As the Brexit process grinds its way toward an unknown conclusion and the Trump administration comes unglued, it is worth reminding ourselves how two nations that regard themselves as the exemplars of free peoples could arrive in this current state of affairs.
First published in February 2019.
The thought has many parents, and it is pleasing enough to claim that we are two nations, Britain and the United States, separated by a common language, but the truth is that we are two socioeconomic layers, regardless of borders, separated by a number, namely that which represents our wealth, be it dollars or pounds. And what none of the major parties on either side of the Anglo-American pairing have faced is what the elections of 2016 mean.
The easiest conclusion, drawn by the left, is that the supporters of leaving the European Union and of Donald Trump are reactionary racists who wish to drag us back to a particular bleached decade. The problem with this is not that it is entirely wrong. There is enough truth here to conceal the rest, enough to allow the left to congratulate ourselves over how correct we are. But there is more, and if we expect to win again, we have to address this.
But not all attitudes that pass for racist are identical, nor is everything called racist actually so. Some racists consciously believe that ancestry is destiny, that culture and potential for achievement is determined by genes. In that view, whether or not one race is better than another, they are different in ways that cannot and should not be mixed. And then there is the feeling that someone who works multiple jobs to pay for the medical care of a sick child has when noticing that working hard is not the way to get ahead. As Howard Zinn and others have pointed out, it is no trick to convince such a person that minority groups are the ones who are causing all the hard luck, not the people in power.
Hillary Clinton and Brussels represent for a lot of ordinary people an elite who have no interest in what works for us. Before shouting that this is a misconception, consider how globally entangled corporations, economic policies, and monetary supplies affects the wealthy as opposed to the rest. When the top twenty percent of the population in the United States owns eighty-seven percent of the wealth and when a similar situation exists in the United Kingdom, the people are justified in observing that the system may be rigged for the benefit of the few.
In the false dichotomy of politics that we live under, the choice we have is between an unresponsive elite — whether they are labeled liberal or conservative — and the populism that drifts off into mob rule. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair offered a third way, a political movement that substituted marketing for substantive policy — see Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Selffor a review of their methods — and Barack Obama employed the technique to get into office and then turned to competent management to stay there. In 2016, we endured a contest between a technocrat and a demented troll. But the idealist in me wants to believe that there is a meaningful escape from the dilemma of establishment Democrats and bomb-throwing Republicans.
A real third way would not necessarily be anything new. The Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society are examples of movements and policies that made improving life for ordinary people a core of the effort. And those were a logical implementation of liberalism, whether classical or more recent. Classical liberalism is a term used today to cloak libertarianism in more appealing garb. But if we accept the premise that all human beings have basic rights, as John Locke and his American disciple, Thomas Jefferson, asserted, it is no great leap to move past that claim to a belief that we should extend opportunity and the benefits of a wealthy society to the greatest number of its members.
Healthcare and education are the prime examples of how to do that in contemporary political debate, and many Republicans cannot find a war or a tax cut that they do not support and many Democrats get bogged down in the minutiae of bureaucratic clockwork in lieu of what can in fact be simple — everyone is covered and everyone who meets basic qualifications may attend — it is no wonder that voters are ready to smash the system.
The fact that a populist gloss could convince a sufficient number of Americans to put Donald Trump into the White House tells me that genuine populism — a platform that has the needs and achievement of all as its driving purpose — can win. Crazy as a third party came within range of winning in 1992, and crazy in a major party won in 2016. If someone sane were to translate popularity into a political machine to get names on ballots in every state, that person has an opportunity to earn the presidency and to pull into Congress legislators in the progressive mold.
Throughout my days of political awareness, I have heard people endowed with conventional wisdom declare that outsiders cannot win, that we must accept the cliché of the lesser of two evils. But a country that can elect someone who is outside the bounds of morality and competence — and any country that can choose to dissolve the bands that have connected them with either London or Brussels — can also elect a candidate who departs from the norm in the opposite direction. The question is will we.🔷
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