“So it is worth reminding ourselves of how lucky we are to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history… if you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be, you’d choose now.”
Barack Obama, White House Summit on Global Development, July 2016
Few politicians in any era have managed to both express and embody the notion of progressive change as effectively as Barack Obama. The words above speak to a clear and widely held conviction that progress is a kind of divinely ordained force, destined to win through.
Whatever his faults, the American political creed – of a universal set of progressive values – found a fresh and eloquent exponent through the improbable rise of the young Senator from Illinois.
By succumbing to this temptation, we forget all of the incremental changes, and very real struggles, that actually succeed in taking matters forward.But the sentiment of such remarks is also a reminder that progress has become worryingly attached to a comfortable sense of inevitability.
America in particular has only ever witnessed tangible progressive change through (often violent) confrontation. In the end Obama, the arch-moderate, could only claim a hollow moral victory over the zealots that railed against the vision that he stood for.
More significantly, the Obama vision of progress has played its own part in creating the current political crises that are engulfing Britain and America.
Across the western world, the mantra that things can only get better became an emotive, almost religious, conviction. But this has led to an enormous amount of inertia amongst those who advocate progressive politics – from the liberal-centre to the far-left.
On top of that, the fear and shock that comes about in the face of setbacks or confrontations has taken on a heightened significance. The rise of a proto-fascist here, the venality of corporate power there, or the entry of extremist rhetoric into the mainstream, is met with shock, offence, outrage and fear, rather than political mobilisation.
The urge to resist might still be there, but the muscles in the body politic that once performed those functions have been chronically weakened through underuse.
Our grandparents, surrounded by the unvarnished realities of what political struggle consisted of, would have looked at such developments with a grim recognition. But this generation of activists seems taken aback.
What did we expect? Was right-wing dominance of a country’s affairs ever going to look tolerant and well-behaved?
The focus of much of left-activism on social rather than economic issues, on lifestyle rather than work, now has a lot of answer for. The self-righteous habits of protest have led to a culture of political naivety that seems unable to muster a decisive response when those fixated on power expose their true colours.
We’ve also become far more self-referential. That sense of isolated fear (such as when a national newspaper brands senior members of the judiciary “enemies of the people”) feels debilitating rather than inciting.
People take to social media to join with legions of other “activists”, who do not act. Reactionary mediums have led us into the trap of incandescent rage at the notion that progress might actually have to be fought for.
Enter the people (stage right)
The fight might be coming regardless. The basic tenets of a good society: like the independence of public institutions and a discourse with in-built civic boundaries, were supposed to have been established and inviolable in Britain and America.
But the acolytes of soft-progress are now coming face to face with another object of political worship: the people.As a result, the work of making society better was supposed to simply consist of building on these commonly accepted norms and habits.
The people are also a matter of belief. The faith becomes particularly potent when their ordinary decency and their native values are seen to be threatened by a decadent, out of touch, elite.
From time to time, the tribesmen must ride in from the desert and clean things up in the filthy cesspits of the cosmopolitan centre. This is the raw force of Trumpism: people who think they’re better than you have sneered for too long. They must now pay.
You come across this mentality all over the place. The Scottish nationalist blogger G.A. Ponsonby recently expressed it in a short article, which is Stalinist in its lack of subtlety:
“We are philistines. They are artistic. They are intellectuals. They are writers. We are ordinary. They will save us. We must let them. They know what is best. We must cede control to them. They are gifted. They have ideas. They are radical. We are ordinary.”
That the above could have been written by almost any participant in an insurgent popular movement anywhere in the west, is telling. The cosmopolitan scum, who think they know better than the man in the street, are the universal enemy. All political progress is hindered while the less than ordinary hold their conceited sway over the fundamentally decent unremarkables.
Having never met an “ordinary” person, it’s not a rationale that I can relate to on any level. But it is a useful reminder that the notion of elite conspiracy has become an inescapable part of every political conversation, even at the most mundane level.
The logic of inequality
In Britain, where the country’s ills have been so thoroughly glossed over, the “us and them” of politics has become ever more potent.
Large swathes of the people, it seems, want a fight. The organised left doesn’t. Corbyn and McDonnell seem to have no stomach for the overthrow of anything. This caution will mean that, as in the 1930s, the field is conceded to the possessors of a more unvarnished anger and aggression, with less qualms about division, who are more in keeping with the spirit of the age.
Divisiveness may not look pleasant, but it is a formidable and powerful political tool. In a sense, the current weakness of the left is its obsession with unity and togetherness.
A century ago the left was far better at identifying its own “them”. The “1%” is not a sufficient alternative to the old working class vilification of the slum landlord, the rentier class, the profiteer. These characters are now much harder to identify and the risks of appearing illiberal make most contemporary social democratic parties shy and obliging in the face of raw elite power.
But if they don’t take that risk and point to the real human source of human suffering, the Donald Trumps of this world will continue to do so for them.
In most of the world’s wealthiest countries, hollowed out by enormous levels of inequality, there are vast reservoirs of resentment that can be readily tapped into.
Again, the liberal is shocked at this approach, as surely as SDP members of the Reichstag were shocked when the SA suddenly started stalking the corridors, without writing ahead.
It is monumentally stupid to think that people dedicated solely to the pursuit of power will respect the rules of the game. Especially when insurgent forces spend years telling the political establishment that their entire modus operandi is to overturn them.
The arrival of de-industrialisation in the west, along with easier movement of labour across borders, presented problems that the neoliberal consensus established in the 1980s could never address. To do so would be to admit the enormity of the contradictions at the heart of its ideology.
We have lived through an era of unparalleled inequality. Its visceral, violent, logic, having been drip-fed for decades, is now coursing through the veins of the body politic. Only a fool would be surprised at the current morbid symptoms.
The president we deserve
As a result of such forces gathering momentum, Trump may not win, but will still be able to claim victory.
If Lincoln managed to re-define politics in 242 words with the “Gettysburg Address” perhaps Trump’s trolling for office is also a kind of devastating intervention that changes the way that the game is played.
While Lincoln was elected in an era of devout industrious moralism, Trump became a contender in an era of uninhibited narcissism and the buzzing of newsfeeds. Trump is not a glitch in the system: he’s a very accurate representation of key tendencies within it.
We live in a world in which his candidacy makes perfect sense. We deserve Trump. He is the atavistic face of all that we have become. It’s not pretty, is it?
It’s also far from novel. The media-savvy strongman is woefully familiar. Their arrival on the scene has already marked the emergence of dysfunctional polities in Russia, Italy and Turkey.
But the possibility of President Trump still registers as something far more portentous, for obvious reasons. Of all the political foundation myths, the story of American democracy, its creed and sense of universal mission, is the most pervasive.
Even as its system of government grinds through years of gridlock and inertia, even as all the great divides come to the fore, the creed remains. The ability to speak to it kept Obama, probably the greatest of its lay preachers since Lincoln, in office for two terms.
As a generation of politicos weaned on the soft-focus liberal fantasy of The West Wing know all too well, we have all invested in the enormous cultural capital of the imperial presidency. Extensive emotional ties to the creedal narrative mean that a belief in America and its public life is global.
But perhaps the inherent awfulness of this election has served a useful purpose in dispelling some of those myths about one of the world’s most successful empires and how it operates.
Looking on, we should be encouraged to reflect that justice is not waiting for us in some promised land.
Instead, progress has to be fought for: as anyone dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal ought to understand.