The good aspects of this populist insurgency need saving from horrified (and increasingly organized) antidemocratic elites – but also from cynical and incompetent populist leaders who are squandering our last best hope of democratic renewal
I have struggled of late to bring myself to write much about politics. The temptation to offer the odd hot take on Twitter can never be fully avoided, but while I usually find myself with enough time to write only one of every five articles which pop into my mind, these past months I have struggled to generate more than a couple of vaguely original ideas or pieces of commentary in the space of a month.
The reason, I have come to realise, is that for all the furious words being written and opinions expressed, nothing much seems to be changing. Despite a political discourse which has rarely been more shrill, with unbridled hysteria on both sides and nearly every aspect of life being sucked into the black, inescapable vortex that is our ongoing culture war, neither side is making definitive progress. As at the Western Front in 1915, both sides have dug into hardened positions in anticipation of a long, drawn-out stalemate. Both sides double down on their dogma and rhetoric, both sides continue to defend or even embrace the worst elements of their own cause because the enemy does likewise with his; both dehumanise one another and suggest that what was once seen as sincere and legitimate political difference is now irrefutable evidence of moral turpitude.
Both sides feel that they are losing an existential fight; both feel under attack and in retreat. On a superficial level, the progressive left (and here I use the term to describe those who broadly hold socially liberal, secular, intersectional, economically redistributive and de facto open borders political views) have more cause to be alarmed – after all, they have to deal with what they see as the “twin disasters” of Donald Trump in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom, as well as rising populism throughout Europe and much of the world.
However, as someone who fits into neither the populist or elitist category but perhaps has greater sympathy for the former, I see only danger, risk and oncoming ruin for the populists. My gnawing fear is that an increasingly inept Trump administration which fails to deliver on even his more decent campaign promises and a botched Brexit leading to economic damage and future ongoing “vassal state” status within an unreformed European regulatory ecosystem may come to represent the dismal high water mark of populist achievement. Such has been establishment shock at the political success of the populists, such is their determination to wrest back control and such is their domination of the main levers of influence and power (media, business and culture) that it is those gathered under the banner of unaccountable supranational and technocratic government who now march with a spring in their step, and those who believe in the nation state, democracy and self-determination who find ourselves endlessly on the defensive.
All of which might not be so bad if the temporarily-displaced elites had learned anything meaningful from their electoral rebukes, engaged in some introspection and returned chastened and humble, with a newfound willingness to consult and be guided by the people they lead rather than continuing to implement their own highly Utopian vision of the future with no consultation or consent. But of course there has been no such introspection, and there is precious little humility to be found among those who lost control of the political narrative in 2016.
President Trump is bad, but the people whose self-serving incompetence in government gave us President Trump in the first place are still very much present, unrepentant and with their credibility intact. Brexit negotiations may be lurching toward disaster, but the people whose uninspired leadership and scant regard for democracy helped give us Brexit in the first place soldier on with reputations intact, peddling the myth that everything was fine before the EU referendum came along, and that Brexit can be thwarted with no adverse societal consequences.
If the people who believe they are morally and intellectually better than Donald Trump voters and Brexiteers want to win, they need to do more than stand laughing or indignant at the sidelines as the worst elements of these camps drive their populist train off the rails; they need to actively come up with something more attractive; a unifying, compelling national vision which amounts to something more than just rolling the clock back to the day before the EU referendum or US presidential election. But instead we see little other than smug self-satisfaction and blind hatred of (or contempt for) those who took the populist side, born of the delusion that populist incompetence in government somehow discredits their basic cause, and that political elites can therefore press on with their own discredited and failed agenda without incurring any negative consequences.
But the populists are by no means innocent. It is very easy to strike a trendy rhetorical pose against unloved ideas and institutions, but much harder to grapple with cold hard reality and propose policy changes which respect democratic input while also standing a chance of lasting success in the real world. One of the hardest things in recent months has been witnessing thinkers, writers and organisations I once broadly respected choosing the path of least resistance, playing to their respective galleries and choosing outraged purity over sullying themselves with necessary compromise.
Thus we see this year’s Orwell Prize for journalism awarded to someone who sniffs out and extrapolates wrongdoing in the EU referendum Leave campaign to the delight of her establishment audience, but shows zero curiosity about malfeasance in the Remain campaign (or the relative impact of each). And thus we are subjected to otherwise-compelling contrarians like Brendan O’Neill of Spiked magazine actively harming the cause of Brexit by ignoring all nuance when it comes to the trade and regulatory relationships under discussion, turning the most momentous issue to face Britain in decades into just another facet of the culture war.
It must be easy to write when possessed of great certainty that one is indisputably morally superior and on the “right” side of history (or at least that one’s actions and side will be recorded as being on the right side of history). I often envy the leftist, identity politics-soaked social justice warriors and their enablers within the political class for possessing such fervor. It is much harder to write day after day when one fears that one’s side will ultimately lose, and that one will be remembered as a cranky obstacle to glorious progress at best, and as something akin to a Jim Crow segregationist at worst. Every tweet or blog post them becomes not a small brick in the foundation of some glorious building for which one can claim partial credit, but rather just another nail in the coffin of one’s own future reputation and ultimate legacy.
And right now, I think the chances of defeat for conservatives, traditionalists, democrats and nation state defenders are very high indeed. In Britain, the UK government’s mishandling of Brexit and the atrophy of our self-governance capability may yet vindicate every hysterical warning about the folly of leaving the European Union’s unwanted, antidemocratic political-union-by-stealth. In the United States, President Donald Trump’s impulsive, often proudly ignorant or counterproductive policies and bigoted rhetoric tarnish the valid causes he supports (like greater immigration control) by mere association, rendering them toxic, while the reputations of some truly awful people are laundered thanks to their cynically ostentatious opposition to Trump.
In all of this, the media is firmly planted on one side, unable to report objectively on issues of concern to so-called populists by virtue of having so few reporters and editors drawn from the relevant social and demographic circles. And virtually every element of our culture, from classical and pop music to television and even corporate culture, are marching to the beat of divisive, intersectional identity politics with its avant garde gender theory and disdain for those institutions which are the bedrock of a stable society. In such circumstances it is small comfort to be right when one’s own side stands on the verge of total defeat.
And yet it is not in my nature to bow down before these forces and declare “I, for one, welcome our new antidemocratic, technocratic, authoritarian and coercive SJW overlords”. I don’t welcome them. Even if things go as badly as in my most pessimistic moments I fear they may, I believe it is still important to stand up and argue in the public square, register dissent, bear witness to what is happening and force the progressive side to defend their ideas on logic and merit rather than wallow endlessly in their feelings.
Conservatives and true liberal democrats, people who believe in government of the people and the right to freedom of speech and thought, should be under no illusion at this time – we are losing the decisive battle. A few standout conservative podcasts, YouTubers and bloggers are no match when the other side has a vice-like grip on the entire culture and is snarlingly intolerant of the slightest dissent to the extent that they willingly throw their own leaders and figureheads under the bus for thoughtcrime infractions.
I hope that this defeat can be reversed, but doing so will require millions of people who currently sit at home quietly shaking their heads at what our political elites and culture-makers are doing but otherwise raising no public objection to stand up and be counted – and quite likely incur social or economic cost – which they have not been called upon to do before.
I have just started reading “The Benedict Option“, a book by an American Christian conservative blogger I much admire, Rod Dreher. The book is a warning to Christians (particularly aimed at but by no means limited to traditionalists) that the demands of their faith and those of our culture and “polite society” are drifting decisively and definitively apart, and that the time may soon come when faithful Christians are forced to choose between practising their faith according to their conscience and maintaining their current social and economic standing.
I see a similar fork in the road coming the way of all conservatives and moderates, religious or not – indeed, anyone who is not a staunchly progressive social justice warrior or otherwise happy to accede to that particular worldview. Already we see businesses and charities seeking to adopt progressive positions on social issues as corporate policy, mandating speech and behavior which would force employees and volunteers to violate their own beliefs or else face disciplinary action. Already we see censorious activist mobs seek to dictate where private companies advertise or sell their product. And already, dissenters are paying the price when they stand up and refuse to go along with these coercive demands.
In a few weeks I shall matriculate at law school in Washington, D.C., where I will spend the next three years earning my law degree. Being on an American university campus, it would be infinitely easier – professionally, socially and otherwise – for me to simply delete my blog and Twitter account, and pretend to anyone who asks (and it will certainly come up; already I have had to give notice of my “preferred pronouns”) that I hold the standard suite of progressive leftist political views which are almost de rigeur for students and within the legal profession. But that would be a lie, and I will not do so. Will professing my religious and political beliefs cost me potential friendships and career opportunities? I would be naive if I thought otherwise. Will I find my own free speech threatened or stifled at times? Quite possibly – I have spent three years documenting on this blog what happens to free speech advocates and identity politics heretics on American college campuses, and it is often not pretty. But so be it.
And so even if it brings less joy than it once did, I will keep writing, speaking and standing up for both the expression and validity of traditional, time-proven values and honest political opinions which were considered perfectly mainstream just a few years ago, but which are even now being recast as fundamentally hateful and ignorant by zealots who would reshape the world with their uniquely totalitarian conception of tolerance.
We all have a duty to take a stand, and this is what I shall do, from my own very marginal and unscrutinized place in history. I encourage others to undertake a brief personal inventory and consider whether there is more that you could do at this juncture with your own time, talents and resources. Because right now, we are losing the war. Worse still, some of the gravest long-term threats we face come from the supposed leaders of our cause, and too few of us are willing to admit this painful truth.
Help is not going to come from outside; we go to battle with who and what we have at hand. Unlike the people who melt down over a presidential tweet or democratic referendum, or who cynically downplay their own immense power and privilege to cast themselves as latter-day victims, it is we who are engaged in the real resistance of our time.
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