Note: I wrote this in January and then it set in my Drafts. So I’m publishing it now, with very few edits, in the hopes that it still makes some sense.
When I was in undergrad and grad school, studying political philosophy, I was extremely skeptical of explanations of human behaviour based in class. Especially in grad school, I was surrounded by colleagues and professors who strongly believed in the importance of class. And I, a libertarian, thought all this talk about class was extremely wrong-headed.
I used to ask people “Go out on the street and ask someone how and with whom they identify. I’m willing to bet money class is not high up on that list.”
Nobody took me up on my challenge but I don’t necessarily disagree with that bet all these years later. But, just because people don’t self-identity in a particular class doesn’t mean economic status isn’t incredibly important to politics in liberal democracies.
Though it might seem like a crazy idea to many of us, I think the people who stormed the US capital on January 6 and the anti-police protestors of the summer of the pandemic both want the same thing – they want to feel as though their lives matter, as though they are being treated equally and with respect, as though they have some measure of control over their lives.
Anyone who is willing to protest in the streets feels like they have some legitimate grievance with the status quo.
Now, whether or not you sympathize with one group more than the other is obviously an important question, but it’s a different question than I’m concerned with today. (I have no question as to which groups are right to be upset.)
What strikes me in all the hand-wringing over the riot/coup/insurrection of January 6, and the different hand-wringing over the protests this past summer is that much of it misses the fundamental similarities of the desires of the two groups: the extreme Right of the US and the extreme and some of the moderate Left of the US have more in common than they might think. (If you’re willing to omit the racism of the Right, anyway…)
Both groups view the Other Side as being implacably in the way. Worse, the Other Side is an existential threat to the country as a whole.
Both groups mostly support some of the elites on their side, the elites they believe they can trust. This is Trump and those who appear to support him on The Right. (I’m not sure who it will be now that Trump is off Twitter.) And it’s Bernie Sanders and/or The Squad and some others on The Left.
And the elites of both sides spend their time telling their bases that it’s the Other Side that is the hurdle, the stumbling block, the problem, the Existential Threat to the USA.
Most of these elites have already been entirely co-opted by the other elites. Yes, even the ones who claim they are not co-opted. In fact, you might argue that on The Right at least, the louder an elite claims to not be an elite, so as not be co-opted by the elites, the more likely they are indeed just part of the elites. (We should all note that not personally getting along with other elites does not, in and of itself, make you not an elite. It’s wealth and power that make you an elite, not how polite you act.)
(Most of) The elites have no real interest in the structural reforms that would benefit both sides. The ones that still do just haven’t been among the elites long enough. But they’ll likely get there.
And that’s the thing that seems like it is missing from all of this discussion of the coup/riot/insurrection. Trump’s rhetoric about the swamp is not entirely wrong. The problem is that he was literally the least likely person to fix anything. (And he didn’t fix anything. He didn’t drain the swamp. He lowered the bottom of the swamp so now it’s deeper. Now it’s a quagmire)
The problem is that both The Right and The Left need leaders who will enact the structural reforms necessary to make the average person better.
Despite what you might think from reading this and despite what many people will say, there is a material difference on each side. One side does at least claim to want to make things better for the average person. The other just lies and enriches themselves and their donors.
But that doesn’t get away from the fact that elites on both sides have a vested interest in the status quo. (Or, in Trump’s case, making it worse.)
And that’s a commonality everyone protesting needs to recognize.
If you really want to “drain the swamp” you should really want equality before the law. (And better laws, it should go without saying.)
Now if only The Right could stop being racist. (And sexist and…)