When unelected technocrats increasingly set policy and carry out the day-to-day business of governance we should not be surprised that electoral politics, castrated and less consequential than ever before, is becoming a circus freak show
Michael Brendan Dougherty has a new piece in the National Review which so succinctly captures the state of Western democratic politics that busy as I am this week, I feel the immediate need to blog a response/reaction to it.
Dougherty’s jumping off point is the sudden, feverish interest among assorted leftists and Democrats for television personality Oprah Winfrey (yes…) to run for president against Donald Trump in 2020, driven almost entirely by a speech Winfrey gave about the #MeToo movement while picking up an award at last night’s Golden Globes.
You might think it a little hypocritical for people who have spent the past two years bashing Donald Trump as an inexperienced dilettante in way over his head, a reality TV blowhard with no credentials and no right to occupy the office he holds, to immediately embrace a similar figure from their own side of the political divide – and you would be correct in thinking so. But the mere fact that voters are being drawn to these celebrity candidates is itself noteworthy, and crucially, Dougherty places the blame not with the voters but with the bland, interchangeable technocrats of the political class who offer those voters no compelling alternative.
The average voter is going to be blamed for this. The great disdain of the educated class will fall on the Uhmurkans who have been hypnotized by their televisions. Maybe some of that’s right. But I blame the wonks. It was the wonks who, unawares, made the celebrity president not just desirable but logically necessary.
The wonk’s role is well-fitted to the centrist political ideal in the post–Cold War West. For them, government is most highly admirable when it is totally denuded of questions of value or morality (these having obvious and uncontroversial answers), and reduced to a purely technical exercise. The politician working with the wonk finds that his job is reconciling the public with what’s good for them. And this fits the machinery of the executive branch, which is filled with hundreds of thousands of civil servants, overseen by a much smaller retinue of political appointees almost all chosen from within the governing class of the country. Where this model of government is most advanced — in Europe — policy questions are routinely taken away from the passions of democratic peoples, and quarantined for expert management.
Taken together, these trends are more or less the abolition of traditional democratic politics. And so there is little use for the traditional politician, a person of judgment and charisma who represents the community from which he or she emerges, using his own wisdom in reconciling the diverse interests and needs of his nation and constituency.
You couldn’t write a better paragraph describing the impact of Westminster centrism and EU integration on our democracy, even though Dougherty is talking in his essay about American politics as much as European. On both sides of the Atlantic, political leaders have behaved as though we are living in the End of History even when Francis Fukuyama’s prediction has long since been disproven through bitter experience. Elections, while often bitter and hard fought, have generally offered little meaningful choice when it comes to big questions about how the nation can best order society and relate to the world. Even when political rhetoric has been heated and the candidates have seemed very different, the economic system and world order they ultimately support has tended to be the same, an embrace of the status quo.
Michael Lind also wrote at length in 2017 about the severing of the compact between the ruling class and the governed, with those in the political, professional and creative classes increasingly feeling no bond of kinship with or obligation to others in society, those they look down upon for holding “incorrect” or “oppressive views” (which can often be taken to mean “that which was mainstream twenty years ago”. And many politicians, nearly all drawn from this class (or inducted into it soon after election) do indeed spend their time explaining and defending the status quo to the citizens they nominally represent, rather than striving to change the status quo on their behalf.
I noted the same phenomenon only last month, in the context of Brexit:
Look at the big issues facing the West and the world in general in 2017 – global migration flows, Islamist terror, globalisation, outsourcing, automation and more – and there is not one of these complex problems which we as a country have failed to comprehensively sweep under the rug or otherwise avoid meeting the challenge.
Even on those occasions when the people have recognised burning problems and the need for bold new solutions, public opinion (such as on Brexit and immigration) has been repeatedly slapped down over the years by a cohort of politicians who think it is their job to explain and defend the current status quo to the citizenry rather than change the status quo according to the demands of the citizenry.
As I have also written, this managerialist technocratic approach to government, with the wonks in the driving seat and politicians as mere interlocutors to the public can potentially be justifiable when things are in steady-state, when times are good, society and the economy stable and when no large threats loom on the horizon. However, rather than a benevolent steady-state we instead live in interesting times, with numerous opportunities and threats ranged around us. This is the discontinuity about which I have been writing so much of late.
In such periods of discontinuity politicians must not remain in the back seat, because it then falls to unelected civil servants and powerful economic agents to dictate the nature and scope of change on their own terms and to their own advantage. For two decades now, globalisation, automation, outsourcing and immigration have changed the structure of our economies and the very meaning of work, and yet there has been no meaningful political debate about these topics until public dissatisfaction reached such a level that the debate could no longer be suppressed.
Nowhere has the debate been suppressed more effectively than on the subject of immigration, and nobody has done more to suppress that debate (thus pushing it toward the unpleasant fringes) than the Labour Party. On immigration, Labour and left-wing politicians very much see themselves as interlocutors rather than elected representatives. When people (including many of their own constituents) raise concerns about the dramatic levels of net migration since 2004, left-wing politicians and commentators see it as their job to explain why unprecedentedly high immigration is actually a good thing rather than seriously engage with voter concerns and amend policy based on that feedback.
When politicians refuse to take voters at their word and assume that their qualms about immigration are really about something else, this is not only patronising but ultimately counterproductive. One of Labour’s favourite fallbacks when it comes to immigration concerns is to pivot to worker exploitation. They think that by instituting new laws to crack down on hiring workers for less than minimum wage (as though it were not already illegal) the public will be placated because foreign workers will no longer be able to undercut local labour. Another favoured technique is to talk about infrastructure, a glib pseudo-concession to the reality that roads do not automatically widen nor hospitals acquire additional beds with every new migrant who lands at Heathrow. Of course, if they really cared about matching infrastructure to population increases caused by immigration they would have done so when they had the opportunity, so this is yet another evasion.
And even now that this tactic of ignoring voter sentiment and patronisingly explaining to voters why they are wrong to be concerned about mass immigration has spectacularly blown up in their faces, still the key voices of the Left can imagine no other way of functioning. Accepting that voters may have a point and amending their policies to reflect the democratic mood doesn’t occur to them. Instead we just see more earnest think pieces about how voters need to be better taught the benefits of immigration.
But immigration is only the most prominent policy area where we see this behaviour from politicians. The same haughty dismissal of public opinion occurs in nearly every sphere. As another example, both Labour and the Conservatives have long since coalesced around what is basically a social democratic economic worldview where profits were tolerated (though rarely celebrated) because the resulting taxes on those profits fund the massive, omnipresent public sector. This locked old-school socialists and more free-market conservatives out of the conversation until Ed Miliband’s failure to win the 2015 election saw Jeremy Corbyn bust open the consensus on the Left and take Labour in a more ideological direction. Theresa May still stubbornly refuses to come to an accommodation of her own with the libertarian right of her party, and this obstinacy and unwillingness to allow alternative views to influence policy is one of many reasons why the Conservative government is idling in neutral, doing nothing of value for the country and waiting for somebody to put it out of its misery.
So given the fact that our politicians (at least the ones who get ahead) tend to be dismal functionaries rather than inspired leaders with disruptive new ideas to meet the period of discontinuity in which we find ourselves, it is perhaps less surprising that many voters gravitate toward someone, anyone with charisma and a willingness to do something more than patiently explain to voters why all of the things they dislike are actually really good for them.
Having eliminated the need for real probity in politicians, why shouldn’t the parties turn to celebrities as their political leaders? The celebrity will do the job of winning elections and riling up the public, but the machinery of government will go on, almost undisturbed.
This may be cathartic for some voters, but it has not taken long for the establishment blob to get the measure of most populist uprisings and swiftly tame them in all but rhetoric. In France for example, Emmanuel Macron discovered that by jumping around on stage and shouting a lot he could amass huge numbers of disillusioned voters and easily see off the threat from Marie Le Pen’s Front National, even though Macron is himself little more than a young face and a neat hairdo atop the same policies which so irritate the public and have increasingly proven inadequate to our present challenges.
And so it is too in America. Dougherty writes:
We can see how the permanent class of Republicans in government almost immediately tamed the Trump presidency. Instead of the populist presidency Trump promised, Trump is ushering in much of the pre-existing “moderate” Republican agenda of corporate tax cuts and economic deregulation. The political class and the media allied to it were able to expunge most of the populist figures from the administration. Soon, they might even succeed in expunging Trump, too.
We are thus heading toward a place where the theatre of democracy is almost entirely divorced from the process of governing. The connection between national elections and meaningful policy reform is becoming about as tenuous as the link between scripted reality TV and actual reality – in other words, almost nonexistent.
In this increasingly dystopian world, all our favourite celebrities can duke it out to become nominal presidents or prime ministers while the technocratic wonks pay no heed to the sideshow and quietly continue to go about implementing their preferred policies relatively unmolested.
But the blob may no more have the national interest at heart than the populist celebrity politician. Both are prone to self-interest, and while the celebrity politician’s interest likely lies in self-aggrandisement, the blob has often proven itself to be more interested in perpetuating policies which benefit its constituent classes in the short to medium term than strategically positioning the nation(s) they effectively govern to face the challenges and reap the rewards of the future.
And the blob is especially dangerous right now, having been moved to anger by unprecedented popular rejection in 2016. The disruptors may have thought that they could summon a good rage or indulge in a lavish pity party when they wanted, but their antics have proven to be nothing compared to the centrist persecution complex the displaced establishment has conjured up in response.
Neither side does their country any favours. The populists – whose figureheads are Donald Trump in America and the Hard Brexit Ultras in Britain – have by now proven their unseriousness and detachment from reality, but the blob still seems to be of the opinion that things can go back to the way they were once what they see as these temporary aberrations are over and the populist rebellions put down.
Patrick Deneen put it best in the Spectator this week, remarking that we now have “a liberal elite without a populace, and a populace without a moderating elite.” And so we are left to pick our poison – on the one hand an arrogant technocratic class which even now shows no humility or willingness to change its ways, and on the other a succession of telegenic performers who are great at channelling public anger but totally lacking the knowledge or leadership ability to turn anger into smart policy.
Not an enviable choice.
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