The Last Laugh: As Plato predicted, more than 2,000 years ago, a democratic citizenry that loses faith in its own efficacy will voluntarily entrust its destiny to the first demagogue who learns to speak its language of despair. In 2016, this annus horribilis, those demagogues’ names were Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.
THIS WAS THE YEAR that democracy failed. The year that, in the English-speaking world at least, citizens stopped being citizens. Exactly what we are turning into is not yet clear, but it’s unlikely to be anything good.
This is a harsh judgement, and hopefully, in our own case, a premature one. In the case of the United Kingdom and the United States, however, it is more than fair. The Brexit decision and the Trump triumph, on their own, constitute more than sufficient evidence to warrant the indictment of both the British and the American electorates.
If it is to work at all, democracy requires a citizenry who both understand and value the principles of representative government. An interested citizenry, who take care to inform themselves about what is happening in their country – and why. A well-educated citizenry, who seek after the truth and cannot be swayed by the cheap falsehoods and even cheaper promises of demagogues and charlatans. A proud citizenry, who prize the scientific, technological and cultural achievements of their nation’s history. A decent citizenry, unwilling, on principle, to use the franchise as a means of inflicting shame and injury upon individuals, groups and organisations which a fraction (maybe even a majority) of them distrust.
In all the long history of the world there has never existed a body of citizens which fitted perfectly this idealised description of a democratic people. Prior to 2016, however, there have always enough of them in the United Kingdom and the United States to ensure that the moral trajectories of those nation states traced an upward course.
The British people overcame the power of their kings and wrenched a welfare state from the pockets of a reluctant capitalist ruling class. The American people, likewise, made good the promises of their Declaration of Independence and abolished slavery – even if they had to fight a bloody civil war to do it. In the 1930s, rejecting the extremes of left and right, they embraced Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and, in the 1960s and 70s, as the world’s most affluent society, they gave birth to the “New Social Movements” of racial and sexual emancipation and environmentalism.
While in both the United Kingdom and the United States the popular struggle for human rights and social progress has endured many difficulties and delays, it has never been decisively reversed. As Dr Martin Luther King reassured all those still fighting for their share of the American dream: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
Or, so we thought, until this horrible year.
Who is to blame?
The very question is emblematic of our malaise. So much of what went wrong in 2016 is attributable to an ever-increasing number of citizens’ furious quest for the causes of their besetting nightmares. Immigrants, Muslims, the undeserving poor, liberals, conservatives, Clinton, Trump: the dread creatures of our unease wear many faces. All of them, however, have one thing in common – they are to blame.
Progressives like to blame globalisation and its ideological bodyguard, neoliberalism. They point to devastated regions and hollowed-out communities filled with men and women psychologically paralysed by their diminished status and security. People mired in a crippling nostalgia for their vanished life-worlds. People frightened of the future. People hungry for some kind – any kind – of social and political revenge.
We are losing faith in collective efficacy. For the second time in a century, the future threatens. The first was after World War I, when the progressive belief that dramatic economic and technological change could be turned to the advantage of ordinary people, by ordinary people, faltered – and with it their faith in democracy. In Europe this disillusionment fuelled the rise of dictators. In the English-speaking world, however, ordinary people’s faith in democracy endured, and the totalitarian dictatorships were defeated.
In the twenty-first century, totalitarianism wears a different mask. Economic and technological change are no longer means to collective emancipatory ends, they’ve become ends in themselves. Winners find a place in the free-market system; losers get spat out. Thirty years of this inhuman political calculus have convinced voters that while they might change parties, they cannot change policies.
Except they can. Not in the progressive spirit of their ancestors, but in the spirit of an ignorant, illiberal and recklessly vengeful nihilism. If the “Establishment” urges them to remain in the European Union, then they’ll vote for Brexit. If Donald Trump represents the antithesis of everything the Establishment’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, stands for, then: “Let’s make America great again!”
As Plato predicted, more than 2,000 years ago, a democratic citizenry that loses faith in its own efficacy will voluntarily entrust its destiny to the first demagogue who learns to speak its language of despair. In 2016, this annus horribilis, those demagogues’ names were Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 December 2016.