For all that has been said or written about the Brexit-Trump ‘Off with their heads!’ phenomenon (coming to your local democracy soon) one basic factor stands out.
As most voters would agree, the prime duty of the state is to protect its citizens from harm. By harm, we don’t just mean terrorism and other threats to our safety and security. It comes in many forms. Most of them, real and unreal, as widely perceived, come from the effects of many things: globalisation, neoliberalism and turb0-capitalism, casino banking, asset stripping, wage deflation, automation and permanent job loss, heightened concerns about immigration and culture change, increased inequality and poverty, carnage in the streets, malfeasance in the public realm, politics as usual, the collapse of family values, climate change and many others. Take your pick. These represent real fears.
Against these threats and others like them, government has been seen to be ineffectual, culpable in some way or other, and seemingly uncaring. In all democracies we have not been protected. Whom did we trust to do this? Why are things worse than before? Who is to blame?
It is in vain that members of the ‘elite’ seek to rebut such charges by protesting that most of them are beyond their control, or that of anybody else. They know that data analysis shows that this anger and these fears are more often and more clamantly to be found in voters who are comparatively older, less informed and less well-educated. They have nothing left to rage with, as someone has put it, but their votes.
In this context, politicians falter, media get contaminated, and misperceptions and outright lies spread like weeds. “The centre cannot hold”, said Yeats, if the interaction between citizens and tribunes gets sick and throws up political ectoplasm like Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wilders and Erdogan. They all, in their several ways, mislead us and feed on people’s fears: fears rooted in ignorance of where our real threats are coming from and of how we can set about collectively dealing with them.
Those fears somehow have to be countered, their psychic wounds healed. This is now the democracies’ prime mission, surely: to educate and inform, above all to communicate, all in the context of promoting some measure of realism, the ‘art of the possible’, and new and wiser solutions to the problems that enslave all of us with fear. And yes, it is the elites, particularly the Fourth Estate and the commentariat, who must do a major part of this.
As FDR said, ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’. Let that be the mantra taught to all of us by leaders with authentic charisma, optimism and ability. It is our responsibility to find them and elect them, and then hold them to their promises.