- 04 Mar 16
In a climate where anger Is plentiful but constructive solutions rarely offered, maybe we need the stability and clear-headedness of consensus politics...
Waking to a bright blue sky and a glistening carpet of snow in Colorado, the maddening strife of home seems far away, the General Election results a mere smudge on the skyline. From the vantage point of Sentinel Rock in the Flatirons, looking east towards Kansas where the earth curves before you, all human endeavour seems insubstantial, transient.
These huge and ancient rock formations were there before we came and will be there when we are gone. Here be beautiful and vast landscapes that truly merit that much-abused word “awesome”. But there’s no such thing as paradise. Even here, dark clouds loom. The sheriff has been to the local school to ensure that everyone knows what to do if there’s a lockdown ordered. Meanwhile, children openly discuss the prospect of exile should Donald Trump be elected as the next President of the USA, in November. Ah yes, Trump. Like Silvio Berlusconi before him, he’s a populist billionaire buffoon. But for all his awfulness, Berlusconi had a rascal charm – whereas Trump is rude, charmless and ignorant. He’s a carnival huckster, a barker, a bully. But that’s precisely why he’s on a roll. He gives expression to the worst of America. Think Beavis and Butthead in combed–over middle age. And he could indeed be the next President of the United States. It is deeply dispiriting.
Europeans are mostly horrified. Yet they also see his rise as part of a global phenomenon in which electorates across the world are turning to outsider candidates on both the right and the left. Look at what has happened in Ireland. Voters have had enough of elites, we’re told. They want a new kind of politics, we’re told.
Certainly, there’s much anger and abuse in the air. But more than anything, this signifies the corrosion of political, social and cultural discourse by internet comment facilities and social media – an arena where viciousness, abuse and bullying are endemic.
How do we reconcile fuck–you individualism with fuck–this socialism? Both may oppose elites, but that’s as far as they agree. In the Irish context, hipster app designers want less Government not more; socialists, meanwhile, want more Government, not less. Across Europe, populations rattled by terror and changing economies want more Government to ensure less immigration, just as NGOs want more Government to protect immigrants. Everything, as Bob Dylan said, is a little bit upside down...
So it may be self–deluding to think, as many political analysts appear to, that the voters of the world, including Ireland, are demanding a new and better society. It is much more complicated – and less attractive – than that. There’s resistance for the sake of resistance. Voters toss out one party (Fine Gael) because they’re tired of them, not because they believe the others (Fianna Fáil) will build a better or more equal society.
As to what follows, well, no Government it seems can satisfy the myriad dreams and demands of modern life. We have just been through the most vicious recession since the Great Depression. Indeed, it may even have been worse than the events of the 1930s. How can anyone satisfy all voters? You can’t. Many Americans (and others) express disappointment in Barack Obama. But given the tsunami of global financial disorder that his Government had to deal with, he didn’t too so badly. Politics is as much about pragmatism and compromise as it is about ideals. One thing is genuinely clear: the middle class is being squeezed everywhere and they’re really angry. Their rage, however, has little to do with the righteousness that political analysts imagine. Sadly, it’s much more insular and inward–looking than that.
Every certainty has been undermined. As a result, the centre ground has shrunk. Voters have migrated in all directions and, clearly, not just left and right. In the US there are voters in favour of women’s choice who are also for guns and free trade, just as there are voters who are anti–abortion, pro–immigration and pro–guns.
Similarly, in Ireland the centre cannot hold. Far from considering grand national issues and voting for a New Republic, the Irish electorate have retreated to the certainties of personal agendas and local issues. The Brown Trout party lives!
We may now be in for an era of instability. Indeed there is a Deja Vu aspect to it all: remember the beginning of the 1980s in Ireland, when there were three elections in two years? We may be back to that future, with knobs on.
You could argue that in an increasingly chaotic world, one characterised by rapid and uncontrolled social and technological change, and risk of war, disease and famine, we’ll need the stability and clearheadedness generated by consensus and discourse rather than anarchy and headline-generating turmoil.
That’s a sustainable view. On the other hand, in the USA Obama has to a great extent been stymied by the Republican–dominated Congress. And you know what? Things still functioned.
The same may happen in Ireland too. Of course, as in the US, the potential political instability is likely to trigger effects that are utterly contrary to notions of a new politics. Critical decisions will rest largely in the hands of public servants. While this might even be a good thing, their decisions will not reflect any political viewpoint and will, of necessity, be conservative.
Instability will establish a vacuum that could well be filled by undemocratic forces. Crucial discourses will wither. For example, we really should be talking about artificial intelligence, robotisation, surveillance and data mining, reducing our carbon footprint – but if all politics is once again local and oppositional then we won’t.
All successful societies are ultimately about cohesion. We have a choice: consensus or confrontation? As I look out from a Colorado mountain this morning, I see large birds lazily circling. They could be eagles. They could be buzzards. Right now, the omens are not good...