A common response to Brexit, Trump, and the gradual re-emergence of fascist views, has been the idea of “political failure”. Whether you call them “the elite”, “the establishment” or “the political class”, the prevailing thrust of articles, tweets and intelligent-sounding conversations has been that something that was once powerful has failed. Anger is the keyword, and politicians are held to have caused this anger by ignoring or marginalising huge swathes of the electorate.
There is some truth in it. But two niggling concerns have led me to my keyboard to try to move the debate forwards.
Firstly, the re-emergence of openly held right wing views is what large sections of the elite have long wanted.
Media oligarchs, tax-dodging financiers and opportunist politicians from numerous parties have been dog-whistling to our self-preserving instincts for decades or more. Trump and Brexit seem to herald the arrival of yet more old-money, climate-denying racists to government posts in both countries. From the perspectives of these elites, the political system has succeeded. The tactics behind each victory were those of protest politics, but the effect is to consolidate the position of old money. When someone on TV says “the elite has failed”, try to ask yourself whether the speaker represents a rival strand of the elite before you nod.
Secondly, politics abhors a vacuum. Something always happens next, for better or worse. We can’t just go shopping for a new politics, nor should we sit back and roll our eyes. What does “political failure” even mean?
Does it mean a system that is beleaguered by opaque structures, or beset by corruption, as in Italy? Does it mean that the government has failed to recognise public opinion? Does it mean that there is enough mutual contempt and distrust that a country is at risk of teetering into civil unrest? Can the term “political failure” describe any of the Arab Spring countries? If so, who failed and why?
What happened in Britain and the USA recently is that corporate money took control of politics, and the electorate made duff decisions, under duress from a biased media and the forces of disinformation (aka “post truth”). Depending on who you listen to, Trump and Brexit are either symptoms or the antidote.
But we cannot afford to think of any of this as mere “failure”. Politics in Britain and the USA is teetering towards catastrophe. Any remaining pretence that these countries exemplify virtue over the rest of the world must now, finally, be wound down. Vague notions about failure get us nowhere; such talk might only help the reactionary forces we oppose.
It is not good enough to talk about failure without also suggesting a way forward. There are a few steps that both politicians and ordinary people can take to counteract the forces of disinformation. These include:
• Engaging with all sections of the population. We need high turnout at elections, underpinned by large grassroots movements.
• Talking continually about politics. Steer every conversation that you can onto climate change.
• Getting people reading, researching, debating and thinking about politics.
• Fighting to reform the unfair elements of the system: the House of Lords, the European Commission, the US Electoral College and their equivalents. Democracy has to be seen to be fair. Don’t defend the indefensible.
If the left does triumph in 2020, then, and only then, should we talk about “the failure of the elite”, and “the out of touch neoliberal classes”.