The morning after both Donald Trump’s victory and the Brexit referendum, when a mood of paralysing shock and grief overcame progressives and liberals on both sides of the Atlantic, the two most common refrains I heard were: “I don’t recognise my country any more,” and “I feel like I’ve woken up in a different country.” This period of collective disorientation was promptly joined by oppositional activity, if not activism. People who had never marched before took to the streets; those who had not donated before gave; people who had not been paying attention became engaged. Many continue.
Almost three years later the Brexit party, led by Nigel Farage, is predicted to top the poll in European parliament elections in which the far right will make significant advances across the continent; Theresa May’s imminent downfall [confirmed today] could hand the premiership to Boris Johnson; Trump’s re-election in 2020 is a distinct possibility, with Democratic strategists this week predicting only a narrow electoral college victory against him. “Democrats do not walk into the 2020 election with the same enthusiasm advantage they had in the 2018 election,” said Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, the largest Democratic political action committee.
Sooner or later progressives are going to have to stop being stunned by these electoral defeats. The first time, it is plausible to ask, “How could this possibly happen?” But when that possibility recurs in relatively short order, what once presented itself as a shock has now curdled into self-deception. It turns out that the country you woke up in is the precisely the one you went to bed in. If you still don’t recognise it then you are going to have real problems changing it.
There are any number of lessons we might draw from this moment – for instance, the fact that our capacity to stage marches has outpaced our ability to build effective movements or the media’s efforts to maintain credibility. We are in a period during which facts are devalued, and appearing on a political show has more worth than answering any questions on that show.
There are many differences between the places I’ve mentioned, but for now I’d like to focus on one thing that unites them: that the countries which keep producing these shocks are every bit as racist, xenophobic and discriminatory as their voting habits suggest. This is not some new virus; it’s a susceptibility to a chronic illness that has crippled us for years. Ethnic and racial plurality and migration as a lived experience are older than any nation state, but equality is a relatively new idea, and some don’t like it. People forget how recently African Americans couldn’t vote, and that Winston Churchill told his cabinet “Keep England White” was a good campaign slogan. [Continue reading…]