Monday, November 28, 2016

Behold our Western democracies

            Alarm bells are ringing in, the Western world. An intruder armed with malice is on his way to the White House. Each of his moves draws a torrent of ill-favoured comment; every cabinet appointment offers further proof of malign intent. Tub-thumping increases in volume as the usurper’s enthronement draws near with media stars, academics, journalists, many of them blessed with the gift of eloquence, belabouring us daily with the idea that populism has triumphed over common sense and the common good. Too many Americans have been hoodwinked by lies and demagoguery; and for that matter too many Brits - those who voted for Brexit - have been duped by extravagant promises and chauvinistic appeals to self-interest. An overwhelming question forms on every dissenting lip: what must be done to stop all this. So runs much of the background noise.
            What lies behind the shock results of these two plebiscites? Why do firebrands like Nigel Farage, Steve Bannon, Trump himself - or ridiculous figures like Alexander “Boris” Johnson, Daniel Hannan and Jacob Rees-Mogg  - appear to have gained traction among people they like to call “ordinary”?
            Perhaps we should remind ourselves that demagogues find no nourishment where there is contentment, nor where, even in the face of difficulty, the majority feel understood and respected by their representatives. They thrive in fields left fallow and neglected by government, where the privileged few wallow in superfluous wealth while the many must live where hope is in short supply, and insecurity and privation have become the wages of democracy.
            People who voted for Trump and Brexit are not simple-minded malcontents prey to any rabble-rouser with a microphone. They have simply reacted to economic injustice, lack of adequate status, a sense of injury and indignation that those in whom they have entrusted their welfare and that of their children have ignored and betrayed them.  Perpetrators of that betrayal have been successive governments operating in cahoots with the captains of finance and industry. These are the true inmates of Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables,  of which she, too, is a member.
            Deepening inequality is perhaps the clearest evidence of the social divisions that have produced Trump and Brexit  in their respective domains. In his final state of the union address, President Obama lamented the rise of inequality and the desirability of an  “…economy that works for everyone.” - words that Theresa May echoed from the steps of No.10 in her inaugural remarks to the nation as UK Prime Minister. Obama recently told a Greek audience that inequality is the greatest threat to democracy, a Damascene revelation that he took two full presidential terms to articulate and then only in the wake of Donald Trumps electoral victory. Laudable sentiments from both leaders no doubt, but they beg the question of why, during Obama’s eight years in the White House and May’s six years in Cameron’s cabinet, they presided over an increase in what they now pretend to deplore.
            Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz noted in a recent report that governments are perfectly capable of counteracting the growth of inequality - and its handmaiden poverty - if they will; but their policies have actively promoted the opposite - a conclusion supported by Professor John Weeks’ recent piece in Open Democracy. Whether by neglect, design or sheer incompetence they have fostered unfairness, deprivation, and misery - and where the old dispensation survives, as in the UK, they plan to continue doing so.  Trump suggested during his campaign that the US electoral system was rigged; but what has truly been rigged is an economic system geared to rewarding the already wealthy and making the poor pay for downturns.
                        Inequality and marginalisation are not the only beefs against the political class. On both sides of the Atlantic, voters are repelled by State activities that are not just unpopular but repeatedly show up decision-making incompetence and a lack of moral judgment. Here are some:
-        A  determination to commercialise public life and to submit social welfare to the vagaries of competition;
-        Genuflection to big business and finance - with political office functioning as a route to personal enrichment;
-        Military interventionism - led by the US but with the UK as lieutenant - in which modern weaponry is deployed against stricken countries, and innocent victims are anodised as “collateral damage”.
-        Foreign policies towards countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Ukraine that are marked by ignorance, dithering and bewilderment;
-        In the UK, a government and opposition embarrassingly lost in a fog of confusion on Brexit; in the US, a similar confusion about international trade deals that effectively leaves big business and labour at loggerheads;
-        A potentially dangerous cold war with Russia, and possibly with China in the South China Sea;
-        Refusal to face up to the challenge of climate change and protectionism towards industries that damage the environment;
-        Wavering incoherence towards the growing problem of human migration;
-        Persistent, bare-faced lying to the electorate - nowhere more evident than in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election campaigns.

            Plenty of flak is being hurled in Trump’s direction - but so far, at least, his sins are largely of word rather than deed. Those of the political class, by contrast, are part of our lived experience and they have been demonstrably unpleasant, disabling, divisive, careless of the welfare of citizens in their own and in other countries, and in some cases outright dangerous.
            Born into an impoverished working-class family,  I am a life-long left-winger. My education I owe entirely to the UK welfare state. I am reasonably well-read in the literature of the left and have more than dipped into that of the right. I am an unabashed admirer of the brilliant figures who spearheaded US independence from Great Britain and who wrote the US constitution. My political heroes include Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton,  Clement Attlee and, of course, Fidel.
            During the US election, I asked myself how I would vote if I were a citizen of that country. I thought of Trump’s insulting outbursts against Mexicans, against Muslims and against women, his vile mimicry of a disabled person, his airy dismissal of climate change, his egomania and brittleness. The foulness of his campaign, however,  could not erase in my mind the callous and venal record of the Obama years. Nor as a lifelong student of Latin America, could I overlook the outgoing administration’s incessant interference in that region, not least Hillary Clinton’s support for the 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted President Zelaya, and the absurd designation of Venezuela as an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”  My answer, disagreeable to my own conscience, is that I would probably abstain, but that if I had decided to vote, it might well have been for Trump if only because he, at least, had not yet betrayed the people and thus offered a smidgin of hope that he might modify his extreme opinions under the constraints of office. Clinton, on the other hand, offered only more of the same and thus no hope at all. Repentance would assuredly have followed, no matter which of the three alternatives I chose. If I had put my cross against Trump’s name, my subsequent sense of shame would probably have discouraged me from admitting it - even more so after his ignorant and menacing response to the death of Fidel Castro. There were no good options. France’s forthcoming presidential election may present French citizens, those on the left at any rate, with a similar dilemma next year. Meanwhile, the UK is governed by a Prime Minister the people haven’t elected, running a government programme for which no one voted, and who prefers the royal prerogative to parliamentary sovereignty.
 Behold the state of Western democracy.

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