The Guardian recently published a sobering piece of investigative journalism on the state of modern political campaigning. In Carole Cadwalladr’s article, it’s revealed that a small but tech-savvy network of rightwingers have figured out how to game elections. They started small: Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm funded by billionaire computer scientist Robert Mercer, used psychological warfare to effect “mass sentiment change” for ruling governments in places like Trinidad, Iran and the Ukraine. But over the past couple of years brazenly promoted itself to the big leagues.
Last year, this firm—which connects Steve Bannon, wealthy Trump backers Mercer and Peter Thiel, and Brexit architects Nigel Farage and Arron Banks—used what it had learned influencing electorates in less scrupulous nations to wrench Britain out of Europe and elect Donald Trump to office. These guys did it first through buying up your online data, then by targeting voters individually through the combination of “psyops (or “cognitive warfare”) and a propaganda machine disguised as a legitimate news service.
Circumnavigating existing electoral laws, the Cambridge Analytica crowd, with regular assists from Russia, are rigging our democracies. These people have enough money, reach and know-how to precisely manipulate legions of voters. Putin’s neo-fascist Russia has its sophisticated, government-backed hacking and disinformation operation, refined through the country’s experiments in hybrid warfare; Cambridge Analytica is an outfit bankrolled and staffed by the best of Silicon Valley. This is a mighty unofficial tech alliance, and there doesn’t currently appear to be a progressive alternative with the power to rival it. It’s enough to make anyone who doesn’t harbor far-right sympathies feel helpless.
There’s a catch. The anarchic new right, hellbent on bringing down the now-precarious liberal order, can only keep winning major victories while there’s still instability. The modern terrorist threat bolstering the right is difficult to combat, but governments can at least take control of the askew economic system that has been the cause of so much global anger. Once society is financially stabilized, the public thirst for extreme politics will begin to abate. The problem is that so-called ‘establishment’ politicians, still dazzled by neoliberalism, don’t appear too eager to introduce the changes needed to soothe society’s current foul mood.
It might be tempting at a time like this for progressives to see centrism in a new light. Center-ground political thinking doesn’t solve any problems immediately, but it beats anything the far-right have to offer. Centrists like France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, can even be forward-thinking socially and ecologically. Unfortunately, the centrist M.O. is more or less maintaining the status quo, which at present means sticking with the economic zombie doctrine that’s been at the root of so much global instability. The insidious new right outwardly hate centrists almost as much as they hate progressives (see the rumors and fake email leaks that were actively spread in an attempt to hobble Macron’s campaign), but ultimately centrism gives this crowd something to feed on: the unrest of a general populace that has come to believe the economic stability they need won’t come from ‘establishment’ politicians.
Recently, I argued that much of what’s popular about the demonized ‘liberal left’ should be considered not extreme, but ordinary. If 63% of people think wealth distribution at present is unfair, 61% think higher earners pay too little in tax and 67% believe corporations should pay more in tax, then such viewpoints aren’t ‘leftwing,’ ‘socialist’ or whatever tag rightwing pundits wish to use as disparaging labels—those are the views of the mainstream. People sense there’s something wrong with the economic status quo; it’s why we’re currently seeing voters in their desperation swing so far from the centerground. It’s why the Cambridge Analytica crowd have found such success now: Mercer, Bannon and co. recognize dissatisfaction and are readily exploiting it to achieve their own ends.
The center must now recognize, like their ultra-conservative rivals, that the system that centrist politics seeks to maintain is ill. Many people feel like they have been failed by a stubbornly unchanging establishment and are seeking alternatives. Already, France’s 10-million-vote-strong Front National, the former party of Marine Le Pen, is preparing to ‘detoxify’ and run again in 2022. To keep the far-right at bay, Macron’s side may need to start waging ideological war. It’s how Western powers did it during the Cold War—winning meant successfully making your side look the most appealing. There are ways to alleviate poverty, tax wealth fairly and shrink the income inequality gap, basic ideas which, far from being ‘leftwing,’ are supported by a struggling majority of people. They are ideas ready and waiting to be adopted by the currently sluggish centerground.
‘Establishment’ politicians find there’s little love for their kind these days (indeed, many who voted Macron did so primarily because they wanted to keep the far-right candidate out, not because they wanted a centrist in). At his inauguration, Macron promised France would experience a “renaissance” under his leadership. Hopefully this means choosing a new path economically—one that finds wealth distributed among many, not few. ‘Centrism’ has historically been amorphous, pulled left and right by ever-changing public opinion. It’s in the interest of politicians like Macron to change the definition of centrism again by acknowledging progressive economic ideas: it’ll not only improve the lives of those voters who, angry and frustrated, are increasingly tempted by extremist politics—it will ensure the centrists’ own survival.