Globally, People Are Turning Away from the Establishment
It has been happening in many countries throughout the world and we can now see it happening in America – the Establishment has become toxic. American dynastic candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush would normally be dominating their respective presidential races just by making promises a hair’s breadth either side of the centre ground. However, those filling high school gymnasiums with enthused sycophants are politicians who would normally be sidelined by the perceived extremity of their views. On the republican side we see an animated billionaire mop with a penchant for rambling tracts of vapid incoherence, peppered with authoritarian rhetoric, and a sprinkle of hate-speech. Trump is contrasted on the democratic side by Bernie Sanders, a frail and barely animate Jewish folk singer popularising a progressive ideology that was not long ago about as electable in America as full on communism.
Yet, despite the major differences between these two candidates and their respective supporters, they have more in common than either would like to admit. Both are anti establishment outsiders. Both are promising fundamental change. Both are against free trade treaties like TTIP. Both are for some form of state healthcare. Both are against unnecessary and costly military interventionism. However, probably most importantly, both are against the corrupt political establishment and how it panders to wealth before it serves it citizens. A fact Trump knows only too well as he was the wealth it once pandered to.
And we can see the same type of anti establishment ideas flourishing elsewhere. In the UK we have the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, Ukip, the decimation of Scottish Labour and the flourishing of grassroots politics. You can see it across Europe where far right and far left policies are rising to prominence. You can see it all across the Arab world with people rising up against long standing rulers. In so many corners of the globe we are sick of being let down by our elected representatives, regardless of which side of the spectrum they come from.
And while in the recent past our leaders may have sensed the peril they were in and adjusted their rhetoric accordingly, there is only so long you can spin the promise of meaningful change. Too many of the electorate are old enough to have been fooled too many times. American commentator, Dan Carlin, likens the phenomenon to the character Lucy from “Peanuts'” tantalising Charlie Brown with an american football, only to swipe it away at the last minute. There is only so many times Chuck will run up to kick the ball before he realises he is just going to end up in a dusty heap on the ground.
Here both Blair and Cameron have risen to power with promises of radical change but one sowed the seeds of perpetual economic stagnation and the other has helped to keep us there. They have presided over greater inequity, decreased social mobility, costly wars in foreign countries, the selling off of public assets, creeping privatisation, the erosion of the rights of their own citizens and many other acts that work more for narrow privileged interest groups than for the majority of the populace.
And while the old may have tired of running up to kick at some fresh air, the young are not even invited to the game. They are entering their voting lives in a less hopeful era than most other living generations. Students are lumbered with debt, facing a bleak job market of low wages and zero hour contracts. The chance of being able to buy a house seem to many as likely as the chance of winning the lottery. The old may be weary but the young have nothing to lose. Hence how many of them are energised by the anti establishment ideas of Corbyn, Sanders or by the thought of Scottish Independence.
In Scotland, in September 2014 we narrowly voted to give the establishment one last chance but they do not seem capable of taking it. There is always a disconnect between what it is willing to promise and the ground it is willing to give. We were promised the broad shoulders of Union but instead we have seen more cuts, more inequality, more job losses, more foreign intervention and more sales of state assets to the private sector. We were promised a No vote was the only way to remain in the EU but we linger on the precipice of being taken out against our will. We were promised something close to Devo Max but instead we are being offered mediocre powers in exchange for billions removed from the block grant.
If we accept that in many countries the status quo have reached the bottom of a bank of empty promises there are only a few directions to which this phenomenon could lead. If the economy picks up again then these movements could fizzle out as people are able to overlook systematic problems when times are good. However, if news stories are to believed we may well be about to go back into recession which most likely rules out this scenario.
Alternatively, the establishment might be able to actually reform in a meaningful way. There is a group of powerful Unionists in the UK who are trying to do just this by proposing a New Act of Union and a proportionally elected federal UK system. There will be great barriers to this type of change but if implemented it could placate enough Scottish Independence supporters and Corbynites in order to save the greater system. In the USA maybe if some of the other candidates started proposing less radical reform than Trump or Sanders, like changing to a PR voting system or taking much of the money out of politics, they could bring back some of their lost voters.
Another scenario is that the system could stop these movements ever getting meaningful power. The parliamentary Labour party are determined to stop Corbyn from the inside and the UK could easily deny Scotland a second referendum. The newspapers are doing their utmost to brief against and ridicule anything that strays from the centre. In America many party insiders have been briefing against Trump and Sanders. However, this is a dangerous strategy, as we have seen recently in Greece, an effort by the establishment to thwart the will of the people can lead to civil unrest.
The final scenario is the most interesting. That some of these movements actually gain power. In the case of Trump and some of the European far right groups this would be a scary prospect indeed. However, even with parties who are more progressive, getting your hands on the levers of power does not guarantee your vision will become reality. As we have seen in Egypt and Greece, just because you get elected does not mean you can just overthrow the system. Great institutional power structures will ferociously bear down on you. It is much easier to talk progressive change than to materialise it.
The Scottish case is perhaps the most promising, in that Independence will come hand in hand with systematic change as a different political culture is already in operation here; we have no House of Lords, we have a more representative voting system already. So in many cases we have fewer barriers to change. Whatever happens, it will be an interesting few years keeping an eye on these global movements to see how each of them fare.
Will Lucy get Charlie Brown to kick the ball again or will he start playing a different game?
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