How is the Democratic establishment able to exert so much influence over American society when its hypocrisy is so blatant? Why are so many Americans prepared to throw away any hope of progress just to “stop Trump”?
The Democratic establishment’s conquest of culture can be traced back to rise of neoliberal ideology in the 1970’s, which gave a cultural dimension to capitalism’s conquest of the planet’s resources, but gained mainstream hegemony under Bill Clinton, a “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” Third Way Democrat. Since the election of Trump in 2016, however, this cultural conquest has reached fever pitch, with liberal elites co-opting the label of “progressive” and launching a “resistance” against Trump, all the while (hypocritically) protecting the system. The hypocrisy of the Democratic establishment is no aberration. It is central to its exercise of power, and the more we study how Democratic elites manage discourse, the better prepared we are to resist it.
This hijacking of discourse is something that can currently be observed in the news, on social media, and in our daily interactions. At the moment, I can observe at least three cases of cultural co-optation that are playing out in real time:
“Karen” is that upper class liberal who says “Black Lives Matter,” but then calls the cops on the black guy in their neighborhood. Karen is the woman who cannot possibly be racist because she voted for Obama. She’s not the trailer trash Trump supporter who is openly racist (that has its own meme: Becky). Establishment Democrats are purposely trying to conflate the two and take pressure off themselves by making #resistance liberals think Karen is a Republican archetype.
Remember Amy Cooper, who called the police on the birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, and said “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life”? She was not a Republican Trump supporter, as commonly perceived, but a liberal who had donated to Mayor Pete.
Liberals love to say that Trump is “gaslighting” Americans, but what do they really mean by that? Gaslighting has a very specific meaning. It’s a tactic that abusers use to make their victims doubt their own perception of reality. And because gaslighting is such a big part of the Democrats’ strategy to colonize the population, it’s very deliberate how they muddy the meaning of the concept.
The truth is, much of what Trump does is exactly what his base wants him to do: he antagonizes liberals. Liberals patronizingly deny Trump supporters their agency by labeling them the victims of his “gaslighting.” They engage in this manipulative practice while at the same time offering up no constructive policy platform, which is the only thing that could win many Trump supporters over. Of course, they have no intention of improving the lives of working class Americans, and any perception that they do is a product of their gaslighting of theirown base.
Every time I call out “liberal” hypocrisy, I invariably get people swooping down to correct me and tell me what I really mean is “neoliberal.” But pushing the idea that liberals have nothing to do with neoliberalism actually serves neoliberal hegemony. Neoliberals implement neoliberal policies from positions of power. “Liberals” support neoliberal politicians because “they’re better on social issues,” “we have to beat Trump,” or whatever other reason is trending that week.
In this way, mainstream liberalism is neoliberalism, and because liberals give legitimacy to neoliberals, liberal culture is a legitimate target for criticism. Trying to make a distinction between the two and defending the term “liberal” shifts the debate to a conceptual battleground that distracts from the righteous anger of those being plundered by neoliberal policies.
These are some current examples of elites’ management of discourse, but the co-opting of culture by despotic regimes is a colonial strategy that can be traced back to the 18th century Enlightenment in Europe. While offering lip service to the liberation of society from the darkness of superstition, the “enlightened despots” of the 18th century used Enlightenment discourses as a tool to centralize their empires. For example, in the Russian Empire, Catherine the Great implemented a policy of official “toleration” of her non-Orthodox subjects by institutionalizing the major faiths of the empire. The Muslims of the empire would no longer choose their own leadership and carry on an autonomous negotiation of power vis-à-vis the state, which could break down into open rebellion any time the state overreached, but would henceforth be led by a head Mufti chosen by the state on the basis of loyalty. Because of their official “toleration,” the state then expected complete loyalty of its Muslim subjects, and punished disloyalty with brutal military force. A monument to the “enlightened” Catherine now stands in the city of Kazan, the center of Russian Muslim culture. This imperial strategy of native cooptation was further developed by European states throughout the 19th century as a tool of social control and economic exploitation as they carved up and plundered most of Africa and Asia.
A historical background in colonialism is necessary to understand the Democratic establishment’s strategy of colonizing society through the co-opting of discourse, i.e. language and culture. As Michel Foucault emphasized, “discourse” does not describe reality, but in fact creates reality, and by managing how we describe reality, the Democratic establishment is able to exercise social control. It is a colonial strategy designed to aid in our economic exploitation, while convincing us that they are agents of liberation. It is designed to make us feel we are sovereign citizens, when in fact we are colonial subjects.
It would be a mistake to imagine these cases of discourse co-optation as debates taking place on neutral ground between disinterested actors. Culture is a central battleground that the left has to be prepared to contest.