Maybe you have noticed the strangely implausible similarities between the cobbled-together platforms of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. On the surface, they represent opposite extremes. But in their celebration of the nation state as the people’s salvation — their burning calls to overthrow the existing elites and replace them with a more intense form of top-down rule — they have much in common.
Remember that the Nazis and Communists hated each other in the interwar period and, of course, fought each other to the bloody end in the war itself. After the Nazis lost control of the nations they conquered, the Communists swept in, trading one tyranny for another.
To imagine that these systems somehow represent polar opposites is bizarre. Both systems extolled the primacy of the state. Both practiced economic central planning. Both upheld the nation over the individual. Both created a cult of leadership. Both experiments in top-down social order ended in calamity and massive violations of human rights.
How could these two systems, so similar in operation, be so antagonistic? I guess you had to be there.
Back to the Past
Oddly, we are there now. When it comes to politics, it’s the 1930s all over again — or at least an updated version.
We are actually living through a period in which the revolutionary left and the revolutionary right have merged — fighting the establishment to make government bigger — in a way that is mostly lost on their respective supporters.
Sanders and Trump differ on particulars, though where exactly is not quite obvious. Yes, Trump is against gun control, and Sanders extols it. Sanders wants to pillage the rich, and Trump doesn’t want to be pillaged. Sanders makes a big deal about global warming, and Trump doesn’t seem to take it seriously.
But those are the tweaks and idiosyncrasies in an overarching system on which they both agree: the nation state as the central organizing unit of life itself. They have different priorities on who it should serve and where the state should expand most.
But they agree on the need to protect and enlarge state power. Neither accepts any principled limits on what the state may rightfully do to the individual. Even on big issues where one might think they disagree — healthcare, immigration, and control of lands by the federal government — their positions are largely indistinguishable.
And yet, they and their supporters loathe each other. Each considers the other an enemy to be destroyed. This is not a fight about power as such but about in whose service it will be used.
Most of their supporters don’t see it that way, of course. They imagine themselves to be rebels fighting power itself, however they want to define it: Wall Street, the party establishment, the paid-off politicians, the bureaucracy, the billionaires, the foreigners, the special interests, and so on.
But notice that neither attacks government authority as such. Both aspire to use it and grow it for their purposes.
The Marketing of Control
Insight here is provided by F.A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944 (another time when such issues were pressing), clarifying that the difference here is not in substance but style.
“The conflict between the Fascist or National-Socialist and the older socialist parties must indeed very largely be regarded as the kind of conflict which is bound to arise between rival socialist factions,” he wrote. “There was no difference between them about the question of it being the will of the state which should assign to each person his proper place in society.”
What is the difference? It was a matter of the demographics of political support and the differing classes in society that expected to benefit from a total state. The old socialists sought support from within working classes and depended heavily on the support of intellectuals.
The new form of socialists were supported by the young generation, “out of that contempt for profit-making fostered by socialist teaching.” These people “spurned independent positions which involved risk, and flocked in ever-increasing numbers into salaried positions which promised security.” They were demanding a place yielding them income and power to which their training entitled them but which seemed perpetually out of reach.
Though he was talking about 1930s Europe, it seems like a good description of Sanders supporters, who overwhelmingly come from the youngest voters. Betrayed by the educational system, stuck with a bleak job outlook, burdened with debt, trapped in a broken healthcare market, feeling like the system is rigged against them, they have turned to the politician who promises heaven on earth through the pillaging of the wealthy elites.
Then you have the fascist and national socialist right, with its own forms of scapegoating and its own class appeal. This approach says: your troubles are due to the outsiders, the immigrants, the media elite, the Muslims, the intellectuals and their political correctness.
The appeal, then as now, is a new form of identity politics based on nation and race. To them, the idea of equality is a mere cover for a power grab, a subversive trick to further the interests of the elites and nefarious “others.”
Replace Failure with Failure
As Hayek reminds us, neither faction emerged in a vacuum. “Their tactics were developed in a world already dominated by socialist policy and the problems it creates.” But instead of viewing the problem as statism itself, they push for state power to be used in a different way.
The New York Times reported that: “Iowa Republican caucus-goers are deeply unhappy with how the federal government is working,” but, for some reason, many GOP voters have yet to figure out that the military, the surveillance state, and immigration control that they love are the government they claim to hate.
Why pay attention to this circus at all? It’s fascinating to watch the crackup of the old failed political order. It is happening to both parties and also to the public sector they scrabble to control. Their promise of better living through bigger bureaucracies has flopped.
Meanwhile, in our daily lives, the future is with borderless distributed technologies, managed not by zero-sum elections but by the digital marketplace. This is what is turning the world upside down.
Still, the political sector continues to exist, and becomes more unstable and ridiculous by the day. You can see this as tragic and terrible, or fun and delightful. I remind myself daily to choose the latter route.