Popular Posts

Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Legitimate concerns

On the first Wednesday after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November 1980 I was sitting in Bob McKenzie's Political Sociology lecture  listening to him assure us that though the election of Ronald Reagan seemed like the end of the world it probably wasn't going to be as bad as we feared. The gist of his argument was that although Reagan was a fool, he at least was a lazy fool  who had just about enough sense to appoint competent people to his cabinet and to hire advisors who actually  knew something about the world. 

As things turned out he  got it broadly right. The course of events was not particularly edifying but things could have turned out a lot worse. I'd like to believe something along those lines today. But I'm not confident I can. For sure the sun will rise tomorrow, but come January we may be looking at a much uglier world.

So what's to be done? Well firstly not to go off on a self-righteous bender. I heard an emotional Simon Schama on the radio yesterday saying that Trump is a fascist. This is nonsense. His "ideas" aren't coherent enough to be sensibly described in that way. He's certainly a ruthless bigot, but that isn't quite the same thing. I don't think that Trump has an ideology of any kind other than whatever serves to promote his infantile ego. But that is besides the point. Narcissism among politicians is just a matter of degree. Trump is actually heir to a much more native tradition, that of Huey Long, champion of the small guy against the establishment. They share the same  mixture of crude populist rhetoric and  authoritarian instinct. The main difference is that Long actually did achieve something for his constituency while all that Trump will do, if he has his way, is make them poorer, more disillusioned, more angry.

What I'm pondering is the response of the liberal-left  in America to Trump and in Britain to Brexit. And all the while I hear the same phrase: "we have to respond to the legitimate concerns of...". But what if these concerns are not, in fact, legitimate? What if they are incoherent or  unintelligible? What if behind the rage is just a toxic soup of muddle, misinformation, fantasy, incompatible wishes and yes, racism, fear, envy, xenophobia and nostalgia for a past that never happened? How are you going to address the "legitimate concerns" of someone who wants to close the border to all wage undercutting foreigners, put the names of foreigners who are already here on a list and restrict their  access to health care, education and other public services, who at the same time wants that nice Polish lady to care for his demented mother (without it costing too much),  a cheap car, cheap electronic goods  and protection from foreign competition? Yes day to day politics is about compromise, but as Weber pointed out  politics is also about ultimate values and sometimes you come to a point where to compromise means either pretending that 2+2=5 or even worse just giving up even pretending to pursue the things that made the game worth playing in the first place.

"Legitimate concerns" are not just things that are given. They are created. It's too simplistic to blame their creation just on the tabloid media. But certainly the constant drip of poison, albeit into the mouths of people who already have a taste for it, doesn't help. What the liberal-left lacks is a strategy to aggressively shape the terms of the debate rather than simply go along with what they are too eager to accept as given. They've forgotten that politics isn't just about what people in Westminster believe and know. Sometimes you have to dare to tell people that they can't have all the good things they want and that anyone that promises them is a charlatan and a fraud. Sometimes you have to tell them that their gut instincts are wrong and unworthy of them. Sometimes you have to tell them that what they say they want will actually make them and every one else poorer and less happy than they otherwise would be. And you have to persuade them without patronizing them. 

It's a big ask. But all the alternatives look worse.


M said...

People don't trust the liberal left because as much as the goals may seem humane or even "right on" the public have cottoned on that the reality often entails special pleading, rent seeking and personal enrichment. Racism and inequality is allegedly rife, the race card is played with reckless frequency anywhere and everywhere, but the result always seems to involve money and influence flowing to those who play it, not those they purport to represent. Question this and the default is to loop back round and play the card even more aggressively.

The narratives have become perpetual grievance and entitlement which is convenient for commercial sustainability, if anything gets better then it's not a good thing it is just a cause to reinterpret or find new and innovative forms of oppression and inequality on which to develop new revenue streams.

We commit significant sums to overseas aid and it all looks very altruistic, but who actually benefits apart from well spoken middle class people who get an exciting paid holiday, and the pockets of local tin pot strongmen?

Post truth isn't a right wing thing. It's a feature of modern liberal democracy. When everyone is working an angle it's hard to find moral high ground!

Colin said...

What is self-evident to you - they're all in it for what they can get - is not self-evident to me.

A few expense fraudsters in Westminster doesn't amount to evidence that they are all corrupt, just as a drop of whiskey in a dictator's decanter doesn't mean that no children got a primary education or a vaccination.

People have complicated mixtures of idealistic and baser motives. But if someone or something - for example the larger part of the English tabloid press - continually push the "they're all in it together" line, I immediately want to to ask why they are so keen that I should believe this? What's in it for them?