents and purposes not in the world. To the degree the liberal cosmopolitan view is shared across a society, someone who for any reason is not participating in that world can and should feel as if they are literally excluded from the world. So before we find ourselves shocked and horrified at some future triumph of violent right-wing politics, let’s also think harder than ever about the possibility that perhaps we are the ones who have become so skillful at the subtleties of political violence that we honestly can’t believe it.

Cite this post: RIS Citation BibTeX Entry

Murphy, Justin. 2016. "If educated progressives are so smart, why is right-wing populism winning?," (April 24, 2017).