“Democracy has spoken”. “It’s the will of the people”. “The establishment has failed”. “Voters feel left behind by traditional politics.” “We’re sticking it to the liberal elite.”
Anyone with any interest in politics in 2016 has heard these phrases repeated ad nauseam to explain the objectively bizarre popular successes of Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and Donald Trump.
There is an undeniable momentum (yes, the word is appropriate) behind the feelings articulated above, and that many feel that it is time for change.
I have sympathy with those who feel “let down” or “forgotten”, but I have a number of observations about this phenomenon which inform my anger and despair.
Are there no more red lines?
One thing the disaffected millions have right is that there is, most definitely, one rule for “them” and another for “us”.
In recent weeks, sportspeople such as Louis Smith and Tyson Fury have been told that their views (or ignorance) are unacceptable as they are “role models”.
I have no doubt that most of us would find our employment in serious risk if we said the things that Trump said in our workplaces. And rightly so. There should be no place for misogyny and racism in 21st century society .
There was a time when being caught fiddling your expenses, cheating on your spouse or uttering explicitly racist, sexist opinions would render the position of cabinet ministers and others in political life untenable too.
But no longer.
Now, it seems, the more inflamatory and illiberal the rhetoric, the more popular it makes you, because you speak “for the common voter” and you “say it like it is”, refusing to be “silenced by the liberal media elite”.
What must a politician say or do to put themself beyond the pale? Assault women? Brand an entire nation as rapists? Nope. That gets you elected President. Support the IRA in the 80s, Hamas in the 90s (and beyond) and reactionary regimes such as Assad’s Syria and Chavez’ Venezuela in this century? Nope. That gets you the leadership of the biggest force for liberal tolerance in the UK.
Why does this matter? Well. I’ve heard plenty of people say when challenged “Yes Trump has said some uncomfortable things about women, gay people, blacks, immigrants etc, but that’s not important. He’s said he’ll bring back jobs and make America great again, so he’s got my vote!”
As this man pointed out, this sort of logic has been used to justify electing demagogues before, which didn’t work out too well.
The “common man” fallacy
I don’t know about you, but when I go to the doctor, I don’t want them to say “Oo your knee does look a bit dodgy, you’ve probably pulled something.”
When I ask a barrister to represent me, I don’t want her to say “look Judge, it’s just really unfair. It’s obvs, innit?”
I want them to look, sound and act like the experts they are. Why should this be any different when it comes to whom I should trust to run the economy, conduct delicate diplomacy or negotiate complex trade negotiations?
I don’t want Joe Public in No 10 or the White House. I want someone who knows how politics work, both domestic and foreign, and who can use that system to get good things done.
The return of the scapegoat
In Germany in the 1930s it was Jews. In the American 1950s it was “commies”. In Marxist circles it’s always been “imperialist bourgeoisie”. The targets vary, but the message is the same.
Something wrong in your life? Lost your job? Is your community poorer than the one next door? Blame the “Other”.
Yes, Trump’s rhetoric is the most obvious sign that this philosophy is alive and well, but it’s far from unique. Perhaps you have a criticism of Corbyn? You are merely falling for the “smears” spread by the “traitors” in the PLP and the “establishment” who hate him.
Perhaps you want to ensure that Brexit is conducted according to law and not by dictat? You are obviously one of the “liberal elite” who are just itching to overturn “the will of the people”.
Or maybe you actually believe that Trump means what he says about women, Hispanics, Muslims etc? You are an “ignorant libtard” (yes, I have been called that) who is “out of step” with the American public.
There have always been social problems and there always will be. Some sections of society will always be worse off than others. That’s a shame, and I truly have sympathy with those who find themselves at the back of the queue and will fight for a fairer allocation of the limited resources we have.
But I am a realist. I want my government to do its best to make the lives of those in Britain as good as possible, but I don’t expect bloody miracles.
No government can wave a magic wand and return the US (or the UK) into the manufacturing powerbases they once were. The world has moved on.
I want a government that deals with the world as it is, with all its complexities and flaws, not one that feeds fantasises about how the Other is conspiring to do me harm.
The Tyranny of the Majority
What’s so great about the “will of the people” anyway?
Ah, I hear you cry, so you admit it. You ARE anti-democratic!” Well, first, I don’t buy for a second that any of these democratic results give anyone a “clear mandate” for anything (two of these results were so close they may as well have been 50/50 and the other was only possible due to the most suicidal, imbecilic voting rule change in political history).
And since when was any democratic decision final and irreversible? The EU referendum only happened after 40 years of campaigning by Euro-sceptics. Every General Election, on either side of the Pond, is followed fairly swiftly by another. Losing an election simply means trying harder to win the next one.
So when people say I have to “accept” the results and stop “moaning”, I say just one thing … no.
Secondly I will never be ashamed to say that something is not necessarily Good or Right simply because he majority have voted for it. History abounds with examples of things that are very popular at the time but turn out to be disastrous. Even Hitler won an election after all.
I mention Hitler deliberately. It’s not just that it’s now become acceptable to blame “the establishment”, or the EU, or immigrants for everything wrong with the world.
That sort of scapegoating is bad enough.
Just as disturbing is that passionate adherence to the idea that all we need do is vote for Trump, Brexit or Corbyn and all our problems will be gone.
This utter faith in people and events is so simple-minded it barely merits consideration, but the Corbynistas, Brexiteers and Trumpeters (?) have invested so much in their idols that they are unable to process even the slightest suggestions of fallibility.
In this year’s Labour campaign, we were told that all the good things of the first year of Corbyn’s leadership were to his credit and anything bad (dreadful poll ratings etc) was caused by the negativity of the media and the dastardly Blairite MPs.
Likewise, Brexiteers crow about every good piece of economic news since June 23, and blame all the bad news on “Remoaners” and of course the dastardly EU.
And you can bet that if nothing improves for working class Americans under Trump, the blame will be placed squarely at the door of the “establishment” in the Senate and Congress, who refused to accept the “will of the people” by allowing him to enact every crazy idea he has.
In summary, if the zeitgeist of British and American society is truly expressed by people like Corbyn, Farage and Trump, then I am absolutely delighted to be “out of step”.
I pray that the West wakes up very soon. Preferably before the lurch to extreme populism becomes too embedded to stop and it reaches what I fear could be a horrific conclusion.
Speak soon (I hope)
P.S. This is worth a read