Sunday, April 14, 2024

Julius Krein, American political and economic analyst: ‘A lot of Republican candidates are just very amateurish culture warriors’ | Elections 2024

It started off as kind of a joke. It was 2015 and Donald Trump, the business tycoon who was probably best known as the face of the reality TV show The Apprentice, had decided to run for president with the Republican Party. Undoubtedly, what he offered was fresh: non-scripted, politically incorrect and ideologically non-conventional. For Harvard-educated political philosopher Julius Krein (1986, South Dakota) and various of his colleagues who were working in finance at the time, in between some of the most outrageous outbursts there were some sound views on the state of things. So they started an anonymous blog to delve deeper into some of his policy ideas, especially surrounding the economic model, international trade and China. This intellectualization of Trumpism gained traction quickly, more than they expected or could handle, so they closed it down before the election for fear of losing their jobs.

In 2017, however, during Trump’s first year in office, the quarterly political journal American Affairs was launched, largely to question parts of what can be called the neoliberal consensus: open borders for capital and labor; transferring power from national governments to transnational technocracies; unfettered markets; and democracy promotion as the sole premise of foreign policy. “There was an audience for this stuff”, says Krein from Boston through a video call.

At the beginning, some touted the publication as an “organ of the Trump administration,” but Krein is quick to deny that representation: “They never really cared very much about us at all,” he says. And anyway, by August 2017 Krein himself had turned on Trump publicly, publishing an op-ed in The New York Times titled I Voted for Trump. And I Sorely Regret It, in which he acknowledged that Trump’s views and behavior were indefensible.

Since then, American Affairs gained a reputation as a “heterodox policy journal” publishing, for example, conservative arguments for a defense of a greater role for the state but also left-wing articles against identity politics and open borders. Then the Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine happened in quick succession, and the fault lines that Krein had been pointing at for years cracked. In other words, it seemed like the neoliberal consensus had been finally demolished under its own weight.

But what might follow the end of “the end of history”? The slate is clean for a new political and economic consensus to be formed, and this year’s U.S. presidential election, in so far that the United States is still the world’s major superpower, is the obvious scenario for that to happen — just like with Roosevelt or Reagan in the past. Yet for Krein, neither Biden nor Trump or either of their parties is stepping up to the occasion, and the issue might well be settled by events elsewhere.

Question. How would you explain the sequence that ended up with the end of the so-called “neoliberal policy consensus”?

Answer. Neoliberal economic paradigms, for lack of a better word, have been slowly undermining the conditions on which they rely, and I think that became particularly pronounced after 2000 and China joining the WTO (World Trade Organization) and so, since then, there are all kinds of small events that accumulate… But I think politically Covid and the supply chain shocks there, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both accelerated interest in these issues. They became more than an academic narrative and widened out to interest the center-left establishment.

Q. What you’re saying aligns with the fact that the Biden administration has clearly been moving away from basic neoliberal ideas. However, it has not really sold its policy as a paradigm shift, but is it?

A. Yes and no. There is a paradigm shift because saying the words industrial strategy in the United States now doesn’t cause shock and revulsion among elite intellectual audiences; it’s a legitimate topic of discussion, whereas five, 10 years ago it simply wasn’t. So that’s a big shift. But I would say there’s less of a paradigm shift in the sense that the policies themselves are not particularly well designed. They haven’t really shifted a lot of the underlying dynamics both politically, in terms of winning voters, but also more substantially in shifting financial incentives and really changing corporate incentives.

Q. What are those financial and corporate incentives that you say have remained unchanged?

A. It starts in the 1970s and 80s with labor-intensive parts of production moving to the rest of the world. And after the Cold War ends, it really goes into overdrive. I’d also add in there that although neoliberalism aims towards a sort of fiscal rectitude, it’s actually very reliant on debt to keep things going; and as we’ve seen in the financial crisis and beyond, that tends to add more financial instability. And this situation has simply proceeded so far, that it is causing a lot of problems. The first and most obvious one is with the industrial base, in particularly the defense industrial base. But at the macroeconomic level it has meant losing production and sequestering profits from most employees, and that brings geographic and financial inequality, which then boost political instability. Overall, I think this kind of neoliberal intellectual property and financial rent model has just become increasingly burdensome, contradictory and undermining of itself.

Q. Yet no-one on the political scene in the U.S. is actually spelling that out clearly beyond the buzzwords of the threat of China or anti-globalization more generally…

A. I think there are people on both sides who are capable of developing such a post-neoliberal agenda, or have it or have pieces of it, but those tend to be technocrats, they are not the dominant voices of either party.

Q. It is also a hard sell electorally to come out with this sort of idea.

A. I don’t know if the hard part is the media attention because when you start talking about all of these fairly dry, complex topics the media doesn’t want to cover that. But you can point to polling that says this is what everybody wants. They just don’t really get a chance to vote on it because the parties are off doing culture wars or whatever.

Q. So how can any party build a larger electoral base in this context?

A. The Republicans have two problems that inhibit them from building a larger realignment. The first one is there are still significant segments of the party that are trapped in a kind of 1980s caricature of Reagan economics, and that just has a pretty hard ceiling at this point, including with a number of Republican voters. And then, two, I think the party in general has a sort of competence problem. A lot of Republican candidates are just very amateurish culture warriors, and Trump himself is not really running on much of an agenda. He’s running on an effective, but fundamentally kind of stand-up comedy campaign against the excesses of progressivism, which I think might be enough to win the election, but it’s not an agenda that you can really build things on.

On the Democratic side, I think their commitment to identity, a particular very divisive version of it, has created reverse polarization. Basically, you could say they have a hard time talking about nationalism in a positive way, and actually running as leaders of the American nation, which is what they actually have to do to win elections. They are burdened with this elitist progressive baggage, which is actually very harmful to their electoral aims.

Q. Doesn’t sound like a great set of choices…

A. Voters will have to choose between people that arguably at least could be competent, maybe could make the trains run on time and are sort of serious about the details of policy, but who are immersed in this very unpopular, at some level anti-American, elite morality; or people that at least claim to be nationalist and supportive of the larger America, but who are consumed by all kinds of weird culture war issues of their own and actually show very little interest in just running the government effectively.

Q. And is there a way out of this stalemate?

A. I don’t actually think this state of things is permanent or inherent. But I think it will probably be resolved by external events. I mean, we’re already experiencing a situation where the U.S. is stretching its artillery reserves. There are major issues in the Middle East that could worsen; and even if the U.S. industrial base could probably handle a war with Iran, it’s actually a close-run thing. And then if China were — and I’m not predicting this, but you can’t rule it out either — to make a move and blockade Taiwan or something, the current estimate is the U.S. would probably run out of ammunition in like a week or 10 days. So I think as more and more of the U.S. elite kind of have to confront these realities and face a world in which the American-led order slips further and further away, that will probably drive domestic politics more than any kind of domestic campaign issue here. But that is absolutely unpredictable, of course.

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