Last night I watched the second US presidential debate. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or for that matter what I would find most satisfying, but I wanted to see it happening live. The post-debate consensus appears to be that Hillary Clinton won a particularly nasty event – in which, mind you, the nastiness did not particularly come from her.
But if we are horrified, as I am, by all the bile and aggression, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just appearing in American politics. In Europe the language of political discourse is taking similar forms in some contributions from France and Germany (and elsewhere). In Britain we have just witnessed a party’s internal ‘debate’ that involved an emergency hospital visit. And often when we get to hear members of the public contributing to a discussion the tone is one of anger.
There are several layers to this phenomenon, and the most obvious one is not the most important. Commentators are referring to the current political mood as something unprecedented – a growing group of people who have become angry because they have been ‘left behind’, because the gap between their means or aspirations and those of an ‘elite’ has widened excessively, whose fears and discomforts are not identified and addressed by that elite. In fact some of this is a true reflection of global societies: income inequality has been growing, albeit less because of pressures on the poor but more because of a huge growth in more extreme wealth. But then again, how can we explain such anger leading to support by the angry for a billionaire (Donald Trump) or for a former city trader (Nigel Farage)?
The more significant element here is that the angry sections of the population have, as people often do, been looking for someone to blame; and across continents that someone is the foreigner. The key shout has been to stop migration. This is by far the most important, and the most worrying, aspect of recent trends in popular opinion, and of political responses to it.
Of course concerns with immigration can be quite rational. No place can at short notice accommodate a massive influx of people, as Germany has discovered, and a clash of cultures between migrants and host communities can create genuinely uncomfortable (and indeed unacceptable) consequences. It is not disreputable to say that immigration must be managed intelligently. But you can measure the competence and integrity of politicians by the way they undertake this task, a hugely important part of which is to stop the emergence of xenophobia and racism. Many of the current generation of leading politicians globally (with some very honourable exceptions) are failing dismally. Or worse, they see it as their opportunity to follow the mob and stoke the fires of resentment.
The key victim of all of this is the western post-war liberal consensus. In Britain the attack on liberal values has most recently come from politicians who might have been expected to defend them, but who appeared to conclude that they must side with public opinion (as for example expressed in the Brexit decision). Some academics have recently pointed out that UK politicians are departing from the Enlightenment values that actually have their origins in Britain and which made the country a beacon of tolerance and decency. And this is a dangerous road on which to travel; it has only ever led to catastrophe.
Those of us who still believe in liberal Enlightenment values, even where we understand the pressures facing people in their lives, must not now stay silent. We should not be intimidated by the insults flying in our direction, often from the left as much as from the right. The freedoms that we all still enjoy are very very easily lost, and very hard to recover when they are.