We just finished a Frontiers of Democracy session entitled “The politics of discontent: it works in practice, but can it work in theory?” The premise is that we live in an age of discontent. To theorize about that means to ask: what is discontent, what causes it, and how can we use it to build a better society?
I am actually somewhat skeptical that a category called “discontent” is helpful for describing such a range of phenomena as Trump, Sanders, Brexit, etc. An alternative view would be that there’s a political status quo, and people are inevitably more or less contented with it depending on where they stand across a broad political spectrum. At any time, many people are discontented, but they don’t have anything particularly important in common. Some of them have valid grievances and some don’t. What we might call a climate of discontent is just the aggregate of all the variously unhappy people and movements. The aggregate is likely to be worse when economic times are bad, because then the pie is smaller, but discontent is natural.
Here are some other views that emerged in the discussion:
- There is a shared basis of discontent, and it’s procedural. People don’t feel heard; they don’t have opportunities for engaging each other. This discontent is valid, and the solution is more and better democracy. (I’d like to believe this thesis because it would validate a lifetime of work in political reform. But I’m not sure I do believe it.)
- There isn’t yet–but could be–a shared basis of discontent if we had better ways of talking with each other across partisan and demographic divides.
- There is a shared and valid basis of discontent, and it’s social/economic. For instance, Sanders supporters and Trump voters–and even Brexit voters–share a common root grievance: a global financial system that is cozy with governments and receives bailouts from everyone else. Even if these movements express their views in different ways, similar policies might satisfy them all.
- Most of the discontent is coming from formerly privileged groups losing their advantages. A better phrase for it is “right-wing ethnonationlism.” That certainly excludes Sanders voters and Black Lives Matters, but it wouldn’t be valuable to categorize them together with the nationalist right under a heading like “discontent.” Let’s acknowledge that we live at a moment of right-wing ethnonationism when there is also some energy on the left.
- This is not particularly a time of discontent. Many aggregate measures of well-being and confidence are up. There are some angry voters, but a total of about 25 million people have voted for Sanders and Trump combined so far (in a nation of more than 200 million adults). The ultimate winner of the presidential campaign is likely to be the most “establishment” candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1992. An odd result for year of discontent.