Comment: Written by Rian Whitton.
In 2015, David Cameron had won a surprise majority in Britain’s general election. By any estimate, this was a reassuring sign for the established order of things. A year and a half later, Cameron is gone, Britain is on course to leave the European Union, and demagogues have gained enormous political clout from France to the Philippines. Most importantly, we are now faced with the fact that a future American aircraft carrier will be named the USS Donald Trump.
With such an immense transformation of the political arena in such a small space of time, it is easy to forget its underlying narrative, of nation-loving polities sticking it to the liberal establishment, is nothing new. The neoliberal world order may now seem decadent and contemptuous of ordinary people, yet it itself was initially advertised in exactly the same terms as today’s populism is.
In the seventies and early eighties, politically liberal and free market theories on the right and centre attacked and discredited what was seen as the sclerotic and elitist social democracy model that had been cultivated on both sides of the Atlantic since the second world war. The BBC’s Yes Minister was a perfect reflection of this phenomenon; with the open-minded and affable minister Jim Hacker struggling ceaselessly against the bureaucratic inertia orchestrated by the mandarin Sir Humphrey.
This trope of underdogs finally having enough with the government panjandrums and policy swats gets played out across a wide range of cultural and economic arenas. Apple’s central premise in the early years was providing a more ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing interface to the individual, in opposition to IBM’s government backed supercomputers.
This is important in so far as that the narrative of a liberal establishment being contemptuous of the wider public and people getting fed up of experts is not a particularly new story arc. If one were to examine the ideology behind most popular culture, there is a profound dislike of institutions, expertise, and a clear opposition to the government’s monopolisation of authority.
The Hunger games, the Maze runner, Divergent, Star Wars, Avatar; all these films place the government and its many representatives in the role of antagonist. On both left and right, populists are fed and sustained by an unceasing mainstream discourse that castigates any concept of authority or exclusive wisdom as the worst kind of snobbery.
Now clearly those in power need to be scrutinised. Even the most enlightened societies are seething with petty corruption. Back in the late seventies, Reagan and Thatcher were not entirely disingenuous about the corpulence of state bureaucracy. Likewise Donald Trump, though every bit a member of the establishment he derides, is speaking to a section of society that has valid grievances, if punctuated by gross racism and a wilful ignorance.
But we increasingly engage in a public forum where, even as politicians and policy elites are expected to be genial to people who despise them, commentators excuse and even celebrate vitriolic attacks on the most fundamental traditions of liberal democracy.
When the Daily Mail and other papers labelled three judges ‘enemies of the people’ for their temerity in upholding the sovereignty of parliament, Brendan O’Neil took to Radio 4 and argued it was a perfectly legitimate description of ‘three posh judges’. His counter to the pervasive anti-establishmentarianism of our era was that elites have been responsible for demonising the public rather than vice-versa.
But are those we term as ‘elites’ or ‘experts’ really beholden to respect and empathise with all the views of the wider body politic? Are Matt Drudge and Alex Jones really worth being included in the political discussion? When it is constantly said that Trump spoke for those left behind by deindustrialisation, is it rude or dismissive to point out that his base were, on the whole, better off than either Clinton’s or Sanders’?
If they want to beat the new populists they may have to. But commentators should not be under any illusion as to the novelty of the current mood. Anti-establishmentarian rhetoric designed to whip up mass anger has a long history, carrying with it just as many dangers as a blind trust of those in power.