The populist insurgency is a veil—masking money and powerby Nick Cohen / February 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Propaganda hides best behind simple words. The plainer the language, the more devious it can be. A speaker’s apparent lack of pretence promises the audience that in front of them is a man of “the people”, who scorns political correctness, and “tells it like it is.”
Ah, “the people.” What lies are told in your name. To be with “the people” is to be a good neighbour and a good citizen. To be against “the people” is to be against the sole source of legitimacy in a democracy. If you are not a traitor or an agent of a hostile foreign power, you are at the very least an “enemy of the people”; an aloof member of “the elite” that fixes the system for its own benefit. Who does not want to be on the people’s side? Who will admit to standing with their enemies in the “elite”?
“The people,” “the elite,” “traitor,” “enemy.” To the astonishment of those who grew up in the long period of calm between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Lehman Brothers, these Pavlovian words are now the language of power. The astonishment takes two forms: first at the depth of deceit; then at the brass neck of the liars who so effortlessly rig the debate.
Successful democracies are wary of the twin ideas of a unified people and of a homogeneous elite. Electorates are made up of competing interests. Rival elites fight for power. If a social democratic party loses an election, no one thinks of accusing its activists of “refusing to accept the verdict of the people” if they continue to campaign for a strong welfare state and the redistribution of wealth. That is their job, after all.
And yet in Britain, the 52 per cent who voted to leave the European Union are now “the people,” while the 48 per cent who voted to remain are now “the elite.” Hitherto, elites have been tight and cliquey. No longer. At 48 per cent, Britain now has the largest elite in political history. This supposed elite breaks with another precedent. Uniquely, it is an elite which is everywhere except the one place an elite needs to be: in power. A powerless elite is not much of an elite at all. It exists only as a propaganda target for the holders of real power.
If they were truly sovereign, meanwhile, “the people’s” strength would be limitless. But like mayflies that live for a day, people power is a fleeting thing. The British people had one vote on membership of the EU, and that was it. “The people,” it turns out, does not have the prerogative of changing its mind. It cannot reconsider if the economy suffers or if Brexit leaves us dependent on a United States that is under the control of a president whose policies on Russian imperialism, climate change, ethnic relations and nuclear proliferation run directly against British interests. As soon as individual persons reconsider, they leave “the people” and join “the elite.”
Just as disconcerting as the fraudulence of the language is the fraudulence of the speakers. For anyone from the liberal-left, the rise of the new authoritarians is staggering. After the post-war settlement collapsed, inequality shot up across the west. The new gilded age ended in a bank crash. But far from turning on the rich, “the people” have turned to them.
Donald Trump is a rich man, although nowhere near as rich as he pretends. He promised to drain the Washington swamp, then appointed a cabinet with a combined worth of $4.5bn. In Britain, we are told that the leave vote was a protest by the “left behind,” even though there was almost the same proportion of leave supporters in the wealthy southeast of England (51.8 per cent) as depressed Wales (52.5 per cent).
“On one point only, it is worth conceding ground to the alt-right. Liberal society has become profoundly illiberal about language”
Members of the elites of wealth, then, now also populate the new elite of power, as the British government has made all too clear with its threats to turn the UK into a low-tax, low regulation Hong Kong of the north Atlantic. Meanwhile, whichever way you cut it, the Leavers won by playing the race card, as so many authoritarian movements have done in the past. This is not to say that everyone who voted for Brexit or Trump was a racist. It is simply to acknowledge the truth that fears about immigrants, stoked by lies, carried them over the line.
For the final deceit in the language of “the people” is that membership is colour coded. Those of us who had fondly imagined that the growth of liberal tolerance would prevent a return to blood-and-soil nationalism have had to think again. Not every citizen can hope to be in “the people.” Have the wrong skin colour, religion or birth certificate, and you can never join.
To add to the list of lost illusions, I hate to remind you that the arrival of the internet was greeted with giddy techno-Utopianism. We were assured that the freedom to speak and publish would lead to a new age in which hierarchies would be levelled, and marginalised voices heard. We now know that not only has the web produced a deluge of lies and conspiracy theory, but that the most successful political exponent of its supposedly democratising power—the first politician who turned social media into an election winner—was the narcissist and authoritarian Trump.
You can only fight debased language with better language, and a better understanding of how argument works. On one point only, it is worth conceding ground to the alt-right. Liberal society has become profoundly illiberal about language. It still shows no sign of realising that its speech codes, prudery, no-platform bans and punishments for the politically incorrect have been a gift for its opponents. The boycotts not only fostered the conspiracy theory that “the elite” was refusing to allow honest debate, although they certainly did that. They not only enabled vicious men to parade as free speech martyrs, although they surely did that too. But most damagingly, they stopped liberals from entering the arena, finding their opponents’ weak points and learning how to turn audiences against them.
The failure meant that, when the new authoritarians came for them, liberals were unable to expose their fraudulence—a fraudulence that is now manifest in every news broadcast you see.