The latest episode of This American Life has got me thinking about the dynamics of modern politics, and not just the 2016 American presidential elections, but the upcoming referendum on the UK’s place in the EU.
In the episode, we’re introduced to Alex Chalgren, a young Trump supporter with a troubled background. A gay black man adopted by an evangelical, Cruz-supporting Christian family, who loves Alex but cannot reconcile this with his sexuality, his life has been described as an “impotent man [seeking] power”, a person whose circumstances have never been entirely in their control.
That last sentence describes us all, doesn’t it? We are the captains of our souls, but we are not the masters of our fate. Disenfranchisement is the cloud that hangs over all of Western politics, hiding the silent masses of people sick-and-tired of political business-as-usual. The politician that harnesses this swirling vortex of despair, hate and fear has an almost unlimited power source, if they can transmute it into a seemingly positive force.
The SNP have been extremely successful in this practice in Scotland, capitalising on the independence referendum to engage sectors of the electorate who had never seen the inside of a polling booth, and destroy the competition in last year’s elections. Donald Trump is crushing his rivals in the Republican primaries, scooping up voters from almost every demographic, and Bernie Sanders is a strong second to Clinton, an unthinkable socialist in the top tier of US politics.
A common theme to all these successes is empowerment. Alex Chalgren paraphrases Frank Underwood in House of Cards, when he says
a fool goes after money. But someone that really seeks to control goes after power…
The message is pretty simple. You feel powerless. I have power, vote for me and let me give you some of it. Trump’s power-persona, carefully constructed in simple sentences, spiced with hatred and accented by bullying and insults, is attracting the disempowered vote and dumbfounding the GOP establishment. The SNP’s principal cause of Scottish independence is the ultimate empowerment for a small nation, with historical baggage and a Tory government that very few Scots voted for. Even Sanders’ roaring rhetoric against the 1% imbues him with similar tough-talking attributes as Trump.
What will decide the EU referendum in the UK is the fight for the disempowered. The Out campaigns have a simple message of returning UK “sovereignty” and repealing apparently unending legislation. The In campaign have a much tougher job. Firstly, they need to prick this “sovereignty” balloon (how can you have true freedom to legislate in a market economy, when you need to satisfy regulations to export goods to Europe? And will being out of Europe really protect us from the dreaded TTIP?). Michael Gove’s recent statement supporting Out is typical of those made by the Out campaign, and this response is an excellent example of how to completely invalidate them.
Secondly, the In campaigners need to convince us that regulations exist to facilitate fair and free markets while protecting our social, human and natural capital. A post-Brexit Britain would be far more prone to lobbying resulting in deregulation, destroying the environment and eroding UK citizens’ rights. In fact, studies indicate it would have to do this to mitigate losses to GDP on Brexit.
We bought into the EEC ideal in the 70s (and the EU latterly) because we thought it would empower us to create a peaceful and prosperous Europe, free of continental war at last, with a cleaner environment, healthier and happier citizens and a better future for our children. The world has changed a lot since then, and we’re facing unprecedented migration, climate change and dangerous extremism, challenges on a scale we haven’t faced since the Second World War. It’s not surprising that the EU is showing signs of strain. It may have its failings, but to leave it is to ignore its great successes and its potential for further success, throw the baby out with the bathwater, and step back from our closest allies when they need our support the most.
The challenge now for the In campaign is to win the disenfranchised – I wish them the very best of luck. But it leaves the future of political discourse looking fairly bleak. It feels like the old practice of debating individual policies is rapidly disappearing, and the election victories are going to the man who looks best when they don the purple (and yes, I use the word “man” deliberately). And if it finally goes, we’ll just be voting for the “strongman” – and history has taught us where that will lead.