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…