Don’t fight fire with fire

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There is much to recommend in Amy Davidson’s “Brexit should be a warning about Donald Trump”. I certainly do hope that the warning is heeded and strengthens the coalition against him. But there is also an example of a difficult contradiction in the emerging “intellectual” consensus on how to think about our current politics.

But the word “rigged,” or its local variations, is probably the key one on both sides of the Atlantic. Both Trump and Farage and his allies have made openly racist and ethnic appeals. The European Union is a great idealistic project, and it is a tragedy that it might be torn down now. A lesson for Americans is that fortified idealistic structures can be torn down, by means of some of the same wrecking tools Trump has been willing to deploy, even if those who are considered the serious people, in a country that reminds us of our own, warn against doing so. One pattern seen in the Brexit results was a disconnect between party leaders—in all of the major parties—and their bases. Sneering is not going to save the republic.

I don’t disagree with the premise, explored more elsewhere in Davidson’s essay, that there has been insufficient government support for those who have suffered under structural change in the economy.

But the idea that non-populist politicians are “sneering” at the public plays directly into the hands of the very populist politicians that the article is railing against. It concedes the terms of the debate: it concedes them to the anger that in our present moment seems so all-consuming.

Tell me, who is “sneering”? Is the problem really that political leaders are insufficiently aware about what their base is thinking and experiencing? Is the problem just one of poor policy-making coming home to roost? Or is the problem that fear, anger and bromides are easier to sell? That it’s harder to sell super-ego than id?

One criticism that surely cannot be leveled at Trump and Farage is that they are disconnected from their bases. Bernie Sanders seems pretty connected to his base, too, and his claims that the Democratic nominating process is “rigged” are not doing us much good at the moment either.

There was no realistic chance of Britain coming to a decision to leave the European Union through its normal political processes. Only David Cameron’s comically misguided decision to put this to a referendum could have delivered this. Now: is that an indictment of the normal political processes, or praise for them?

The Proposition system broke California. The Economist’s excellent 2011 article that alleged California to be “ungovernable” said that:

Proper democracy is far more than a perpetual ballot process. It must include deliberation, mature institutions and checks and balances such as those in the American constitution.

As deliberation and mature institutions continue to be hollowed out, as political parties lose and cede influence and power, as throbbing anger crowds any other tone out of the public sphere, we must try to stand up for the type of discourse and society that we want. I’m not trying to claim the moral high ground—politics and politicians often make me angry too. And there’s nothing wrong with expressing that. But a little anger goes a long way. We share a civic responsibility to deliver more.

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