“What the British and American working class have in common is that they both vote against their own interests”. I can’t remember who said that but the popularity ratings of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – notably with their own Parties – gives it credence. In the British case an odd coalition of the elderly, many comfortably off, and the working class and poor, those on or below the poverty line, pushed us into BREXIT by a narrow majority.
What have these two groups got in common? What motivates their voting behaviour? The startling resonance of the Leave campaign’s “Take Back Control” gives the clue. Both groups feel a lack of control over their own lives. It’s easy to see why the poor may feel like this. The decline in the trades unions, the new digital economy, decades of decline and stagnation in workers’ wages, and the zero-hours economy have left manual and unskilled workers insecure. They feel forgotten and left out of the prosperity they see in advertisements and in affluent parts of the country.
Old people, well off or poor, weaken and become sick as they age, and feel a loss of control over their lives. They see the past through rose-tinted spectacles and fear the fast pace of change. They depend on their local GP and hospital consultants, and on social care, in a similar way to the unemployed and intermittently employed who have to deal with Job Centre officials and the benefits system. Remember the Leave video of the helpless old lady waiting tearfully as foreign-looking men were treated before her in a hospital A & E department? It was a brilliant but sinister piece of propaganda which incorporated the two big interlinked themes which brought together the two large groups attracted to BREXIT: immigration and loss of control.
There is also another factor: education. When I went to university with a scholarship in the 1960s, it was to join a privileged 5% of the population. The elderly, the poor, and manual workers on the whole lack higher education and the self-confidence it brings. In a transformed world where half of young people become university students, hoping for access to better jobs with better terms of employment, those with no degree, if they are still of working age, fear unemployment, temporary employment, the food banks and debt. They are not wrong. Higher education facilitates the skills of good decision-making. Britain’s urban elite did not get where they are today without figuring out how to find fulfilling jobs, how to make money and what professions to make it in.
BREXIT, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are part of a wider global phenomenon in which insecurity, anger, resentment at being ignored accompany rejection of expertise and experience, and generate votes for leaders who appear to subvert the hated, but vaguely defined, Establishment. Trickster leaders entertain and manipulate minds skillfully, with the single aim of gaining and retaining power through the politics of feeling. William Davies’ book, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World makes the point that democracy is now acutely vulnerable to this kind of emotional subversion. He cites the worrying statistic from the last US presidential elections that “86% of those who voted for Hillary Clinton expressed trust in the economic data produced by the federal government, compared to just 13% of those who voted for Trump”. Translated to the UK this means that the overwhelming economic arguments against a ‘No Deal’ BREXIT will carry negligible weight with Brexiteers. The success of the politics of feeling should, and is beginning to, set alarm bells ringing about the future of democracy. Political discourse has for millennia included emotion and rhetoric. But we now seem to be witnessing a jump-shift into spectacular public irrationality. A majority of members of the Conservative and Unionist Party, if opinion polls are to be believed, consider retention of the Union less important than completing BREXIT. This cannot simply be placed at the door of social media. It indicates a deeper swing from rational choice to emotion preference.
The tricksters, with the coming appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister by 160,000 or so Tory members, will have triumphed. Emotion will have defeated reason in British politics. Our antiquated political machinery will have failed to uphold democracy.
Is there a remedy? None is obvious in the short term. But we must return to a reasoned vision of what we want our society to be, to a concept of politics with social justice as its principal goal, and to creating systems which have a chance of producing governments with a respect for moral integrity. Faith and Reason sound like a Catholic formula. But retaining faith in democracy through the current turbulence and insisting that our politics temper emotion with reason are essential if we are to emerge from the current crisis. We need to retrieve the idea that there is something called truth.
This flight from expertise and fact to emotion and fantasy in democracies is happening against the background of the economic success and global ascendancy of the anti-democratic People’s Republic of China with its pervasive censorship. With autocracies such as Russia stirring the pot through cyber-interventions, we have entered the new ideological conflict of the 21st. century. Our political culture has to change if we are to win it.
See All over the world Rational Choice is being rejected. What should we do about it? TheArticle 10 July 2019