Let me nail my colours to the mast. On balance, I am in favour of remaining in the EU, and in the USA I’d have voted for Hillary Clinton. I can see some problems with each of these positions, but I can see many many more problems with the option that has actually been chosen. In each case my pros and cons list strongly favoured the progressive choice, because of the potential negative consequences of the other option. But I was in the minority in both cases, and so were half of the electorate (maybe more in the case of Clinton). So rather than just be fed up about that, I want to understand it.
When it comes to Brexit I think it is wrong for the UK to leave the EU for a number of reasons. The unity of many nations ensures that we all maintain basic human rights and the fair rule of law. It prevents the rise of extremists and reduces the risk of international conflict. It was a large single market, and am important strategic alliance. I believe that calling the referendum was a foolish whim from a complacent leader who was too cowardly to face the consequences of his actions. It was supported by xenophobic self-serving politicians and by far-too-influential media moguls with a right wing agenda. I think it has been divisive and stoked xenophobia, as well as causing enormous economic fallout. However, I’m not saying that the EU doesn’t have excessive bureaucracy, or that it hasn’t been excessively harsh on southern European nations like Greece, Portugal and Italy, or that it doesn’t enshrine market capitalism in doctrine.
Likewise I think Donald Trump is a repugnant man whose attitudes to women and minorities are repulsive. He is a sex pest and a tax avoider. His business practices are dishonest, he is a blatant liar and his much touted business acumen is such that he would be three times as rich if he’d just stuck his inheritance into index funds. I find his racist rhetoric abhorrent, and I think he will foster international conflict and unhealthy alliances. So I could never vote for him, and would have voted strategically to avoid him reaching power. However, in choosing Clinton as the lesser of two evils I’m not saying that she doesn’t have vested interests, didn’t support arms sales to the middle east, isn’t associated with numerous scandals or wasn’t stupid to use a private server for her email. In fact I think Obama was right to sum her up in 2008 as someone who would “say anything and change nothing”. If she was running against a more palatable candidate who genuinely supported progressive ideals, I’d be advocating against her. I’m just saying that the idea that Trump could be president was even worse.
In both cases, it was a two horse race, and although I didn’t love either option I felt that one was clearly preferable to the other. That says something about modern politics – that we are voting for the least terrible option, rather than in favour of something we truly believe in. And I want to think a little more about why this is the case. I also want to think a little bit more here about why the results in both these votes went against the polls and against the incumbent business-as-usual candidate, and why the results have been so divisive and triggered such hateful behaviour from segments of the population.
So why did people vote for Brexit and for Trump? It seems that a number of factors contributed. Firstly there were demographic factors – these regressive options particularly appealed to white men and their wives, in areas that have been hit by economic recession. They tapped into a sense that the world is changing and they are being left behind. There was also a real desire for change, not just more of the same select few in the top one percent making all the decisions. The less people feel they have to lose, the more they are willing to gamble that any form of change will be an improvement. Trump carefully marketed himself as an outsider and a voice for change, but that is a carefully designed misrepresentation. It is also contradictory to his simultaneous positioning of himself as a tax-evader and shrewd businessman who is successful and super rich. In reality his businesses face a constant stream of lawsuits for not honouring contracts or dealing with people fairly and it is clear he is out for nobody’s interests but his own. He also has vested interests and hidden agendas all over the place, but this is something we now take as a given for politicians. So how can he connect with the man on the street more than other politicians? The answer seems to be by bucking convention, appealing to the desire for change and speaking in much more simple terms, as well as appealing to fear and self-preservation (some of which sadly overlapped with racism, sexism and homophobia).
Being wealthy and embedded in the establishment is something that also describes the majority of British politicians. Nigel Farage, for example, similarly markets himself as an everyman who always has a pint in his hand, but in reality is a privately educated millionaire ex-banker who claims every EU allowance possible for himself and his German wife, who he employs as his secretary. Cameron led a cabinet of millionaires, and May is herself a millionaire with a network of wealthy donors and has placed even richer men like Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson into her cabinet whilst claiming she will build a fairer Britain that “works for everyone”. They have no idea about the experiences of people who survive on minimum wages or benefits, but they have learnt to talk as if they care, whilst their actions clearly indicate the opposite. And so we have reached a position that everyone in politics is saying much the same things, and nobody appears to be sincere.
One of the big issues of the reaction to the American presidential election result, and to Brexit, is in how we think of ourselves and our fellow voters. It is all too easy to make sweeping brushstrokes about ignorant, selfish, racists. But I’m not convinced that there is as much difference between us as these dichotomous choices imply. Whilst there are some vocal and visible extremists who identify as Brexiteers or Trump supporters, the message clearly resonated with a lot of people in the middle ground who don’t identify with the racist or sexist undertones, but also don’t identify with the current power structure. I suspect a lot of people are fed up with the status quo, and feeling disenfranchised by the current political system. And maybe that has motivated a lot of people to vote for candidates who seem to be anti-establishment, straight-talking and authentic. This Jonathan Pie sketch, which is full of swearing and therefore NSFW, is worth watching.
I can’t say that a desire for change and for authenticity over spin is a bad thing. In fact having sincere politicians who mean what they say and are not motivated by self-interest or masking their true agenda is something that has been sorely lacking in the political arena over the last decade. Likewise a willingness to explore more radical change is something that I would want myself and a lot of more progressive people would support. But in the absence of such messages from the left and centre of the political spectrum, it has instead been harnessed by questionable individuals and causes. And voters have been sufficiently enticed by this message that they have been willing to disregard all of the bile it comes packaged with, a task made easier because it is addressed to groups outside of the main voting demographic. In response the progressive candidate is left to defend these minorities, and ends up looking like they care little for the main group. The regressive candidates and policies make more headlines, perhaps because of bias in the media and lies that have not been sufficiently challenged. Other parties and messages appear reactive, and end up fuelling that discussion rather than presenting their own position.
The more progressive candidates and causes need to work out how to tap into that feeling of disconnection with the establishment and the increasing desire for radical change. If they can do so with policies that will genuinely benefit those who are being left behind in the current austerity politics then they can avert the swing to the right. That will take the right mixture of passion and authenticity, a willingness to be plain spoken about who is to blame for problems, and a push for greater accountability for political claims.
So where now? First, I think we need to learn from our mistakes and not be complacent that progressive politics are now the default position. We need a return to politicians that mean what they say, and speak with authenticity and passion. We need people who get fired up about the issues and speak from the heart, rather than with spin and polish that hide vested interests.
Second, we need to explain that the same few people have all the power and are increasingly gathering the wealth away from everyone else, and to show the economic value of being kind to the more vulnerable sectors of the population. We need to demonstrate that the threat comes from above (the rich and powerful people who control the media and the corporate and private interests that have powerful lobbies that manipulate our political system) not below (immigrants, benefit claimants, people in minority groups). We need to name the organisations and individuals who are spreading hate and cheating the man on the street by avoiding paying their fair share of tax, and turn the rhetoric of blame to more appropriate targets.
Third, we need to show that the system is rigged to support the establishment, and needs to be overhauled. That may mean setting fair boundaries and catchments to prevent gerrymandering, preventing conflicts of interest and restricting lobbying, looking at the terms and roles for nominated unelected officials (eg striking out members of the house of Lords that are not actively involved in political debate) and/or changing the first-past-the-post system.
Fourth, we must hold people and organisations to account for their lies and false claims. We must give consequences for propaganda, misinformation and promises that are not fulfilled. We need to hold politicians to account for the claims that they make, and ensure that they cannot benefit from lies and deception.
Fifth, we must do much more work to engage those who are feeling disenfranchised, rather than excluding them because they have turned their resentment to the wrong place and are being selfish/xenophobic etc. We need to explain the issues, using short clear soundbites rather than long intellectual explanations whenever possible, so that these can be accessible to a wide audience and shared over social media. We need to be down to earth and not make assumptions about underlying knowledge or values. We need to understand that many people are feeling excluded and shamed for not sharing progressive values, and reach out to them starting with empathy for their current situation, their hopes and fears.
But finally, and most importantly, we need to continue to educate our children to be better than the generations that came before them. We can teach kids to care about each other, the environment and social issues and to not discriminate by gender, race, sexuality etc. We need to help them to become critical thinkers who can evaluate what people say and don’t just accept a lie as the truth. Then over time, the population will change, and progress will continue beyond what seems possible in the present.
I can see that right now it seems overwhelmingly sad and frustrating and many people don’t know what to do with those feelings. This negative focus and tendency to turn towards anger and fear is not surprising. We are sensitive to threat, and fear impedes our ability to use empathy and rational analysis. Our brains are programmed to look at immediate risk and the local picture. We are sensitive to potential threats and we easily catastrophise and generate worst case scenarios. We find it hard to conceptualise the bigger picture as this involves timescales outside our own lifetimes, and populations we have never met and can hardly imagine. But my real hope is in the inexorable march towards progress that is happening over the last century around the world. So whilst we seem to have taken a depressing step backwards it is good to remember that progress is often two steps forward one step back.
There has always been a pattern of economic booms and busts, political cycles including changes that seem awful, and international conflicts that kill hundreds of thousands and displace millions. When we focus on these negatives, it feels pessimistic and makes us worry it is all downhill from here. Like a panic attack, we see worst case scenarios and look for escape, rather than realising we can work through it. But over human history we have rebounded from all of these things before, and the same problems have been around before only bigger. For all his hateful rhetoric, Trump isn’t Hitler. Although he is set to enact policies that are homophobic and xenophobic, he has already backed away from some of his more extreme claims, and even in a worst case scenario he won’t kill millions of people. And like with May as Prime Minister here, things will continue much like normal for most people. I’m not dismissing the horrible impact of the rise in prejudice against various minority groups, or the risk of repealing some rights, but in the bigger picture they are temporary and against the overall direction of travel.
When we look at the wider view, the future seems much more optimistic. Science continues to make new discoveries that enhance our health, reduce energy consumption, deal with environmental issues and better understand our place in the universe. Technology and access to information and media are allowing people all round the world to access information and different perspectives. Life expectancy has increased remarkably (even in the face of increasing obesity bringing a rise in diabetes and heart disease, and austerity politics increasing mental health problems and suicides). Smoking is declining. Cancer treatment is more effective. Deaths from road traffic accidents are steadily falling. Even HIV is now treatable and prophylactic medication is available. Despite the constant headlines that make us feel otherwise, deaths from homicides have fallen over time in Europe and wavered and then fallen in the USA. Deaths from wars have massively decreased over time, and even the horrible events in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are of a smaller scale than previous international conflicts. More and more nations have democracy, women’s rights, gay rights, access to justice and protection of human rights. I believe that the future for humanity is one of steady progress with temporary set-backs. And we should never forget that from enough distance we are just a pale blue dot.