Progressives have been notoriously bad a countering the right-wing fear/security narrative, says Charles Derber. The trick is to address the real dangers, of climate change, economic insecurity, and war
GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore. This is part two of my interview with Professor Charles Derber, co-author of the book Moving Beyond Fear. In part one, we discussed the problem of fear and the security narrative as President Trump and the Republican Party are currently propagating it. In part two, we want to look at how to move beyond fear and the security narrative and to avoid the slide towards fascism. Professor Derber, you make the point that the left or progressives generally try to counter the fear and security narrative with rational appeals. But you point out that part of the persuasiveness of this narrative is its basis in people’s emotions. Before we get into how the narrative can be countered more effectively, talk more about how the left or progressives fail to deal with Trump’s narrative and also, how the Democratic Party more generally has failed to deal with it.
CHARLES DERBER Well two things, Greg. One is— politics involves a lot of emotion. People are not the fully rational beings that many of us on the left would hope that people would respond to around very basic, incredibly important rational things like climate change, which are being denied by elites and so forth. But people respond to political issues in a deeply emotional, visceral way. And I think one of the great weaknesses of much of the left has been its inability to realize how important gut- level emotion is in driving people’s political fear, political preferences, and ideologies. The second thing is, I think the left since the end of the 1960s has opened itself to this far-right narrative and the rise of far-right Republican politics by basically moving away from a critique of capitalism and the ideologies of security and global dominance. During the 60s, there was a left which looked at capitalism and focused on American militarism via the Vietnam War as central to the way Americans had to mobilize to deal with the crisis in the United States itself, as well as in the world. Since the 1960s, I hate to say this, but the rise of a more siloed identity politics, which I think we talked about when we talked about my prior book, Welcome to the Revolution, was about the sort of collapse of the left after the 60s into a siloed identity politics around really important issues like race, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth. But these issues became separated from a broader critique of the capitalist system and the global militarism, which really intertwine with and intersect with and are sort of part of the pillar of all these hierarchies of power that dominate in the United States and the world. So essentially, we have a very weak peace movement in my judgment in the United States today. Since the late 60s, the vulnerability of the left has been its inability to develop a challenge to this global security militarism, which has persuaded a vast number of people, including many liberals in the Democratic Party, who you see even now basically looking to legitimate themselves in their critique of Donald Trump by saying, the problem with Trump is he’s eroding American national security by challenging the CIA the FBI. You calling them the adults in the room, who are the generals like Mad Dog Mattis, as the people that they want to appeal to. We want more of those people. Well, we can’t go back to that. And the problem here is, the left has to really reconstruct itself as a movement against global militarism and global capitalism. Even the very hopeful progressive wings of the Democratic Party in AOC, Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders’s progressive policies, they’re still very, very cautious about challenging the security narratives that are so dominant. It’s a sign of how powerful this narrative has become and how much liberals and even much of the left, has created a void for people to really have some sort of vocabulary or understanding to challenge this whole global dominance.
GREG WILPERT So what would be a better way of challenging or countering that fear and security narrative? How could one appeal to it in a way that would also address that emotional issue in politics that you’re talking about?
CHARLES DERBER So I think there are several answers to that. One is— first of all, there are real security issues. One is climate change, which can destroy much of what we know as human civilization. One is all the basic economic and social needs of the population that are not being met today and which create a general sense of insecurity. It’s sort of ironic that in the name of transferring all this money into the military and into these security aims— trillions of dollars going into these wars and into this militaristic global enterprise— in the name of securing people’s safety, you’re actually undermining people’s basic safety. So the security narrative produces greater insecurity. That produces emotional, very emotionalized politics. People are scared. Here you alluded to the Middle Ages. One of the reasons that that narrative back with kings and queens worked was because people were afraid. It was scary to be alive in that period and capitalism today is very scary for many people who feel they’re losing their grip on both economic security and on cultural respect and well-being. So I think there are two approaches I can think of right away. One is to really delve into the real security issues that are shaping people’s emotional responses, and those are the basic issues that capitalism is undermining— the economic security of basic social and economic well-being for the population at large, which is basically increasingly at risk. Half of Americans cannot afford to pay a $400 medical emergency bill without risking bankruptcy. When people are living at the edge, paycheck-to-paycheck, there’s going to be a highly emotive response to the security narrative because people’s emotions have been trampled on and people have a reason to be afraid. So the left, it seems to me, has to provide an extremely robust response to the fundamental economic, social, climate, environmental insecurity that is driving a lot of these emotions right now. So we need an agenda that moves beyond this more siloed identity politics, which has characterized the left since the late 1960s, after the 60s. And I think we’re beginning to see that now. We’re beginning to see both anti-racist and gender movements which are beginning to connect with economic, environmental, and to some degree, militaristic issues. But on the issue of militarism, I think it’s the greatest vulnerability and weakness of the left. We’ve got to basically take these issues you and I’ve been talking about, Greg, and the left has to put that out there. We need a genuine peace movement which sees the relationship between global capitalism, the emotional politics which the far-right has always used to create a neo-fascist society, and we have to talk to it directly. Enough of this, “thank you for your service.” This militarism is being taken into the American policing system. It’s being used to silence and destroy the enemy abroad in tandem with the enemy at home who are people of color, who are immigrants, who are liberals, and so forth. So I think we just have to develop and be brave about attacking this overwhelming discourse of security, which is making us incredibly insecure.
GREG WILPERT I’m wondering though if there might not also be an issue involving people’s consciousness, for lack of a better word. That is, one of the reasons that I think this security narrative seems to work so well is precisely because, as in your book you point out, that it binds the downstairs to the upstairs of a particular country against everyone else. That is, against the rest of the world whereas what you’re talking about essentially as the alternative would be to connect the downstairs of the United States with the other downstairs. Globally against, so to speak, not necessarily against but more in opposition to the upstairs globally. So we’re talking about a different kind of solidarity obviously because right now the solidarity of the Republican or of the security narrative, is where it is nationalistic.
CHARLES DERBER The alternative is a kind of international solidarity because the crises, particularly that the younger generation is facing, are global— global warming, global nuclear war. And I think the hope here is that partly because of technology, of the internet, and so forth. All my students have traveled a great deal. They have friends in other countries. They’re more aware, so that I feel it’s true that— remember, the whole purpose of the security narrative is to bind people to the nationalistic rhetoric of the people on top, ignoring the fact that they’re actually a global elite. So the alternative is a politics of global solidarity where the global downstairs, which really shares fundamental interests in survival around climate issues and war issues and so forth, are bound together. In contrast to being split and united with their upstairs in their particular countries. This distinction between hyper-nationalism and global interdependence and solidarity, is central to the change we need. No question about it.
GREG WILPERT Okay. We’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Charles Derber, Professor of Sociology at Boston College and co-author of the book Moving Beyond Fear. Thanks again, Charles, for having joined us today.
CHARLES DERBER Thanks so much for having me, Greg.
GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.