The rise of the regressive revolt

14 Jan 2017

‘Though the popular notion of revolution is that of categorical change, transformation – a leap into the future – yet almost every revolution contains within it an opposite if less obvious tendency: the idea of return’ – Graham Swift, The Waterland.


2016 showed us that notions of revolution and reaction are not mutually exclusive. It seems strange to think nostalgia could thrive in political revolt, but so it does.


From Brexit, to the election of Donald Trump, to the rise and rise of figures like Geert Wilders, populism has proved its power. Within this runs a common theme: the idea of regression.

Whilst the role of economics cannot be ignored (undeniably, in the case of America, wages have failed to increase alongside inflation), the idea that the political shocks of 2016 were simply the result of working-class disenfranchisement is not entirely accurate.


For example, in the US, African-Americans have the highest poverty rate, at 27.4%, followed by Hispanics, at 26.6%, whilst white Americans have a poverty rate of 9.9%. African-Americans and Hispanics largely rejected Trump, despite being the most deprived, whilst many white middle-class voters turned out in support of him.


Equally, it is Doublethink to see the events of 2016 as radical, ‘anti-establishment’ victories. The election of Donald Trump, a celebrity billionaire property tycoon, is hardly a champion for those left behind by free-market capitalism. Likewise, Nigel Farage, a home counties public schoolboy turned City trader, isn’t quite the ideal protector of working-class northerners who have seen local manufacturing jobs disappear.


Instead, these events were regressive revolts. By promising to ‘Make America Great Again’, and ‘Take back control’, both Trump and Farage played upon a pervasive desire to return to, rather than depart from, an old order.


Indeed, we cannot paint Trump’s campaign, which ran on a racist, misogynist platform, as radical. His victory, in part, represents a re-affirmation of nativism in an ever-changing world of global migration and integration. After all, his support base includes people who fear integration, and think African-Americans are ‘criminal’, ‘lazy’, and ‘unintelligent’.


The effects of such powerful politics have percolated into general political debate, regressing in such a way that the quality of political discussion resembles that which George Orwell observed in his diary in 1942:


We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth.


Seventy-five years later, we are living in what Ian Hislop has labelled ‘The Age of Outrage’. Balanced judgement is once more scarcely found in popular political discourse. Those who criticise the way Brexit negotiations are going, or point out Trump’s prejudice, are often labelled as ‘sore losers’, unwilling to accepted a democratic result, yet shutting down debate and criticism is hardly democratic in itself. Furious when confronted by objective facts which undermine regressive political views, many become angry and reject ‘experts’.


Doublethink also prevailed in the narrative surrounding the US election. Chants of ‘Lock her up!’ could be heard at almost every Trump rally, resembling the Two Minutes Hate, yet Trump began his post-election speech by praising Hillary Clinton.


On his website, Trump’s vision for national defence includes pledges to invest in a ‘serious’ missile defence system to counter threats from Iran and North Korea, as well as investing in cyber defence, lamenting ‘how vulnerable we are in cyber hacking’. Yet, he has been consistently sceptical of Russia launching cyber hacks into Democratic party officials' emails, despite US intelligence officials being confident that Russia was behind the election hacking.


Many pundits have spoken of a dawn of a ‘post-truth’ era. Whilst this seems a little dramatic, it is clear there is an increasing intolerance in public debate, in which intellectual honesty is often disregarded. Whilst prejudiced, uninformed views are accepted as part of people’s liberty to express ‘legitimate concerns’, such as a country being ‘at breaking point’, it appears objective truth now plays a minor role in modern politics. Objective information should be the basis of political opinion, not apart from it. As Orwell contended in his preface to Animal Farm, ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.


Whilst it is abundantly clear that people are frustrated with globalisation and free-market liberalism, mistruths, ignorance and prejudice should not be explained away as people’s sincere concerns over the economy and immigration.


Given that it was proved that the UK does not, in fact, pay £350 million a week to the EU, and that, despite Trump’s protestations, Barack Obama was, in fact, born in the US, it is clear many are unbothered by political leaders spouting mistruths. Instead, nostalgia has thrived. By using the power of the vote, people have changed the course of politics in order to keep things the same.




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