David Brooks writes of “antipolitics” in relation to the current possibility of Donald Trump getting elected. I think he is absolutely on the nail with this analysis. (I’m writing this the day before the election – if it doesn’t get posted until the result is known, it doesn’t really matter).
I have behind me a substantial amount of time in politics; I joined the then Liberal Party in my teens, and from my early 20s to my 50s was involved in trying to get Liberal and then Liberal Democrat candidates elected to local and national levels. In the process, I managed to clock up over 20 years as a local councillor, so I know from the inside that politics has to involve compromise. In fact, my first elected position was on a council which was, apart from myself, split 50/50 between Labour and Conservative councillors (Labour had one more councillor, as there were 12 in total). I found that I was thrust into the position of intermediary between the two sides, assisted considerably by the facts that on any issue where voting split along strict party lines, at the worst I could, by voting with the Conservatives, force the use of a mayoral casting vote (which was seen as politically negative) or at the best, by voting with Labour where the mayor was conservative (or, for a short while, myself) ensure that a resolution passed, and that the Liberal Democrats were seen as “the centre party”, probably in those days rightly. I hasten to say that I didn’t use that position of unreasonable power, given that I was a minority party councillor, very much, though it did mean that both sides were keen to talk to me!
It wasn’t usually the case that voting split that way, though; many issues were not really party political footballs, and in those debates and votes I felt the system was at its best; we had a set of disparate views, expressed them and argued them, sometimes even winning over one or two of our fellows, and then voted. We had differing points of view, but accepted that and were, on the whole, content that the majority carried the day. Most of the time, however, we were able to adjust what we resolved so as to produce a large majority in favour of anything we resolved, and not uncommonly unanimity, just by taking into account the positions of those who initially dissented.
One of the many reasons I had joined this “centre party” was precisely because I did not like the adversarial nature of the two party system. I had seen policies repeatedly decried by the party in opposition and then, a few years later, adopted by that party to a considerable extent when they came into power. Alternatively, many things which were done by one government would be undone by the next, irrespective of whether there was some merit in the measure, even if it could have benefited by a little tweaking. It was very nice to be instrumental in stopping this happening so much, albeit at a very local level, for a number of years. (OK, I admit that I was not successful in getting the council not to declare itself a nuclear-free zone, which I regarded as an exercise in futility as the council had absolutely no power to do anything about it, and which would merely make the council look stupid. There were a few other such anomalies, but nothing which actually mattered very much.)
Another was that I had decided even in my teens that there were usually not just two sides to any issue. There was almost always at least a third, and often a fourth, fifth or many more ways to look at questions, and forcing everything into a black and white, either/or decision was not going to give decision making the subtlety it really needed. I set out to try to provide additional options wherever possible, as well as trying to force compromise.
It is therefore hugely saddening to see the United States divided into two almost exactly equal camps for whom the other can do no right (whatever the faults of their own side), with elected respresentatives vowing to stop the process of decision making happening altogether – unless, of course, they can get their own way entirely. The UK has managed to get itself into the same position over Brexit. We are in general a little more polite than the general level of political debate in the States, I think, but both Brexiters and Remainers are very adamant in their views, and at the moment the Brexiters are crowing over their very marginal victory and telling those of us who voted “Remain” to shut up and help them leave the EU – no matter what the consequences might be. A very sustantial number of them sound to me a lot like some Trump followers (or, earlier in the US process, some Bernie followers) in that they have little or no idea what the end result may be, but they are so dissatisfied with the current situation that anything is worthwhile to end it. One friend, prior to our Brexit vote, expressed this very well (and she was the only person I heard express what I considered an entirely valid reason, others wanting things which were either contradictory or just downright unachievable); she said “I’m voting Brexit because I want to see the world burn”.
This is entirely rational, if you want to see chaos. I can even sympathise – we are, it seems, stuck with a succession of neoliberal governments (Blair and those allied with him being just as neoliberal as was Thatcher), the gap between rich and poor is increasing, the poor and disadvantaged in our society are becoming poorer and more disadvantaged and neither of the main parties has looked as if it might do anything about that (Labour under Corbyn just might do that, however…). Equally, our membership of the EU makes it more difficult to avoid such neoliberal policies, as witness the treatment of Greece by the EU and the banks. So do trade deals like TTIP, however – and we would probably end up entering deals like that if negotiating without the EU even easier than when in it.
However, I’ve never supported the idea that if you tear down what is existing, even if it is really bad, you are guaranteed of something better. By all means take it to pieces as, when and if you have a clear, workable objective and a reasonable plan for achieving it – a SMART task (specific, measurable, assignable – i.e. who will do what, realistic and time limited). The problem with both Trump followers and Brexiteers is that they have none of these. OK, certain members of each group may think they have them, but on examination those will prove incompatible with the objectives of other members of the group, and frankly I could drive a coach and horses through the gaps in any formulation of such objectives I’ve heard from any Brexiteer or Trump supporter.
I also completely reject the kind of “antipolitics” which seems to be at the root of both movements, or at least a sizeable proportion of each. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, I didn’t like the governments of the day and I didn’t like the local government actions of the day, and it was suggested to me by someone older and wiser than me that if that was the case, and I had no candidate I could bring myself to vote for, I should stand myself. I had to create a local branch of the party of my choice from scratch in order to do that – but that is what I did. Those who hate the way politics is going now have exactly the same outlet for their frustrations – work for a third or fourth party candidate you can believe in, or if there isn’t one, stand yourself.
Don’t try to wreck the democracy we have in the vain hope that something better will come about. As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst system of government – apart from all the others that have been tried…