Looking back over the events of 2016, liberal-minded commentators are apt to sound a warning against “populism,” a disorder that they observe everywhere on the right of the political spectrum. Populists are politicians who appeal directly to the people when they should be consulting the political process, and who are prepared to set aside procedures and legal niceties when the tide of public opinion flows in their favor. Like Donald Trump, populists can win elections. Like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, they can disrupt the long-standing consensus of government. Or, like Nigel Farage and the Brexiteers in Britain, they can use the popular vote to overthrow all the expectations and predictions of the political class. But they have one thing in common, which is their preparedness to allow a voice to passions that are neither acknowledged nor mentioned in the course of normal politics. And for this reason, they are not democrats but demagogues—not politicians who guide and govern by appeal to arguments, but agitators who stir the unthinking feelings of the crowd.
Underlying the attack on populism, therefore, is a belief in two contrasting social motives. On the one hand there are the legitimate and day-to-day political interests that lead people to trust in the democratic process and to cast their vote in full acceptance that the result may not go in their favor. On the other hand there are the dark emotions that the political process is designed to neutralize, but which cynical politicians manipulate at our peril. These dark emotions, summoned in the name of democracy, threaten to bring democracy to an end. For they are at war with the civic attributes on which democracy ultimately depends: fair-minded hesitation, legitimate opposition, and open debate.
Agitators who stir the unthinking feelings of the crowd.
To some extent history supports this diagnosis. Hitler and Mussolini gained power by exciting emotions that have no place in a civilized government, and that the political process exists in order to neutralize. And once in power they quickly abolished all democratic constraints on their behavior and all voice to the opposition. We should not forget, however, that this abolition of the democratic process has ensued equally from revolutionary movements on the left. It is not the specific emotions stirred by Hitler that jeopardized democracy, but the abolition of the constraints that would have put a stop to their exercise. Nor did the danger lie in the fact that the racist passions unleashed by the Nazis were widely shared. A small band of revolutionaries, fired by class resentments, can be just as destructive of the political order, and with similar genocidal consequences, as we know from the Russian and Chinese revolutions.
The fact remains, however, that the accusation of “populism” is applied now largely to politicians on the right, with the implication that they are mobilizing passions that are both widespread and dangerous. On the whole liberals believe that politicians on the left win elections because they are popular, while politicians on the right win elections because they are populist. Populism is a kind of cheating, deploying weapons that civilized people agree not to use and which, once used, entirely change the nature of the game, so that those of gentle and considerate leanings are at an insuperable disadvantage. The division between the popular and the populist corresponds to the deep division in human nature, between the reasonable interests that are engaged by politics, and the dark passions that threaten to leave negotiation, conciliation, and compromise behind. Like “racism,” “xenophobia,” and “Islamophobia,” “populism” is a crime laid at the door of conservatives. For the desire of conservatives to protect the inherited identity of the nation, and to stand against what they see as the real existential threats posed by mass migration, is seen by their opponents as fear and hatred of the Other, which is seen in turn as the root cause of inter-communal violence.
The shocks and surprises of 2016 have made it imperative to understand what, if anything, is true in this charge, and just when, if at all, it is legitimate for politicians to appeal directly to the people, in ways that by-pass or marginalize the political process. Democracy depends upon institutions, procedures, and the famous “checks and balances” established by the American Constitution. And if populism means direct rule by plebiscite, it must surely be a threat to that form of government.
Rousseau famously objected to representative government as a denial of the free choice of the people, whose “general will” emerges only if all of them participate in the important decisions. But he had no clear idea how to govern a large modern society by direct appeal to the people. Now, with everyone armed with a smart-phone, it might be said that Rousseau’s ideal is within our reach. The result is not just Donald Trump and Brexit, however, but a constant rain of petitions touching on everything that happens to be briefly in the news. Thanks to the internet, the iPhone, and all the other gadgets that permit instant messages and twitter storms, people can make their opinions and wishes directly influential on the legislature, without passing through the forum of political debate.
The Brexit referendum was therefore in part an official version of something that is now happening all the time—the instant plebiscite, which casts aside the political process and appeals directly to the people. Twitter and Facebook played their part in enabling the outsider Donald Trump to sweep away all the carefully screened professionals from the Republican primaries. It mattered not a jot that the media, the party machine, and the official channels of Republican opinion were united against him. Those old voices belonged to the political process, which moves slowly and sedately like a distant galaxy, while the social networks dance in the here and now. The old-fashioned media of communication, like the old-fashioned congressional committees and hearings, were filters through which popular feeling had to pass, in order to achieve overt and public expression. Now there are no filters, and thanks to social media every kind of person, and every kind of opinion, has an equal chance to be heard.
The phenomenon of the instant plebiscite—what one might call the “webiscite”—is therefore far more important than has yet been recognized. Nor does it serve the interests only of the Right in politics. Almost every day there pops up on my screen a petition from Change.org or Avaaz.org urging me to experience the “one click” passport to moral virtue, bypassing all political processes and all representative institutions in order to add my vote to the cause of the day. Avaaz was and remains at the forefront of the groups opposing the “populism” of Donald Trump, warning against his apparent contempt for the procedures that would put brakes on his power. But in the instant politics of the webiscite such contradictions don’t matter. Consistency belongs with those checks and balances. Get over them, and get clicking instead.
The social networks dance in the here and now.
It is not that the instant causes of the webiscites are wrong: without the kind of extensive debate that is the duty of a legislative assembly it is hard to decide on their merits. Nevertheless, we are constantly being encouraged to vote in the absence of any institution that will hold anyone to account for the decision. Nobody is asking us to think the matter through, or to raise the question of what other interests need to be considered, besides the one mentioned in the petition. Nobody in this process, neither the one who proposes the petition nor the many who sign it, has the responsibility of getting things right or runs the risk of being ejected from office if he fails to do so. The background conditions of representative government have simply been thought away, and all we have is the mass expression of opinion, without responsibility or risk. Not a single person who signs the petition, including those who compose it, will bear the full cost of it. For the cost is transferred to everyone, on behalf of whatever single-issue pressure group takes the benefit.
We are not creatures of the moment; we do not necessarily know what our own interests are, but depend upon advice and discussion. Hence we need processes that impede us from making impetuous choices; we need the filter that will bring us face to face with our real interests. It is precisely this that is being obscured by the emerging webiscite culture. Decisions are being made at the point of least responsibility, by the man or woman in the street with an iPhone, asked suddenly to click “yes” or “no” in response to an issue that they have never thought about before and may never think about again.
Reflect on these matters and you will come to see, I believe, that if “populism” threatens the political stability of democracies, it is because it is part of a wider failure to appreciate the virtue and the necessity of representation. For representative government to work, representatives must be free to ignore those who elected them, to consider each matter on its merits, and to address the interests of those who did not vote for them just as much as the interests of those who did. The point was made two centuries ago by Edmund Burke, that representation, unlike delegation, is an office, defined by its responsibilities. To refer every matter to the constituents and to act on majority opinion case by case is precisely to avoid those responsibilities, to retreat behind the consensus, and to cease to be genuinely accountable for what one does.
This brings me to the real question raised by the upheavals of 2016. In modern conditions, in which governments rarely enjoy a majority vote, most of us are living under a government of which we don’t approve. We accept to be ruled by laws and decisions made by politicians with whom we disagree, and whom we perhaps deeply dislike. How is that possible? Why don’t democracies constantly collapse, as people refuse to be governed by those they never voted for? Why do the protests of disenchanted voters crying “not my president!” peter out, and why has there been after all no mass exodus of liberals to Canada?
The answer is that democracies are held together by something stronger than politics. There is a “first person plural,” a pre-political loyalty, which causes neighbors who voted in opposing ways to treat each other as fellow citizens, for whom the government is not “mine” or “yours” but “ours,” whether or not we approve of it. Many are the flaws in this system of government, but one feature gives it an insuperable advantage over all others so far devised, which is that it makes those who exercise power accountable to those who did not vote for them. This kind of accountability is possible only if the electorate is bound together as a “we.” Only if this “we” is in place can the people trust the politicians to look after their interests. Trust enables people to cooperate in ensuring that the legislative process is reversible when it makes a mistake; it enables them to accept decisions that run counter to their individual desires and which express views of the nation and its future that they do not share. And it enables them to do this because they can look forward to an election in which they have a chance to rectify the damage.
That simple observation reminds us that representative democracy injects hesitation, circumspection, and accountability into the heart of government—qualities that play no part in the emotions of the crowd. Representative government is for this reason infinitely to be preferred to direct appeals to the people, whether by referendum, plebiscite, or webiscite. But the observation also reminds us that accountable politics depends on mutual trust. We must trust our political opponents to acknowledge that they have the duty to represent the people as a whole, and not merely to advance the agenda of their own political supporters.
But what happens when that trust disintegrates? In particular, what happens when the issues closest to people’s hearts are neither discussed nor mentioned by their representatives, and when these issues are precisely issues of identity—of “who we are” and “what unites us”? This, it seems to me, is where we have got to in Western democracies—in the United States just as much as in Europe. And recent events on both continents would be less surprising if the media and the politicians had woken up earlier to the fact that Western democracies—all of them without exception—are suffering from a crisis of identity. The “we” that is the foundation of trust and the sine qua non of representative government, has been jeopardized not only by the global economy and the rapid decline of indigenous ways of life, but also by the mass immigration of people with other languages, other customs, other religions, other ways of life, and other and competing loyalties. Worse than this is the fact that ordinary people have been forbidden to mention this, forbidden to complain about it publicly, forbidden even to begin the process of coming to terms with it by discussing what the costs and benefits might be.
Of course they have not been forbidden to discuss immigration in the way that Muslims are forbidden to discuss the origins of the Koran. Nor have they been forbidden by some express government decree. If they say the wrong things, they are not arrested and imprisoned—not yet, at least. They are silenced by labels—“racism,” “xenophobia,” “hate speech”—designed to associate them with the worst of recent crimes. In my experience, ordinary people wish to discuss mass immigration in order to prevent those crimes. But this idea is one that cannot be put in circulation, for the reason that the attempt to express it puts you beyond the pale of civilized discourse. Hillary Clinton made the point in her election campaign, with her notorious reference to the “deplorables”—in other words, the people who bear the costs of liberal policies and respond to them with predictable resentments.
A dose of direct democracy may be needed.
But it is precisely at this point that a dose of direct democracy may be needed. For political questions are of two distinct kinds: those that concern how we should be governed, and those that concern who we are. Questions of policy are questions for our representatives, who can draw on expert opinion and Congressional committees, in order to produce answers that can be justified in the legislature and argued to the people. Questions of identity are questions for the people themselves, for they alone can answer them. They alone know the nature and components of the “we” to which their loyalty is owed. The political elite can tell them to subscribe to some project or ideal. But it is not projects and ideals that produce the pre-political “we”; it is not for such abstract reasons that the working-class Republican and the middle-class Democrat recognize, through all the mist of their mutual antagonism, that they belong together. And when the pre-political “we” has, for whatever reason, been jeopardized, it is too late for the political process to deal with it. Emerging from behind the politics there then appears another and deeper question, the question who we are.
The United States has been governed from the beginning by a document that begins “We, the people of the United States . . . ” And this “we” resounds through all that follows. It is the voice of the first-person plural, the collective identity that makes democratic government possible, and which arises from a shared history, territory, language, and law. It is precisely this identity that has been put in question by demographic and constitutional changes, and the shock of the recent Presidential election has made Americans fully aware of this.
Likewise people are beginning to understand the recent referenda in Britain and Italy as addressed to the question who we are. When the electorate of Scotland was asked whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom, the question was one of pre-political identity. Who was to be included in the first-person plural? The Scots voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, which allows them to govern themselves through the Scottish Parliament. But they also continue to vote for the Scottish National Party in the Westminster Parliament. Had the English been permitted to vote in this referendum, in the outcome of which they had as great an interest as the Scots, they would probably have voted for English independence, in order to free themselves from the niggling presence in their Parliament of people who ostentatiously and continuously vote against English interests, whenever Scotland or the snp might benefit. Some might say that, in this case, there was not a real referendum—not a real referral of the matter in hand to the people as a whole—since only some of the relevant people were allowed to vote. This was certainly not “politics as usual.” But it was still politics, with the people brought in only because it had become impossible to proceed without appearing to consult them.
The referendum on EU membership was a more genuine appeal to the people, and here too the question of identity was also at issue. Three factors seem to have influenced the “no” vote: immigration, the top-down dictatorship exercised by the European Commission in all matters that remotely touch on economics (which means in all matters), and the effect of the European courts on the law and customs of the British people. The political class has failed in recent decades to address popular concern about these things, with protests, however muted, dismissed as “racism and xenophobia”: an accusation that was unhesitatingly repeated both in the run-up to the vote and, more bitterly, in the wake of it.
These ritual denunciations of people who are, by recent standards, about as un-racist and un-xenophobic as you are likely to find, meant that there was a marked reluctance by politicians on the left either to speak up for or even to notice the indigenous working class. The “no” vote of traditional Labour voters was the consequence of immigration from Eastern Europe that has both lowered the price of labor and radically impacted on their native environment and sense of community. No political question has been more important to them since suffering the effects of the ill-considered Maastricht Treaty than the question who we are—who is entitled to the benefits of social membership and what exactly is “our” birth-right, as the people who were born “here” from parents who fought for this “here” to be “ours”? Living now among foreigners, sending their children to schools where English is the second language, competing with the newcomers for housing, social services, and health-care, and above all with nowhere else to go, they can hardly be blamed for thinking that they are paying the cost of political decisions that benefit only distant elites.
But the concern about migration reaches further than the old working class. Identity has been an issue all across the continent, as the EU’s “freedom of movement” provisions open the borders to mass population transfers. Those who argued that we should remain in the EU tended to see the matter purely in economic terms: the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Romanians, and Bulgarians flooding into Britain bring with them energy, enterprise, and skills that boost production and foster economic growth. Like those who justify recruiting doctors and nurses from the third world, the enthusiasts for immigration ignore the countries that pay the cost of this. The fragile and nascent democracies of Eastern Europe are striving to join the world of global trade, while losing their skilled work-force, their educated middle class, and the best of their young, causing, in Poland at least, a demographic crisis that may soon bring the country to its knees. Moreover, at the very moment when it is becoming difficult for Poland and the Baltic States to recruit a conventional defense force from an aging population, President Putin has installed nuclear attack missiles in Kaliningrad, and moved a fully mobilized army of 300,000 men to the Russian border.
In the run-up to the referendum, there was a frenzied attempt by David Cameron and his circle to turn the attention of the electorate away from migration to questions of economics and trade, as though this were all that EU membership has ever amounted to. It is true that a country’s stability depends on trade. But it also depends upon trust—upon the sense that we are bound to each other by a shared loyalty, and that we will stand by each other in the real emergencies. Social trust comes from shared language, shared customs, instinctive law-abidingness, procedures for resolving disputes and grievances, public spirit, and the ability of the people to change their own government by a process that is transparent to them all. And those goods have been bound up for centuries with the allegiance of ordinary people to a place, a culture, a law, and a political process that they define as their own. They were goods tied to national identity.
The hope of the founders of the EU—Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Walter Hallstein, Altiero Spinelli, and others—was to create new forms of identity that would replace the national feelings of the European people. They were moved by the belief that national feeling is exclusive and, when challenged, belligerent, and they were seeking a more open and “softer” alternative. For commentators on the right, the Brexit referendum was proof that this project had failed. The referendum had given to the people an opportunity they would not otherwise have had, and which successive governments had conspired to remove from them, namely the opportunity to affirm their national identity against the EU, and in defiance of policies that compel them to share their country and its privileges with their foreign competitors.
Although the recent Italian referendum was ostensibly concerned with constitutional changes that would reduce the power of the Senate and accelerate the legislative process, it was understood by the people as a vote of confidence in the unelected Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and in the EU that was ultimately responsible for appointing him. As in Britain, the issue of identity was at the forefront of popular sentiment, and the massive “no” vote was a heartfelt cry from the people to take the question of their identity seriously. What has the EU done for Italy, in the crisis brought about by the daily arrival of thousands of migrants, many of them young men without families who have no intention to return? While representing all questions of migration and settlement as questions for Europe as a whole, the EU has no clear policy for dealing with the matter, and must in any case absorb the effects of Chancellor Merkel’s decision to offer asylum to all and sundry, without regard for the feelings of those Germans who must bear the cost of this. In any future referendum in Europe, in whatever country and over whatever ostensible issue, it will be the question of migration, and the desire of the people for effective leadership in confronting it, that will determine the outcome of the vote.
The conservative movement is at an impasse.
Of course the American Presidential election was not a referendum. Nevertheless the issues raised by Donald Trump were the very same issues as those that are troubling the people of Europe—massive immigration into traditional working-class communities, the growth of minorities whose loyalty to the national “we” has yet to be proven, and the disruptive effect of the global economy and liberal attitudes on the old and settled ways of life. The same response has occurred among liberals in the United States as among liberals in Europe: that these issues should not be openly discussed, and certainly not in such a way as to give oxygen to the “racism and xenophobia” that are always in danger of bursting into flames. And liberals have a point: there is a danger here, and a very real one, even if it remains questionable whether the danger is lessened or increased by the current habits of censorship.
All this has left the conservative movement at an impasse. The leading virtue of conservative politics as I see it is the preference for procedure over ideological programs. Liberals tend to believe that government exists in order to lead the people into a better future, in which liberty, equality, social justice, the socialist millennium, or something of that kind will be realized. The same goal-directed politics has been attempted by the EU, which sees all governance as moving towards an “ever closer union,” in which borders, nations, and the antagonisms that allegedly grow from them will finally disappear. Conservatives believe that the role of government is not to lead society towards a goal but to ensure that, wherever society goes, it goes there peacefully. Government exists in order to conciliate opposing views, to manage conflicts, and to ensure peaceful transactions between the citizens, as they compete in the market, and associate in what Burke called their “little platoons.”
That conception of government is, to me, so obviously superior to all others that have entered the imperfect brains of political thinkers that I find myself irresistibly drawn to it. But it depends on a pre-political unity defined within recognized borders, and a sovereign territory that is recognizably “ours,” the place where “we” are, the home that we share with the strangers who are our “fellow countrymen.” All other ways of defining the “we” of human communities—whether through dynasty, tribe, religion, or the ruling Party—threaten the political process, since they make no room for opposition, and depend on conscripting the people to purposes that are not their own. But procedural politics of the conservative kind is possible only within the confines of a nation state—which is to say, a state defined over sovereign territory, whose citizens regard that territory as their legitimate home.
Ordinary people for the most part recognize this, which is why they voted as they did in the elections and plebiscites of 2016. And they look to conservative politicians to protect their home from the disintegrative forces that now impinge on it. At the same time very few politicians will dare to stand against the abuse that greets those who defend the call for national identity in open and explicit terms. The response of the media and world public opinion to Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders has been vitriolic in the extreme. Wilders has even been found guilty of “inciting discrimination and hatred” by a Dutch court, for having uttered unwise remarks about Moroccan immigrants to his country—remarks which might, for all that was said in court, be true, but which have been judged nevertheless to be unsayable.
The charge of “populism” is therefore beginning to bite. What has to be said by conservatives, if they are to reaffirm the first-person plural on which their kind of politics depends, cannot be easily said, for fear of the labels that bring all discussion to a stop. David Cameron was well aware of this, which is one reason why he did not try, in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, to allay popular fears about immigration. Even to raise the question would be to step beyond the boundary. And because he did not raise the question Cameron lost the referendum.
There is a way out of this impasse, however. It is surely possible now to bring the question of identity into the center of political discourse, so that it ceases to be addressed only in plebiscites, referenda, and the degrading social media. It is possible to begin discussions in Congress and Parliament on the legislation that may now be necessary to ensure continuity of our inherited first person plural. For we in the Anglosphere have a language in which to do this—a language with a respectable past and an acknowledged political use. When we wish to summon the “we” of political identity we refer to our country. We do not use grand and ideologically tainted abstractions, like la nation, la patrie, or das Vaterland. We refer simply to this spot of earth, which belongs to us because we belong to it, have loved it, lived in it, fought for it, and established peace and prosperity within its borders.
We need to rescue politics from populism by speaking in the people’s name.
This language enables politicians to address the question of immigration without incurring charges of racism and xenophobia. It is not race or faith that defines the true patriot, but attachment to this place that is ours. Whom do we welcome into this place, and on what terms? Those are legitimate questions, and the moment is opportune to take on board the disquiet that ordinary people feel, when the place that they regard as home is suddenly strange to them, and filled with others to whom they do not or cannot relate as neighbors. It is opportune also to recognize the difference between incomers who wish to settle and acquire the rights and duties of citizenship, and who are prepared for the long, slow apprenticeship that this requires, and the influx of communities who remain locked in their former way of life, who pay no heed to civic duties and who make no effort to assimilate to the surrounding secular order. Why not assert publicly that immigrants must be integrated if they are to be citizens, and that if they come in large numbers, so as radically to alter the way of life and surroundings of their hosts, this will inevitably make the process of integration difficult or impossible?
Above all, it seems to me, conservatives should revitalize the idea of “our country,” not in narrow-minded or chauvinistic terms, but as the correct description of the pre-political “we.” Liberals will respond with name-calling and moralizing—but not all of them, since liberals too can call on a tradition of patriotic sentiment for which “our country” is a legitimate standard. It was precisely this idea, of a place that belongs to me because I belong to it, that animated the Brexit vote. And it is the same idea that has caused so many Americans to revolt against President Obama’s stance on immigration, and notably his policy of offering amnesty to those who enter the United States of America illegally and who strive thereafter to profit from this crime. Bringing this idea into the center of the political process, and rescuing it in that way from the webiscite culture, will surely be a prelude to a coherent policy for the control of borders and the legitimate path to citizenship.
This does not mean that there is an easy response to mass migration: at some stage force will be necessary, if borders are to be secure, a point already recognized by many countries in Europe. Nor does it mean that pressures from the global economy can be easily excluded, or that free trade can be maintained while protecting vital indigenous industries. All such difficulties will remain, and the main task of the political process will be to arrive at whatever compromise solutions can be achieved in response to them. But in all these matters there is a clear way forward for conservatives, which is to take the sting out of populism, by addressing the issues which, to date, have been acknowledged only by official and unofficial plebiscites. We need to make those issues into the primary matter of political debate, and to rescue politics from populism by speaking clearly in the people’s name.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 7 , on page 4
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