And so the world continues to digest and analyse the imminent Trump presidency, the latest in a series of populist victories that represent an impulsive rejection not just of the political classes but of the systems and institutions they have built over the second half of the twentieth century. There are many questions to come from this and we have already seen some intelligent and insightful contributions to the discourse from which we will take our answers but perhaps the second most important question we should ask, after “What’s going on?” is “What do we do now?”
As every average academic will tell you – if you want to appear smart you should always respond to a question with another question that asks the original questioner to define a part of their question better! In the spirit of annoying responses everywhere let’s start with the obvious response to “What do we do now?”: “Who are we?” The old left-right dichotomy is not enough for a good understanding of our allies, as I discussed in my writing on the factors that influenced Trump and his global cohort. The divide can be broadly analysed among other demographic lines. Young-old, urban-rural, educated-non educated, white-people of colour. It is important to note these are demographic tendencies but not destinies and they are flexible depending on location. They’re descriptive generalisations, useful for analysis but dangerous to use as prescriptive preconceptions with which to make ignorant assumptions. There are old, rurally based, white high school drop outs who voted with enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton and there are young, urban, doctorate students of colour who voted for Brexit. The analysis of the general patterns should only serve as an influence on strategy, not as a tool for prejudice. Given this broad coalition of allies, the only real thing that binds us together is an element of our world view. We may disagree on politics, tactics, historical analysis of the things that led us here and we may find that the differences between us are so large as to render co-operation difficult. But we must remember our commonalities. We share a belief in an outward looking, co-operative view of humanity and the world in which we live. We believe in unity over division and equality of opportunity as a normatively valuable objective, though we often disagree on to what extent that is true. Equality more generally does not seem to be as big an issue and in this respect we should envisage the battle of ideas for our shared conceptualisation of the world as a culture war and not a class war.
The first thing, the most crucial thing we have to do is to find each other and to talk to each other. An effective response to the false explanations, intolerance and isolationism that are finding power in their extremism will not be created by people who agree with each other. It will be only be successful if it incorporates the voices of people who are not historical or natural allies. Laissez faire free marketeers and democratic socialists might now find themselves on the same team. Their visions of what we hope to achieve by working together will be radically different. It is crucial not to devolve into in-fighting and to retain a sense of proportion. This is a battle for rationality, for respect, it’s in defence of the progress we’ve made and in recognition of the work yet to be done. Those that oppose those values are the ones we must defeat, those fighting alongside us might look, think and act very different to ourselves but we have those values in common. In promoting this, the first set of assumptions and behaviours we must examine are our own. Personally, my own tendency towards tribalism and elitism is going to be hard to overcome but needs must and the stakes have been upped in a way many of us didn’t think possible a decade ago. Achievements we took for granted are being reversed so it’s time, perhaps, to cling onto the shoulder of anyone willing to work to resist that process. I always said, as I moved away from the far left in my twenties that I saw so many contradictions within that political space and so many parallels with other extremists that I wanted no part in it but that if the day ever came to man the barricades I wouldn’t have to think twice about which side I was on. I didn’t think that day was a possibility, I was wrong.
But the challenge of fighting back the rising tide that seeks to divide the world into a series of competing silos and burn the bridges that have helped to rein in the worst instincts of our nature requires strategic thinking. This strategy must be agreed and broadly understood amongst ourselves. The only time a team is more than the sum of its parts is when working together toward a commonly understood objective. It’s important to think of strategy not as a specific plan. It is not tactical. It is impossible to think such a diverse group could ever collaborate or co-operate on even the most basic collective organisation but we must all agree, roughly at least, on where we’re going and how we’re getting there. The tactics can adapt and differ but if we diverge on strategy we risk being counter-productive and promoting internal conflict. It seems to me that there are two main options.
The first is to engage. To talk. To build bridges. A lot of the commentary from the losing side of these elections has focussed on this need to understand the people who act and vote in ways that seem completely unjustifiable. Certainly this approach might help to bring back some civil discourse on a national level. To begin to do this we will need to abandon our own caricatures and understand that not everyone’s main motivation for voting for populists, especially far right populists, is malicious. We will need to recognise that the other side is as diverse and multi-dimensional as we are. Their evidence base may be different and often objectively less empirical but their motivations often align with our own. We will need to see the people who vote for isolationism and division as the diverse group it is. From genuine despicable racists to scared pensioners surrounded by a world they don’t understand via hard working households who see the promises made to them broken and a world that doesn’t care how much of a struggle it is to survive. I once described Trump as the death throes of privilege. I maintain there’s a large element of that informing his support but if we take this approach of engagement it is necessary to recognise quite how scary the process of equality can be to those with privilege. There is surely some truth to the idea that people who were brought up to believe that they simply had to avoid actively doing harm in order to be a good person are now being told that their very passivity is causing harm to those with a structural disadvantage. They feel the goalposts have been shifted and they are lashing out at what they perceive to be an unjustified amount of blame that has been left at their door. Those that promote the idea of understanding and speaking with the politics of grievance need to at least understand that grievance. So this is option number one. Go to places we don’t normally go to, speak to people, hear their concerns, offer solidarity and fraternity in building with them instead of rejecting them because of their refusal to deal in facts they’ve never been taught and with systems of analysis they don’t understand. This approach does not necessarily incorporate appeasement. It should go without saying that everyone must refuse to compromise on red line issues – what those red line issues are, though, may vary from person to person.
Then there is the second option and this is the one I am instinctively inclined to recommend. Let’s label it the “Fuck you, let’s dance” option. It’s basically the same as the previous option it just asserts that the red line is crossed the minute you vote for a Le Pen or a Trump or a Farage or an Orban. It says that I understand that your motivations may not have been born of explicit prejudice or intolerance but nonetheless you have chosen to side with prejudice and intolerance so that is how you have defined yourself. Some may consider this an inferior strategy for two main reasons. The first is that it fosters further polarisation and the more that is encouraged the likelier this politics of grievance is to lead to violence. Possibly even genuine widespread war-like levels of violence. The second is that with the electoral defeats recently suffered, the suggestion is that we are at a slight disadvantage and that by refusing to build bridges we abandon our responsibility to persuade and convince. I understand both arguments and, rationally, I think more level heads will prevail but I also see value in standing firm and not budging. I see demographics on my side. I see urbanisation as a continuing trend globally and hope that we are creating a metropolitan way of living that affects our social and political thinking. I see age demographics meaning that every year kills off more people who react with intolerance to this world just because they don’t understand it. I understand, just like the Republican party that sees their President winning by martialling the white vote in a country where the white vote is ever decreasing in importance, that time is on our side. We are modern and multicultural and educated and the numbers shift more in our favour with every day that passes. The next few years might be rocky but if we focus on ourselves and our own movement we can essentially wait out the reactionaries. Of course this is easy to say from the point of view of a writer less vulnerable than a lot of social groups but I hardly think the soul searching “how can we talk to people who support regressive populism?” approach empowers the poor, sick and oppressed. Standing up and fighting them every step of the way, safe in the knowledge that the judgement of history and the trends in social make up are both on our side, might be just what we need to do if we truly care about those marginalised groups. If we actually care about equality of opportunity. This doesn’t mean we should seek to understand our opposition any less. It’s important to try and build an accurate picture of important historical events. It just means we shouldn’t treat the explanation as an excuse. Yes, the world has changed. Yes, the social contract has changed and yes there are traditionally empowered groups who have disproportionately suffered from those changes. But the changes overall were positive and your failure to adapt isn’t the rest of the world’s problem.
Liberals like Bill Maher that criticise student politics or what I refer to as woke culture are perhaps guilty of pandering to the reactionary forces that he claims to oppose. And not because criticism of this culture is misplaced. I’m among the most critical of the inherent contradictions within this holier than thou form of pseudo progressive discourse – safe spaces/trigger warnings do go too far in shutting down freedom of speech. Accusations of cultural appropriation are levelled at the most harmless targets, liberation groups are often divisive and much of the literature and rhetoric turns people off. But the day we start blaming populist victories on the people trying to promote equality and justice just because it makes others uncomfortable is the day we stray into appeasement. The only people responsible for Brexit are the people who voted for Brexit. The only people responsible for Trump or Erdogan or Putin are the people that voted for and support them. The only people responsible for Daesh are the radicalised morons who buy into them. We can look into and work to address the reasons why those people behave in that way but that does not detract from their individual responsibility for doing so. It’s like the age old argument that poverty causes crime. It’s a worthy analysis in as much as it encourages us to address poverty (though the moral imperative to alleviate suffering should be enough) but it doesn’t mean a criminal in poverty should get a lesser sentence.
There is possibly a third option. Whereby we engage in dialogue with people who are supporting this wave of illiberal politics but consider our long term demographic advantage and do so from a position of strength. In this way the dialogue becomes less about partnership and more about negotiation. It allows us to try and halt the polarisation that is vacating the centre ground, discourage violence and remain true to principle. How this practically looks in a global system that’s increasingly being set up as winner takes all, though, I don’t know. In the short term, though, I encourage us to go back to step one. We need to find each other. We also need to speak to people who aren’t engaged with this battle of ideas to, if not attract them to our arguments, at least promote the skills of research and critical analysis that equip them to deal with the false claims that are commonplace from all sides in this fight.
It’s important to start now because the horizon is packed with challenges. There has been a kind of gallows humour mockery of 2016 throughout the year that fails to recognise quite how much worse 2017 could be. If Trump’s victory is the biggest marker of the politics of grievance thus far, 2017 could be the year it asserts its dominance. Trump’s inauguration and first hundred days with a Republican House and Senate giving him freedom and power. The European far right making a play in France where LePen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands and the despicable NDP seeking to destroy Germany’s current position as the world’s strongest defender of enlightened liberal democracy. They all have elections in 2017 that, even if they don’t win, will allow them to amplify their message and paint themselves as part of a wider movement. Climate crises look set to continue their increase in intensity and frequency as part of a trend that has seen the last three years in a row become the hottest on record. We know the results of this trend – food insecurity, suffering, death, conflict and increased global migration. The politics of grievance leave us particularly badly placed to react. Russian expansionism will probably take a while longer to come to fruition given that Putin will see Trump’s election as an opportunity to rid himself of sanctions but the whole world will be holding its breath and watching the Baltic states if NATO is to become weakened in the way many have predicted. Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves is barely still a country and one suspects 2017 is likely to be the year Maduro’s house of cards comes tumbling down. And the event that could overshadow all of that, the 2017 Iranian Presidential election. Set against the backdrop of internal ideological disputes, Iran’s power play in the region, an American President apparently unwilling to support regional allies and an unpredictable future for the JCPOA. 2017 could make 2016 look like the summer of love.
Which is why it’s important to find each other now, to identify alliances that refuse the reductionist, intolerant and dangerous world view that is manifesting itself across the world and remember what’s at stake. We need to find each other and start the discussion about how we react. We’re not pretending to have the answers, we’re just defending the systems and principles we were using to find them.