Pop­ulism and the frag­ile state of democ­racy


The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE BUIST sbuist@thes­pec.com 905-526-3226

Lead­ing cul­tural critic and McMaster pro­fes­sor Henry Giroux weighs in on the cur­rent state of af­fairs

Nearly five years ago, McMaster Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Henry Giroux warned about the rise of a new au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism in the West, long be­fore the stun­ning elec­tion of Don­ald Trump.

Giroux is con­sid­ered one of North Amer­ica’s lead­ing cul­tural crit­ics and he cur­rently holds the Global TV Net­work Chair in Com­mu­ni­ca­tions at McMaster.

To com­mem­o­rate the do­na­tion of his ar­chives to the McMaster li­brary, Giroux is giv­ing an in­vi­ta­tion-only lec­ture Thurs­day on the rise of pop­ulism and threats to democ­racy.

We asked Giroux five ques­tions that ex­plore the con­cepts of democ­racy, au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and the im­pact of Trump on Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

(Dr. Giroux’s re­sponses have been edited for length.)

Spec­ta­tor: Your book re­leased last year is ti­tled “Amer­ica At War With It­self.” Can you dis­cuss your premise and what im­pact the U.S. elec­tion has had on your think­ing? Giroux: The book is ba­si­cally about the emer­gence of Trump in the United States. What Trump rep­re­sents is some­thing re­ally quite hor­ren­dous. And it re­ally has echoes of what I call an au­thor­i­tar­ian past, whether we’re talk­ing about his ap­peal to ul­tra­na­tion­al­ism, his re­gres­sive for­eign pol­icy, de­mo­niza­tion of Mex­i­cans and im­mi­grants and Syr­i­ans, his con­tempt for dis­sent, his con­stant threats of vi­o­lence against peo­ple with whom he dis­agreed, the con­stant mo­bi­liza­tion of fear, the no­tion he is a strong man who alone can save the coun­try.

If we re­ally want to un­der­stand Trump, we can’t just view him as an ec­cen­tric, some kind of clown who just hap­pened to arise out of nowhere.

In many ways, he spoke to very real fears and eco­nomic con­di­tions that were in many ways un­der­min­ing the lives and the dig­nity of mil­lions of peo­ple. But he did it in such a way as to mo­bi­lize those con­cerns around moral panic and to sug­gest that while we have real prob­lems, the an­swer to those prob­lems is ba­si­cally to mo­bi­lize that anger against blacks, against Mex­i­cans, against Syr­i­ans, against Mus­lims and so on.

The book is re­ally an at­tempt to un­der­stand Trump as a con­se­quence of a long se­ries of events that have been go­ing on in the United States since the 1980s, this em­pha­sis on self-in­ter­est as the high­est ideal, that mak­ing money is the essence of democ­racy, that cul­tural cru­elty is OK be­cause you live in a so­ci­ety where the only thing that mat­ters is sur­vival of the fittest. They pro­duced the Franken­stein mon­ster and now they have to live with him.

Spec­ta­tor: In 2012, you warned of a need to pre­vent a “new au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and the col­lapse of the ideals of democ­racy in North Amer­ica and other coun­tries in the West.” That seems par­tic­u­larly pre­scient, given what’s hap­pened in the past few months. How and why did this hap­pen? Giroux: Af­ter 9/11, you had a coun­try all of a sud­den en­gulfed in a cul­ture of fear. You had a coun­try where shared fears be­came more im­por­tant than shared re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. You had the rise of the sur­veil­lance state. You had the at­tack on pub­lic schools. All of a sud­den civic cul­ture starts to col­lapse. It’s about se­cu­rity.

We no longer care about jus­tice, we care about root­ing out in­jus­tices, or­ga­nized around at­tacks on our per­sonal selves. All of a sud­den, the no­tion of fear takes on a very lim­ited mean­ing. The stranger, or “oth­ers,” are seen as a po­ten­tial en­emy or ter­ror­ist.

Se­condly, you have an enor­mous ero­sion of any sense of shared cit­i­zen­ship. You have the rise of this mas­sive dumb­ing­down of the cul­ture, a cul­ture which in­creas­ingly com­mod­i­fies and in­fan­tilizes in ways that rob peo­ple of the re­sources they need to be civi­cally lit­er­ate. You see it in the main­stream me­dia, par­tic­u­larly in Hol­ly­wood with the end­less spec­ta­cles of vi­o­lence, the rise of re­al­ity TV, a celebrity cul­ture where the Kar­dashi­ans — can you imag­ine? — ac­tu­ally be­come mod­els of ma­jor at­ten­tion. The cul­ture of the im­me­di­ate. The cul­ture of buy now and for­get ev­ery­thing else. It be­comes dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to re­al­ize that to live in a demo­cratic so­ci­ety, you have to have shared val­ues. You have to care for other peo­ple.

Spec­ta­tor: You’ve talked about the “vi­o­lence of or­ga­nized for­get­ting” and how “con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics are those in which emo­tion tri­umphs over rea­son, and spec­ta­cle over truth.” These cer­tainly seem to be top­ics of much hand-wring­ing these days, and not just from those in the me­dia. How do you see this play­ing out and what are some of the con­se­quences? Giroux: One of the ways it plays out, and we’ve al­ready started to see it, is the rise in the con­cept of “fake news.” You have a pres­i­dent of the United States who not only engages in fake news con­stantly but ac­tu­ally takes the term and turns it around to use as a weapon. He be­gins to weaponize ig­no­rance. He uses the term “fake news” to ba­si­cally crit­i­cize any crit­i­cal me­dia out­let that is will­ing to take him to task for the things he says that don’t make sense.

All of a sud­den, this dis­tinc­tion be­tween fact and fic­tion be­gins to dis­ap­pear. What dis­ap­pears is the very no­tion of cred­i­bil­ity. When you don’t have any sense of cred­i­bil­ity in a so­ci­ety and when all those stan­dards evap­o­rate, you no longer have a democ­racy. When peo­ple can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween jus­tice and in­jus­tice, when ev­ery­body sim­ply has their own opin­ion, when rea­son all of a sud­den be­comes sub­or­di­nated to emo­tion and shout­ing ac­tu­ally be­comes more im­por­tant than real di­a­logue, then the for­ma­tive cul­ture that makes democ­racy pos­si­ble collapses.

Spec­ta­tor: It’s been a long, long time since there’s been this much dis­cus­sion in the United States about the con­cepts of democ­racy and au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. It’s al­most be­yond be­lief that there has been open talk of im­peach­ment of a sit­ting pres­i­dent who has been in of­fice barely a month. How dire — or not — is the sit­u­a­tion in the U.S. cur­rently? Giroux: I think it’s ter­ri­ble. I don’t think there is a democ­racy in the United States any­more. I think what we’re see­ing is the rise of a so­ci­ety that is truly au­thor­i­tar­ian, in which peo­ple have very lit­tle say over the con­di­tions of their lives.

The peo­ple who now con­trol this gov­ern­ment have no sen­si­tiv­ity what­so­ever to the so­cial con­tract, no sen­si­tiv­ity to ques­tions of jus­tice, no sen­si­tiv­ity to ques­tions of equal­ity. This is a very dif­fer­ent kind of rul­ing elite. This is the fi­nan­cial elite. This is not the old con­ser­va­tive, semi-lib­eral elite that said “Hey, look, you’ve got to keep some peo­ple happy, oth­er­wise you’re go­ing to have a rev­o­lu­tion.” What’s dis­tinc­tive about this group is they don’t care about the so­cial con­tract. They would just as soon elim­i­nate ev­ery bit of it so they can reap as much money and as much power as they can to ba­si­cally con­trol that coun­try. That’s an au­thor­i­tar­ian coun­try.

What hap­pens in a coun­try like that is when the so­cial state is eclipsed, the pun­ish­ing state takes over its func­tions.

So more and more be­hav­iours get crim­i­nal­ized, kids in schools get put in hand­cuffs, zero tol­er­ance poli­cies, peo­ple who walk on the wrong side of the street all of a sud­den find their be­hav­iours crim­i­nal­ized.

Spec­ta­tor: You have a foot in both camps, so to speak. You were born in the U.S. and grew up there. You’ve now lived in Canada for more than a decade. Has that had an im­pact on how you see the U.S.? Giroux: Are you kid­ding? Look, I’m not go­ing to ro­man­ti­cize Canada, that’s silly, but I’ll tell you one thing. When you live in a coun­try where the so­cial con­tract is taken se­ri­ously, when you have a prime min­is­ter who says he wel­comes im­mi­grants, when you have a coun­try that in some way, at least, gives lip ser­vice to the ideals of democ­racy, and then when I see what’s hap­pen­ing in the United States com­pared to what Canada is at least try­ing to le­git­i­mate in terms of the dis­course of democ­racy, it re­ally breaks my heart.

I’m 73 years old, I’ve lived through the ’60s, I’ve been do­ing this work for 40 years and I think what we see in Trump … is ba­si­cally a tri­umph for au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and a tragedy for democ­racy.


McMaster Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Henry Giroux says Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion is a tri­umph for au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and a tragedy for democ­racy.


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