The Real Resistance

Protest Sign - Dump Trump Kill Brexit

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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Conservative Party Policy Renewal: 1000 Ways To Die Trying

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Rather than attempting to forge a compelling, coherent vision for Britain rooted in conservative values, our dithering Prime Minister is soliciting a thousand disjointed policy suggestions from every vested interest and armchair crank in the nation. This is not leadership.

Having been on the road since 14 March of this year, I confess that I presently find myself semi-detached from the day-to-day granular developments in British politics. I note the headlines and observe the main spectacles as they occur – this week it seems to be another Cabinet showdown about Brexit and the planned “Rite of Spring” style frenzied celebration of the NHS on its 70th birthday, complete with the worshipping of false idols at Westminster Abbey and perhaps enough human sacrifices to make even the mass murderers at Gosport Hospital seethe with envy – but otherwise have been forced to tune out the smaller procedural stories which, taken together, give the truest indication of where we are heading.

It is dispiriting, therefore, to tune back in this week and discover that the Conservative Party remains every bit as ideologically lost, rudderless and without leadership as it was when I flew from Heathrow Airport nearly four months ago, particularly since the fractious nature of British politics could see any more Tory missteps usher in a Corbynite Labour government and a chaotic, uncontrolled Brexit – two economic calamities both alike in indignity, one slow-burning and the other all too immediate.

At this point, I can scarcely bring myself to repeat the warnings that this blog has been making with increasing alarm (and clarity) for the past six years – that chasing Labour to the left and disowning/apologising for small government conservative principles is political folly, and that the period of discontinuity in which we now find ourselves – where the old political settlement neither adequately addresses our contemporary problems nor commands widespread public support – requires coherent vision and ambitious policymaking from our political elites, not more of the same old demos-phobic technocracy.

At this point I have warned of the urgent need for new Conservative policymaking which neither seeks to mimic statist Labour paternalism or reheat individualist 1980s Thatcherism, and have cheered on those few brave efforts to seed the Tory Party with new ideas – most notably George Freeman MP’s “Big Tent” initiative.

But it has become increasingly clear to me that the Conservative Party cannot save itself, that much of the heavy lifting will have to be done by people not beholden to the existing party power structure (and quite possibly outside of politics altogether), just as it took external voices to commandeer a 1970s Tory Party still stubbornly clinging to a failed socialist post-war settlement. Unfortunately, it has also become equally clear that the required external voices are not at all welcome, that “conservative reform” is seen by those in power as little more than a cosmetic exercise whereby people within the existing Tory ecosystem sit around reciting platitudes at one another.

Until this week. Now, it seems, Theresa May has decided to go in an altogether different direction. From the Telegraph:

Theresa May has launched an appeal for MPs, peers and party members to submit 1,000 policy ideas to form the basis of the Conservative party’s bid to win the next general election.

The Prime Minister has announced she has set up a new Conservative Policy Commission in the biggest overhaul of the party’s policy thinking in more than a decade, personally appealing to Brexit voters in particular to offer up their own ideas.

The new Commission, chaired by Chris Skidmore MP, has been charged with developing the ideas in time for the Tory party conference next year.

The next general election is expected in 2022 but the relatively short timetable means Mrs May will be presented with a ready-made policy platform if she chooses to call an early election in the months after Britain quits the European Union next year.

So from having almost taken a perverse pride in her government’s lack of direction or urgency for change, Theresa May is now seeking the oddly specific number of 1000 new policy ideas, even deigning to consider contributions from (relatively) ordinary people.

And how is this new Policy Commission intended to work?

Each task force will be asked to answer 20 policy questions set by Mr Skidmore with 10 separate policy ideas, to give the party 1,000 new ideas for consideration in the final policy report.

[..] Evidence will be gathered at meetings in towns and cities in every region around the country, with an interim report ready for summer next year and the final document published at the party’s 2019 conference.

The long-sickening optimist within me would like to think that some good might emerge from this exercise, even though a policy review seeking only answers to highly specific, pre-ordained questions is unlikely to produce many truly radical or disruptive ideas. However, the realist within me – whose low expectations have been repeatedly vindicated – suspects that this is nothing more than a Tony Blair-style cosmetic New Labour performance spectacle, that the task forces themselves will somehow end up stuffed full of the same Westminster bubble-dwellers you always see at London think tank events, and that if any genuinely bold policy emerges from the mess it will be met with polite interest and then disappeared down the memory hole.

But worse than that, by announcing this initiative Theresa May is veering from one extreme to another – from having solicited policy and strategic advice from only a small and insular circle of loyal sycophants to encouraging everyone in the land to start shouting ideas or promoting their personal pet projects at the same time. Rather than stepping back and attempting to forge a compelling, coherent vision for Britain rooted in conservative values, our dithering Prime Minister is now soliciting disjointed contributions from every vested interest and armchair crank in the nation. This is not leadership.

Back in November of 2017 I attempted to outline the approach which a Conservative government should be taking toward necessary policy renewal, beginning by quoting the influential 1977 Stepping Stones Report:

We must know what a Tory government will have to achieve, before thinking about the way in which it must win office, because simply “winning a majority” on the wrong terms may not give it the authority it needs for success.

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

I then laid out a case arguing that we find ourselves in a similar moment of political discontinuity today, with new challenges producing the same frustrations and political sclerosis we witnessed during the national decline of the 1970s. For all his flaws, Jeremy Corbyn recognises that we are in a period of discontinuity and is promoting radical left-wing policies in tune with the moment. By contrast, the Conservatives seem terrified to articulate any kind of bold vision at all, and risk being correctly perceived as the party of the status quo.

Hence my final recommendation:

We need a new Stepping Stones Report for our times. We need a comprehensive and dispassionate analysis of the problems we face as a country, and understand where and how they are linked together. Having diagnosed these problems (which in the case of many politicians many involve some painful introspection) we must decide where we want to go as a country – what we realistically want Brexit Britain to look like in 2020, 2025, 2030 and beyond – and then devise a programme of mutually supporting, politically feasible policies to get us there, and a way of framing and communicating this programme that can unite a sufficient amount of our fractured country to earn an electoral mandate.

It may be noted that many of the issues we face today – globalisation, automation, migration, terrorism – span national borders and can not be solved by any one country alone. This is not a concession to angry Remainers who naively view the European Union as the ultimate platform for all international cooperation, but it is a statement of fact. This means that for the first time in decades – since the Second World War, really – Britain must lift its eyes above our own domestic concerns and seek to use our position on the world stage to promote and coordinate the adoption of the new solutions we devise. Having voted for Brexit and upended our politics, embracing the discontinuity which most other countries still ignore, we are the canaries in the coal mine and other nations will look to us to see how they might navigate the same issues. For once, rather than lowering our national ambitions and ducking a challenge we must rise to the occasion.

I still believe that this idea, or some variant of it, is the only surefire way for Britain to identify, acknowledge and overcome our present challenges. In principle, a Conservative Policy Commission could be a good idea, particularly one which pays particular attention to the aspirations and concerns of those areas of the country which voted to leave the European Union. But demanding 1000 fresh ideas and then frantically sorting through them, trying to weld together a new draft manifesto in time for the 2019 Tory party conference, is not going to result in anything coherent or sufficiently inspirational to make people positively want to vote Conservative. At best it looks gimmicky, and at worst it serves as a Trojan horse for multitudes of self-serving vested interest policy to find an unwitting champion in government.

Put simply, you cannot solicit 1000 random ideas and successfully pick through them in order to arrive at a compelling programme for government. What’s needed is an earnest attempt to identify, describe and measure the challenges, threats and opportunities facing Britain – be it automation, outsourcing, migration, productivity, education or national security – and then identify the linkages and interdependencies between them. Only on the strength of this bedrock of analysis can new policy ideas be properly evaluated to determine whether they are both politically feasible and adequate to the challenge at hand.

Any such approach would require something between the traditional insular elitism of the political class and the slap-happy populism of Theresa May’s latest initiative, inviting unfiltered ideas without any clear basis on which to evaluate them. Strong government involves making trade-offs and necessary compromises in pursuit of a greater good; Theresa May’s proposed policy commission risks being nothing more than retail politics at its worst, promising all things to all people and disappointing everybody in the process.

I wish that things looked more optimistic for the Conservative Party and for the country, but from my current perch here in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I see only a weak and dithering prime minister who thinks that conservative policy renewal is little more than a cosmetic exercise, or even worse, a political game to be played. All those Conservative activists working diligently to come up with new ideas are not well served by a CCHQ and leadership which bypasses their efforts and seeks an arbitrary 1000 new ideas simply because someone in 10 Downing Street thought that it would make a good headline.

Here in the United States, Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election to Donald Trump in part because her campaign was never able to satisfactorily or compellingly explain why she wanted to be president beyond the personal satisfaction of having her hands on the levers of power. In Britain, the Conservative Party has been in power for the better part of a decade, most of it without offering voters any kind of positive vision (let alone a granular strategy) for strengthening the country. With Jeremy Corbyn now offering a clear contrast and a very different vision for Britain, the Tories no longer have the luxury of being dull, dismal and technocratic.

Neither the Conservative Party nor the country needs 1000 wacky new policy ideas at this difficult juncture, or any other quick-fix solution proposed by Theresa May. Right now we simply need one leadership-supported policy renewal initiative which might plausibly deserve to be called “strategic”, and a leader who aspires to something more than just remaining in office.

This really shouldn’t be asking too much. At one time, strategic thinking and purposeful leadership were baseline expectations, not wistful pipe-dreams. We have fallen a long way in a relatively short span of time.

I close with this pertinent warning from the Stepping Stones report:

In discontinuity, conventional wisdom cannot get us out of the problems. Indeed, innovation is almost certainly the best way through discontinuity. Almost any vision, any programme, is better than confusion and uncertainty, for it can at least be modified in the light of experience, once it has broken the paralysing spell of past failure and present pessimism.

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Review: The People vs Democracy

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“The People vs Democracy” goes further than many other books which claim to “explain” Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, showing that it takes both sides – outraged establishment centrists as well as populist insurgents – to successfully undermine liberal democracy. Political renewal depends on the former group finally accepting responsibility for some of the failings which brought us to this divisive moment

Introspection has been in short supply since the twin shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory. Both sides are at fault – supporters of Brexit and Trump, well used to being the insurgent political outsiders, have frequently struggled to adapt to the fact that they now set the agenda (at least in part) and share responsibility for tangible outcomes affecting everybody. Meanwhile, dispossessed leftists and centrists, largely content with the old status quo and fearful about the speed and extent to which their worldview was repudiated at the ballot box, are so enraged at developments that they refuse to even consider how their actions and errors led to the present situation.

A new book by Yascha Mounk’s, “The People vs Democracy”, attempts to shake both sides out of their complacency while warning that doubling down on current behaviours – with populists displaying impatient contempt for norms and institutions which stand in their way, and establishment centrists concluding that even more areas of policy need to be lifted out of the “risk” of democratic influence – risk fatally undermining liberal democracy, which turns out to be a far less stable and inevitable system of government than we have all tended to believe.

The book was apparently conceived before either Trump or Brexit, but inevitably it has been seized upon by a political and media class who are overwhelmingly sceptical of (and often hostile to) both developments as a kind of guide book for how to avoid ever again losing control of the political narrative. Unfortunately, these audiences seem far more interested in analysing and condemning the supposed pathologies of voters who support populist leaders and initiatives rather than looking honestly at their own manifold failings. In an otherwise excellent interview and Q&A with the American author and journalist EJ Dionne, establishment centrist failings are barely considered at all, and certainly do not receive top billing.

Media organisations with an agenda to push have consistently portrayed the book as an analysis of the means by which “populist uprisings could bring down liberal democracy”, but this is disingenuous. Such deceptive portrayals begin in media res, assuming that populist uprisings begin spontaneously and unpredictably like forest wildfires rather than as a direct result of the failures of the increasingly antidemocratic pseudo-liberalism they champion in the form of institutions like the European Union and continuity politicians such as Hillary Clinton.

In reality, any intellectually honest observer must now concede that populists do not spring spontaneously from the earth, and that the ground must be fertilised with the arrogance and failure of establishment politicians and institutions before populism can take root and pose any systemic danger to democracy. Mounk himself acknowledges as much in his book, which is refreshing, but the biases of his target audience mean that this side of the story is consistently downplayed, both in the book and in many reviews.

Yascha Mounk begins with an overview of the West’s current political landscape, looking at factors which are common between countries:

Then there are those short years in which everything changes all at once. Political newcomers storm the stage. Voters clamor for policies that were unthinkable until yesterday. Social tensions that had long simmered under the surface erupt into terrifying explosions. A system of government that had seemed immutable looks as though it might come apart.

This description of increased political division also describe periods of discontinuity and the difficult, contentious process of forming a new political consensus from the ashes of an older, failing one:

There are ordinary times, when political decisions influence the lives of millions of people in ways both big and small, but the basic features of a country’s collective life are not at stake. Despite deep disagreements, partisans on both sides of the political battle line endorse the rules of play. They agree to settle their differences on the basis of free and fair elections, are committed to the basic norms of the political system, and accept that a loss at the ballot box makes it legitimate for their political opponent to take a turn at running the country.

[..] Then there are extraordinary times, when the basic contours of politics and society are being renegotiated. In such times, the disagreements between partisans on both sides grow so deep and nasty that they no longer agree on the rules of the game.

[..] As a result, the denizens of extraordinary times start to regard the stakes of politics as existential. In a system whose rules are deeply contested, they have good reason to fear that a victory at the polls may turn out to be forever; that a loss in one political battle may rob them of the ability to wage the larger war; and that progress defeated today may turn out to set the country on a path toward perennial injustice.

This could very easily describe the post-war socialist consensus which prevailed almost uncontested in Britain from 1945 to 1979, or the subsequent supranational and technocratic (or “neoliberal”) consensus which followed. The difference this time is that it is not the coal miners or those whose lives were made more precarious by globalisation protesting and striking, but rather members of the political and economic elite raging that their judgment as to what is best of the country has been second-guessed by other, less educated or refined people.

While Mounk plants his flag quite clearly on the “liberal” side of the argument, he is refreshingly willing to examine the flaws and missteps of his own side as they increasingly work toward a future of rights without democracy:

The rise of illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, is but one side of politics in the first decades of the twenty-first century. For even as ordinary people have grown sceptical of liberal practices and institutions, political elites have tried to insulate themselves from their anger. The world is complicated, they insist – and they have worked hard to find the right answers. If the people should grow so restive as to ignore the sage advice proffered by elites, they need to be educated, ignored or bullied into submission.

Mounk uses the example of Greece and the Euro crisis as his example, but he could just as easily have taken any of the EU’s dealings with recalcitrant member states, or the economic and social consensus adopted in most Western countries.

And so we find ourselves locked in a negative spiral:

In democracies around the world, two seemingly distinct developments are playing out. On the one hand, the preferences of the people are increasingly illiberal: voters are growing impatient with independent institutions and less and less willing to tolerate the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. On the other hand, elites are taking hold of the political system and making it increasingly unresponsive: the powerful are less and less willing to cede to the views of the people. As a result, liberalism and democracy, the two core elements of our political system, are starting to come into conflict.

[..] Democracies can be illiberal. This is especially likely to happen in places where most people favour subordinating independent institutions to the whims of the executive or curtailing the rights of minorities they dislike. Conversely, liberal regimes can become undemocratic despite having regular, competitive elections. This is especially likely to happen where the political system is so skewed in favour of the elite that elections rarely serve to translate popular views into public policy.

This is absolutely correct but it is important to note that democracy has atrophied much faster and further than liberalism thus far in countries such as Britain and the United States. This may seem incorrect to bewildered centrists who tended to believe that everything was marvellous (or at least on a positive path toward progress) until Trump and Brexit appeared like bolts from the blue, but it is true nonetheless.

Much of the rising anti-liberalism has thus far been confined to rhetoric only, and has not yet rooted itself in public policy, while anti-democratic practices and the effective disenfranchisement of those who hold the “wrong” views have been flourishing for years and even decades. It is also the case that many policies now considered intolerably illiberal by many opinion setters (such as aggressive immigration enforcement under the Clinton or Obama administrations in America) were accepted or even positively encouraged by so-called liberals not long ago, raising the question to what extent the current fear of “illiberal” policymaking is primarily the result of goalpost-moving by those on the progressive left determined to find evil in present policy for cultural reasons and cynical political advantage-seeking. Yes, we must absolutely tackle both sides of the equation, but we can only do so when we recognise the extent of democratic corrosion compared to real-world illiberal infringements.

And of course this is a self-perpetuating cycle – more and more areas of policy being lifted free of responsive democratic control inevitably increases support for populists and assorted dissenters, which (from the perspective of elites) only validates their belief that the people are unqualified and untrustworthy of making key decisions for themselves.

Ultimately, Mounk correctly diagnoses the burning issue of the age:

Rights without democracy need not prove to be more stable [than democracy without rights]: once the political system turns into a playground for billionaires and technocrats, the temptation to exclude the people from more and more important decisions will keep on growing.

A large part of Mounk’s criticism of populist movements (and one of the main criticisms in general) is the idea that populist politicians offer glib and simple solutions to inherently complex problems, and in doing so perpetrate a fraud on the gullible people who vote for them. Citing Donald Trump and Nigel Farage as examples, Mounk writes that populists:

…all claim that the solutions to the most pressing problems of our time are much more straightforward than the political establishment would have us believe, and that the great mass of ordinary people instinctively knows what to do. At bottom, they see politics as a very simple matter.

Yes and no. It is certainly true that the complicated technology and regulation required to make the global economy hang together does necessitate a growing technocracy and makes politics far more complicated, but at times the populists are surely reacting with righteous and justified indignation to a bipartisan or consensus view to lift decisions out of democratic control. As Mounk later goes on to admit, there is no good reason why the citizens of a country should not be heard through the ballot box when it comes to immigration levels. The complex cost/benefit analysis of different types and scales of immigration may well be hugely complex, but the principle currently being violated in many Western countries is starkly clear, hence the stark (and supposedly simplistic) solution of returning some decision-making around immigration to the electorate.

Yet for most of the book, Mounk seems happy to dismiss this causal factor, rhetorically asking:

If the political problems of our time are so easy to fix, who do they persist?

Some of these problems are really entrenched and lack a simple solution, contrary to the populist claims. But at other times, the issue is simply that centrist consensus politics – or what those on the Left might denounce as peak neoliberalism – simply will not countenance the obvious and ready solutions.

Mounk rightly warns that the willingness of populist leaders to advocate the sidestepping or abolition of various institutional roadblocks – whether through earnest impatience or more malevolent intentions – is contrary to the spirit of liberal democracy. And indeed, in Britain we have seen this play out with attacks on the judiciary and now the House of Lords because of their interpretation of law or procedural foot-dragging. Mounk correctly expresses the ideal, and warns of the danger:

Liberal democracies are full of checks and balances that are meant to stop any one party from amassing too much power and to reconcile the interests of different groups. But in the imagination of the populists, the will of the people does not need to be mediated, and any compromise with minorities is a form of corruption.

Quite so. But we cannot level this criticism against populism unless we acknowledge that many of these cherished, long-standing institutions have thus far seemingly offered no defence against an effective cartel whereby both (or in some countries, all) the main political parties implement the same policies and pursue the same basic worldview without offering meaningful choice to the electorate. In such a case – as with EU membership and New Labour era mass immigration in Britain – it is not unreasonable to complain that the institutions or checks and balances currently in place are not fit for purpose, and require urgent reform at the very least.

Despite moments of real clarity, there are other occasions when for whole sections at a time, Mounk lapses into the kind of lazy, almost arrogant view of his political opponents which has for too long infected the media and mainstream opinion-setting public figures:

So much of the angry energy that fuelled [protests against Angela Merkel’s lax and permissive immigration policies  in Germany] had been on display in the streets of Dresden that I could not help interpreting the events of 2016 an 2017 in light of what I saw there: the hatred of immigrants and ethnic minorities; the mistrust of the press and the spread of fake news; the conviction that the silent majority had finally found its voice; and, perhaps more than anything else, the hankering for somebody who would speak in the name of the people.

Have journalists and academics really no alternative way to think about and describe opposition to mass migration than “hatred of immigrants and ethnic minorities”? This is half the problem – the determination of many opinion-setters to read the worst possible motives into popular protests, thus making it even harder for politicians to take those legitimate concerns seriously lest they be accused of “pandering”.

In fact, the best refutation to Mounk’s assertion is the story of the far right in Britain. While Mounk meticulously documents the rise of populist hard or far-right political parties in many European countries, he is conspicuously silent about the fate of the British National Party in the UK. Early on in the era of mass migration to Britain, in the early 2000s, the BNP secured a stunning series of victories in local and European elections, seeing their vote share climb and jostle for position with other more established and respectable smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats. The BNP prospered in a climate where none of the major political parties promised to seriously grapple with the issue of mass migration, and rising support for the BNP was taken and portrayed by the commentariat as rising support for the BNP’s worst and most racist tendencies. However, the rise of the UK Independence Party, a staunchly Eurosceptic party lacking the racist baggage of the far right, saw the BNP quickly fade back into obscurity. In subsequent elections, the BNP lost almost all of their local council seats and entered a period of organisational dysfunction from which it has not yet emerged.

This shows that when the subjects of race and immigration are separated (as they were when voters were offered a clear choice between the BNP and UKIP), voters are far less racist and prejudiced than many establishment commentators give them credit for. The triumph of UKIP over the BNP proved as definitively as possible that concerns about mass immigration implemented without democratic consent were not primarily ethnicity based – why else would voters eschew the party which was more willing to make race and ethnicity an issue? Yet political and media elites continually over-conflate the issues of immigration and race, partly because of a soft bias which leads them to instinctively favour higher immigration and look down on those who equivocate, but also, one suspects, because they know that accusations of racism are the best way to discredit an otherwise legitimate policy argument.

The lazy charge of racism is not the only instance where Mounk unfortunately lapses into comforting establishment dogma. In this paragraph he effectively ventriloquises the sense of entitlement felt by displaced establishment politicians throughout the West, from displayed centre leftists in denial about their newly diminished position in Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left Labour Party to identity politics-worshipping Democrats who now want to double down on the divisive rhetoric of racial or gender-based grievance:

Populist leaders’ willingness to offer solutions that are so simple they can never work is very dangerous. Once they are in power, their policies are likely to exacerbate the problems that drove public anger in the first place. It would be tempting to assume that voters, suitably chastened by the ensuing chaos, would then return their trust to establishment politician.

Tempting? Chastened? Yascha Mounk is clearly an intelligent and conscientious writer, but these words reveal the extent to which he and other opinion-setters marinade in a very ideologically and culturally homogenous environment. “Tempting” suggests that it would be good if voters returned power to the same unrepentant establishment politicians that Mounk has elsewhere conceded to have led us into our current difficulties, and “chastened” suggests an establishment view of the electorate as spoiled children to be either indulged or reprimanded at various times, but never given full agency over their own lives. Mounk may not have intended it to come across this way, but there are few other ways of reading this paragraph, which itself is very reflective of prevailing opinion within the political bubble.

Throughout the book, generally the most extreme degrees of anti-establishment or populist argument are analysed, with the more moderate positions whose continued stonewalling led to a populist revolt in the first place are frustratingly avoided. We see this again here:

The major political problems of the day, populists claim, can be easily solved. All it takes is common sense. If jobs are moving abroad, you have to ban other countries from selling their products. If immigrants are flooding the country, you have to build a wall. And if terrorists attack you in the name of Islam, you have to ban all the Muslims.

On one hand it is quite right and proper to note the glib simplicity and unpleasant tone of these policies, particularly since Donald Trump did come to office promising to implement them all in one form or another. But taking potshots at the obvious impracticality of Trump’s proposals is easy. What is much harder – and would have made the book even stronger – is a more consistent and rigorous introspection as to why the continued downplaying of these issues (job displacement due to globalization and poorly enforced immigration laws with tacit acceptance of illegal immigration) by previously ruling elites led to their downfall in the first place. An understanding that continually crying “racism!” in the face of sober minded and reasonable policy proposals ultimately led to the emergence of someone with far catchier but less workable policies – the kind of introspection shown in Mark Lilla’s book “The Once And Future Liberal” – would have rounded out “The People vs Democracy” and made it a less frustrating read for moderate conservatives who agree with Mounk’s diagnosis but marvel at his inability to keep a fixed gaze on the root cause.

Too often, Mounk gives a free pass to the media, whose manifold failings also contributed enormously to this populist moment:

Critical media outlets cover protests against the populist leader. They report on his government’s failings and give voice to his prominent critics. They tell sympathetic stories about his victims.

All well and good, exactly as it should be. But where was this brave and critical media during previous administrations? Where are the equivalent stories about the victims of policies pursued through the establishment consensus? Yes, many news outlets, dazed and confused after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, urgently dispatched reporters to far flung parts of their countries in a bid to speak with and understand the motivations of people who voted for populist options – and to be fair, there has been some good and incisive reporting as a result. But why were those journalists not always rooted in these communities, reporting sympathetically on the struggles taking place there? Why did so few media outlets or opinion-setters correctly predict the two most shocking electoral events of the century? The answer can only be that the media was and remains utterly unfit for purpose, thinking and reporting almost exclusively from one side of an emergent divide while having few authentic connections to – and zero credibility with – the other.

We should absolutely celebrate and defend a free press and reward good reporting and analysis wherever it is produced. But we delude ourselves if we hold up the existing media class as plucky heroes and defenders of democracy when their collective failure did as much as anything else to ensure that populist concerns were not fully heard until they exploded into the open with the election of Donald Trump.

Mounk is also sometimes too forgiving towards other institutions which have historically been part of the problem rather than the solution:

Attacks on the free press are but the first step. In the next step, the war on independent institutions frequently targets foundations, trade unions, think tanks, religious associations, and other nongovernmental organizations.

Populists realize how dangerous intermediary institutions with a real claim to representing the views and interests of large segments of society are to the fiction that they, and they alone, speak for the people. They therefore work hard to discredit such institutions as tools of old elites or outside interests.

Again, Mounk’s basic warning is a fair and important one. But focusing only on the attacks which these institutions are now attracting from populists and largely ignoring their significant failures makes it much harder to successfully argue for needed reform, or to reach a bipartisan compromise which might help rebuild trust in the various institutions while cleansing them of any existing bias or corruption. For example, many Brexiteers are wrong to propose the total abolition of the House of Lords due to the assembly’s scrutiny of the Brexit process and defeat of government motions, but those defending the institution are too willing to overlook the lopsided, unrepresentative and undemocratic nature of the Lords. And in America, defending the free press against the outrageous tweets and bluster emanating from Donald Trump’s White House risks overlooking the deep flaws and blind spots which run through many news organizations which consider themselves strictly objective and impartial.

Mounk also fails to consider other reasons why populist leaders may seek institutional or systemic change in addition to implementing their own policies, confidently asserting:

The reason why populists and political newcomers are so willing to challenge basic democratic norm is in part tactical: Whenever populists break such norms, they attract the univocal condemnation of the political establishment. And this of course proves that, as advertised, the populists really do represent a clean break from the status quo.

Fair enough, but one cannot offer this cynical explanation without offering the far more reasonable corollary – that if the existing political system and institutions had successfully kept his own worldview and preferred policies at the political margins despite significant public support, then he too might have just cause to believe that a deeper bias exists and that institutions really do need comprehensive reform or abolition.

“The People vs Democracy” is strong where it analyses the economic forces behind populism, going further than issuing the usual misleading banalities uneducated working class citizens voting against their own interests:

The most straightforward markers of economic well-being do not predict whether somebody voted for Trump or for Clinton. Whereas Americans who saw Trump favourably had a mean household income of nearly $82,000, for example, those who viewed him unfavourably had a household income of a little over $77,000. Similarly, Trump supporters are “less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time” than other people in the sample. In short, the popular media narrative according to which Trump primarily appealed o the poor and the lowly just doesn’t hold up.

[..] But when we turn our attention from the attributes of particular voters to the places in which they live and the fates they likely face, it becomes clear that economic factors do mater. For one, voters who favour Trump are much less likely to hold a college degree or to have a professional job – which implies that they have a much better reason to fear that their economic fortunes might decline because of globalization and automation.

Mounk perceptively concludes that at present, countries like Britain and America are vulnerable to populism because they “can no longer offer their citizens a real sense of momentum.” This is prime Stepping Stones territory – only a comprehensive analysis of the challenges facing developed countries (and the complex linkages between them) can hope to restore the kind of positive national momentum which is needed to maintain widespread faith in liberal democracy. Piecemeal efforts to solve discrete issues (or, more realistically, to avoid bad headlines in the media) will always be insufficient. If one acknowledges that the global economy, financial and regulatory environment is so complex as to require a significant technocracy to aid good policymaking then it is ludicrous to believe that the democratic nation state can continue to prosper without any kind of forensically strategic analysis of a country’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Yet far too many governments – Britain’s being one of the most dismally prominent examples – are stuck in neutral, focused on irrelevancies or fighting for political survival rather than maintaining a strategic outlook. And so the key questions raised by Mounk continue to go unanswered:

What do liberal democracies need to do to extend their remarkable record of past stability? Is it enough for them to afford their citizens a decent life? Or do they need to be able to cash in on the old promise, implicitly issued in the long decades of rapidly growing plenty, that each generation will do much better than the one that came before?

How indeed. We will never find out unless our politicians and governments lift their gaze from their navels and initiate a conversation about these pressing questions and the policy solutions required to confront them.

Where Yascha Mounk does offer proposed solutions, they tend to be quite sensible (if sometimes overly hopeful). Much like Mark Lilla, Mounk writes very much from the perspective of a US “liberal” writing for the consumption of other liberals, but he does not spare criticism of his own side. Citing the example of Poland, Mounk warns that splits in the opposition to an authoritarian regime can be instrumental in helping it to cement long-term control, a lesson that many Democratic Party activists might want to consider heeding, given the endless identity politics purity wars roiling the party and pushing them ever further to the left. Mounk’s counsel for liberals to tone down the public mockery of those they disagree with is also sound advice, for nothing shuts down debate and eliminates the possibility of persuasion than a dose of finger-wagging mockery – and this is as true for pro-EU activists in Britain who love to scoff at “uneducated” Brexiteers and deploy their new, racially-tinged “gammon” insult as it is of American leftists who demonise average Trump supporters.

Mounk also writes about the importance of constructing a rival, positive narrative to compete against the populist vision, rather than simply protesting or mocking the populists. At present, far too many of those people connected with the #Resistance in America or the anti-Brexit #FBPE collective in Britain visibly project an image of simply wanting to roll the clock back to the moment before the 2016 presidential election or EU referendum. The ongoing prominence of Democratic Party grandees like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, and even the public utterances of Hillary Clinton herself, project an air of aggrieved entitlement rather than contrition or introspection for their role in bringing us to this point. New, fresh faces are needed, people with charisma, yes, but also the political vision and policy know-how to offer a viable, appealing alternative. As Mounk points out:

To rival the narrative according to which only they can fix the nation’s problems, defenders of liberal democracy have to put forward realistic promises of their own.

[..] the defenders of liberal democracy will not vanquish the populists as long as they seem wedded to the status quo.

[..] To avoid the mistake Clinton made in 2016, defenders of liberal democracy must demonstrate that they take the problems voters face seriously, and seek to effect real change. While they don’t need to emulate the simplistic solutions or pander to the worst values of the populists, they urgently need to develop a bold plan for a better future.

One of the most valuable contributions of “The People vs Democracy” to our discourse is its searching consideration of whether the growing identity politics movement and political activism within academia are truly helping the fight for equality or undermining the basic trust in the institutions of democracy which is necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic nation state.

The net effect of he deliberate failure to inculcate respect and reverence for democracy among young people (and to corrode whatever attachment to democracy does exist) is stark:

Millennials in countries like Great Britain or the United States [..] barely experienced the Cold War ad may not even know anybody who fought fascism. To them, the question of whether it is important to live in a democracy is far more abstract. Doesn’t this imply that, if they were actually faced with a threat to their system, they would be sure to rally to its defense?

I’m not so sure. The very fact that young people have so little idea of what it would mean to live in a system other than their own may make them willing to engage in political experimentation. Used to seeing and criticizing the (very real) injustices and hypocrisies of the system in which they grew up, many of them have mistakenly started to take its positive aspects for granted.

Mounk also inveighs against the current hysteria over “cultural appropriation”:

Far from celebrating the way in which different cultures can take inspiration from each other, the opponents of cultural appropriation implicitly assume that cultures are pure; that they are forever owned by particular groups; and that there should be strict limits on the degree to which they influence each other. In other words, they ultimately think of the culture of particular identity groups in much the same way as right-wing xenophobes who are continually on guard against foreign influences on their national cultures.

Mounk also possesses a more realistic take on nationalism and the nation state than is now common among academia and much of the elite, who tend to see patriotism as outdated and embarrassing at best, and inherently harmful at worst:

The energy on today’s left, by contrast, is increasingly directed toward a radical rejection of the nation and all its trappings: This is the left that delights in 4th of July op-eds entitled “The Making of a Non-patriot”. It is the left that chants “No Trump, No Wall, No USA at all!” And it is also the left that, not content with acknowledging the copious failings of the Founding Fathers, refuses to recognize that they might be defined by anything other than their moral faults.

Mounk, by contrast, favours “domesticating nationalism” and calls for both elites and the Left to embrace a more expansive form of patriotism instead of attacking and ridiculing the symbols and institutions which bind societies together. This sounds good in theory but is hard in practice, given the extreme to which the Democratic Party has moved in America and many activists have moved in Britain.

At its core, “The People v Democracy” identifies many of the same developments, trade-offs and challenges that several others have noted – solving international problems versus defending national sovereignty, the need for technocratic bodies vs the need for democratic input and accountability, for example. Many of these I have also laid out several times in my agitation for a new Stepping Stones Report – a document which, like the original 1977 report which Margaret Thatcher brought with her into 10 Downing Street and was used to help navigate the last great period of discontinuity in Britain – updated to identify and tackle the new challenges of the 21st century.

Yascha Mounk’s book is ultimately a call for people – particularly disaffected leftists and centrists – not to give up on all of the goodness inherent in the liberal democratic nation state just because some of the institutions of government have been temporarily captured by populists. Amy Chua made a similar point at the end of her excellent book “Political Tribes: Group Instinct And The Fate Of Nations”, quoting from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again”:

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free….
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!

Mounk closes by referencing the end of the Roman Republic as a warning example, casting the populists of today as the heirs to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus:

The brand of politics propagated by the Gracchi and perpetuated by their opponents shaped the Roman Republic long after they themselves had left the scene. Every dozen or so years, a new follower was able to capture power. Each time, the norms and rules of the Roman Republic were a little less capable of containing the assault.

There was no one breaking point, no clear moment at which contemporaries realized that their political institutions had become obsolete. And yet, over the course of a tumultuous century, the Roman Republic slowly withered. As the old norms of restraint crumbled, violence spiraled out of control. By the time ordinary Romans recognized that they had lost the freedom to rule themselves, the republic had long been lost.

A prescient warning indeed, particularly because it acknowledges that it often takes two sides to degrade institutions and norms of behaviour. After all, today’s establishment would be the Roman Senate and patricians in this analogy, groups which hardly covered themselves in glory during the period.

Much prevailing opinion still holds that the establishment holds a near-monopoly on wisdom and morality, and that the populist insurgencies we now witness are entirely the result of low-information, uncultured voters being preyed upon by opportunistic leaders with ulterior motives. There is a widespread, arrogant assumption that voter dissatisfaction is somehow displaced, that people do not understand the real causes of their own unhappiness and that elites should be allowed to continue governing as they see fit, explaining to the people why they are wrong rather than adapting to their will. Mounk’s book shows that establishment centrists are every bit as much to blame for our present crisis than the populists they fear.

The danger is that these establishment centrists, driven mad by their sudden fall from power and influence, react not by examining their own flaws and failings but rather by lashing out at their opponents and continuing the loss of faith in democracy whose consequences form the root of their present situation. There is such anger among elites – often (though not always) out of proportion to any so-called populist policy which has yet been proposed or enacted – that many establishment politician and activists will accept nothing less than total defeat of every populist initiative, regardless of merit, which then only confirms the populists’ suspicion of an open conspiracy against them.

Democracy without rights versus rights without democracy. The populists have been heavily scrutinised and fairly criticised for their sometimes cavalier attitude to rights, norms and institutions. When will establishment politicians be held to account for their cavalier attitude toward democracy?

 

Yascha Mounk - The People vs Democracy - book review

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Are Technocrats To Blame For The Rise Of The Know-Nothing Celebrity Politician?

Oprah Winfrey - Golden Globes acceptance speech - MeToo - President Oprah

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.

Dougherty writes:

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.

Dougherty writes:

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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