Post truth society? As Ian Parsley notes on his blog this morning, we’ve have had a predilection for it here in Northern Ireland for as far back as anyone can remember. And we’re not alone. In 1956, speaking about writing, Ernest Hemingway noted in interview:
Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him. It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.
So, I have few sympathies for the liberal angst so acutely rendered by Sam yesterday. As I noted in my own follow-up to the election at the time, the DNC massively overplayed an already weak hand by engineering Clinton’s primary victories against any credible rivals.
Here’s Thomas Frank writing the morning after:
…Democratic leaders made Hillary their candidate even though they knew about her closeness to the banks, her fondness for war, and her unique vulnerability on the trade issue – each of which Trump exploited to the fullest.
They chose Hillary even though they knew about her private email server. They chose her even though some of those who studied the Clinton Foundation suspected it was a sketchy proposition.
To try to put over such a nominee while screaming that the Republican is a rightwing monster is to court disbelief. If Trump is a fascist, as liberals often said, Democrats should have put in their strongest player to stop him, not a party hack they’d chosen because it was her turn.
Choosing her indicated either that Democrats didn’t mean what they said about Trump’s riskiness, that their opportunism took precedence over the country’s well-being, or maybe both.
So they got a proper slapping particularly from an electorate that, if the segmented polling is still anything to go by, had come out for Obama in the last two elections. Any post-fact justification from Democrat’s for Hillary’s poor performance should be taken with a small bag of salt.
The question is why such a large and widespread group of voters were content, if not to actually vote, then to see a candidate of Donald Trump’s background and calibre safely into the White House. What must they have thought of Hillary Clinton?
I don’t discount the fears about where all of this may be leading. But the real danger to US Democracy is a media that has appears to have lost contact with the real world, and a Democratic party which is losing a grip its base so badly, it’s gone to ‘a monster‘.
There were signs of a post-truth world already. For the Obama administration, “hope and change” was enough to fetch him a PR prize in 2008, and a Nobel Prize for Peace before he’d even lifted a finger to do anything.
Now, as we stumble on the wrong (zero gravity) side of Alice’s Looking Glass, we’re gutted/surprised when a scion of the American oligarchy has gotten into the White House on a pro-Working Class ticket to, ahem, drain the swamp? (VIDEO: Mark Blyth on Trumpism.)
The most sane comment since 8th November, that I’ve seen, has been this today from Michael (Lord) Ashcroft, writing for the website he still owns, Conservative Home (pay close attention ‘liberals’):
You’d think the world had come to an end. Anguished commentators have reacted to the US election as though it heralds the end of liberal democracy as we know it. The result was undeniably dramatic and will have consequences we can’t foresee.
But I think the explanation for it is rather more prosaic: like every electorate everywhere in the world, American voters had a choice of imperfect outcomes, and they took a deep breath and made it.
As is always the case, some are horrified by the voters’ decision – but their grief has carried them away, and is preventing them from learning the right lesson from Donald Trump’s victory.
He goes on:
In just over a decade of research, I have made something of a study of how losing political movements react to defeat. Though circumstances differ, most have one thing in common: they claim, at least inwardly, a moral victory.
This is particularly the case for parties that have been ejected from government. They comfort themselves with the notion that the electorate did not properly appreciate their achievements in office, failed to understand what was at stake, had been bamboozled by a partisan media, and did not realise the horrors that lay in store for them under the incoming administration.
It follows that the voters will come flocking back just as soon as they recognise their terrible error of judgment – and that in the meantime, the party need only hold firm to its previous positions, though perhaps with a bit more presentational pizzazz.
A more extreme form of this condition is the belief that large numbers of voters have not simply been misled, but have quite deliberately behaved very badly indeed. Consciously rejecting virtue and reason, through base motives of greed or prejudice they have knowingly chosen the dark side.
Here’s the critical bit:
Needless to say, both of these mindsets lead inevitably to further defeat. The path to victory only begins with a proper understanding of why you lost. The longer Trump’s opponents stick to the theory that his voters were motivated by misogyny and racism (ignoring the fact that the states he flipped had elected and then re-elected Barack Obama), the longer they will be in the wilderness.
*They should also reflect their own part in bringing about the result that so dismays them*.
If this last feels like a rebuke, that’s because it’s extremely well-aimed. It may be just Ashcroft’s opinion, but it also happens to be based on: 1, a ton of research; and 2, a goodly amount of old-fashioned nous. Whatever your political disposition, do go and read it right through to the end.
Trump gets to do what he wants if his liberal opponents choose to continue providing him with the chance to do so. And he will if they only focus on what someone in one of Ashcroft’s ‘groups of African-American voters called the “rich white person problem” of climate change’.
People aren’t as dumb as ‘experts’ and the press – with their heavy addiction to high volume polling – often presumes they must be. Nor are they much moved by the constant re-presentation of ‘cold data’, sonorously ‘informing’ them that the world is other than the visceral way they experience it.
What should worry those on the left is that their drift towards irrelevance appears part of a general trend. This populist surge may have a long way to go yet. Maurice (Lord) Glasman writing in the New Statesmen a couple of weeks back argued that UK Labour needs to return to its roots:
Without Labour, right-wing populism will grow and become the alternative to the status-quo. That is the danger. Like capitalism, nationalism needs to be domesticated through an engagement with and not a rejection of its existence.
Solidarity is generated by a sense of a shared fate and that is shaped by building common democratic institutions. Solidarity cannot be demanded from people, it must be felt and earned.
We need to pursue the good and to be guided by our tradition and history. That is the best guide to the future. And we need some faith in the goodness of the people, that they are yearning for a human life of love and work, of fulfilment and relationships.
There’s a reverberative echo of these sentiments in Brian Cowen’s words ten years ago, when speaking about the rebels of Easter 1916:
…they were all about the idea that the Irish people should be allowed to evolve. To use a more modern concept, they believed in empowering the Irish people to control their own destiny. They were not Luddites seeking to stop progress and they did not reject the outside world.
There is an almost limitless number of areas where the Ireland of today has changed beyond recognition in the last eighty years. We have lost valuable things, but we are also seeing unprecedented progress in many areas.
Historic missions matter, but listening probably matters more. And in many parts of the west Liberals and the centre left generally have stopped listening. That’s why Ashcroft’s advice has resonance beyond the US:
Condemning the voters for their gullibility or wickedness might make you feel better but it isn’t going to change anybody’s mind. Real people have real worries. If you don’t respond to them, someone else will – and you might not like what happens next.
Self-pitying self-justification of beaten liberals is useless in defeat. It happened to UK Labour some six years ago, and they are still on the downward trajectory. In the case of the SDLP and the UUP in Northern Ireland it’s getting on for twenty.
Particularly in the open feedback loops the digital era, there’s no inevitable turn, or swing back which automatically turns things back to the status quo ante, even though that appears to be a broad and fundamental assumption across the collapsing centre left these days.
One of the notable exceptions to this rule has Micheal Martin’s Fianna Fail. It’s bounce back owes a lot to the fact that for the first eighteen months after a Pasok style collapse in February 2011 Martin put most of his time into re-engaging with the party’s activist base, and its local voters.
Apart from occasional apologies for leading the country into a lasting recession, the party (unlike UK Labour) had the sense not to burden the Irish electorate with excuses it did not want to hear. Instead it listened, wherever and whenever it could find a hearing (which, to begin with, was rare).
In February’s general election, the first indications I heard that trust might be getting restored in the party, was when candidates began to report that they were being invited back into people’s kitchens again.
So it turns out that all politics really is local, if only because that’s where real people (as opposed to specialists and experts) live, and it’s an aggregation of real people that make up our electorate.
The key is connecting to that electorate, and as Ed Straw argues both in his piece on the NHS for Slugger and in his book Stand and Deliver A Design for Successful Government, government must aligns its resources and powers to evolve towards those expressed needs.
Above all, politics is not a lifestyle choice or some hippy form of self-actualisation: it’s really about us, not me. The sooner the liberal-centre and the centre-left learn these harsh lessons, the sooner they’ll have a genuine political basis from which push back.