This is just me indulging in a little personal therapy as I come to terms with this week’s political earthquake. If you
want the official Oxfam response, we’re working on it, but you’ll have to wait (should be out before the 2020 elections). So this is just me. Is that clear? Good.
Trexit? Brump? 2016 is proving to be one hell of an annus horribilis for progressives (a category to which I like to think I still belong). Wednesday felt like Brexit on steroids, triggering an emotional roller-coaster akin to the grieving process:
- Blank Disbelief
- Gallows Humour (social media is a great comfort)
- Fear, Rage & Blame (including of voters themselves for disagreeing with me and my posse)
- Slowly hauling brain into gear to reengage – enquire, rethink, respond. Basically, get back on the horse – what else can we do? Give up on it all and cultivate our gardens I guess, but I hate gardening.
When the latest political earthquake happened, I was beginning three days of launch events in the Netherlands: in How Change Happens terms, here was a textbook ‘critical juncture’ – moments of drastic change in complex systems, when assumptions, power relations and possibilities are shaken up and transformed in unexpected ways (for good or ill). Unsurprisingly, the election result dominated many of my ensuing discussions. Some thoughts:
What happened? The post mortem industry is already in full swing, and I’m no pollster, but this feels very Brexit-like, a kick in the shins of business as usual/ the political elite; a populist vote against a system that has stopped delivering for a large portion of the middle class (in US terms) – the lowest income groups continued to vote Democrat (see chart); a cry of rage (laced with nostalgia) against the threat of ‘the Other’ and a perceived loss of national and cultural influence, washed away by the ubiquitous tides of globalization. Maybe even historic revenge of the rural against the complacent, patronising urban elite.
That is deeply confusing for any progressive. How did the populists so adroitly steal our clothes on inequality, the evils of finance capital or unfair trade agreements? Why have ‘the people’ rejected our ideas and values so comprehensively? Why do I suddenly feel like a member of the reviled ‘elite’? As I tweeted on dazed Wednesday ‘2016= year they came w pitchforks. No-one told us they would be coming for us.’
Post Brexit, and with the real possibility of Geert Wilders winning the Dutch election next March, this upheaval/revolution is clearly a generalised phenomenon, at least within Europe and the USA. Conversations with Dutch NGO strategists saw some fairly painful self-criticism:
Why have we turned such a blind eye to regressive populism in Europe, narrowly targeting policy and spending
decisions in our campaigns, while ignoring the rising anger beyond our bubble, threatening to overturn the whole system? Is it because our project-constrained, short term approach to influencing, campaigns etc cannot tackle such deep underlying normative shifts and threats? Or we have succumbed to the creeping elitism of wanting to be ‘inside the room’, even as the room itself shrinks? Or because the centre-left has amassed too many victories that must now be protected, forcing it onto the strategic defensive (‘defend the NHS! Stop this and that!’) and meekly handing the symbolic victory of being the mould-breaker to the Right?
Why do we always gather round tangible issues (windmills, xenophobia) rather than trying to understand and directly confront the anger that underlies the backlash?
What happens next? Some possible strategies in the short term:
- Be clear on red lines, where truly bad things must be confronted (persecution of migrants, minorities)
- Do any opportunities lie within the populist narrative? (trade policy? finance sector reform?). But be careful – hitching your wagon to the populist locomotive carries significant risks and costs.
But the real challenge is in the long term. The progressive coalition has been asleep at the wheel, as the backlash has
gathered momentum, and ordinary people have felt increasingly angered and excluded from the benefits of the system. That requires a long term, deep rethink, and then fundamentally different response, not just a few clever campaign videos.
- Shifting norms on, for example, the rights of ‘others’ is a long term exercise that we can no longer ignore. We are going to have to rebuild social cohesion from the bottom up, identifying and working with islands of social capital (faith organizations, sports, culture and the arts)
- To do that we have to give up our fascinati0n with the corridors of power – reconnect with the people who have so clearly rejected the liberal consensus, rebuild our ability to understand and work with them.
- Engaging in shifting ideas, norms and debates in the long term means transforming how we talk and communicate. Evidence isn’t enough, particularly in these post-truth times. We have to think about framing, learn to value popular narratives, tap into metaphors and popular cultural memes (the Robin Hood Tax). Not talk down to people or bombard them with statistics.
Follow that advice and I may even end up working for my son Calum, who is doing exactly this in the grassroots Citizens UK community movement. If he’d ever give me a job.
Over to you.