Brexit, Expertise, and Finding Meaning in Political Life

10 Jul

On both sides of the Atlantic, openly xenophobic and anti-establishment movements are gaining momentum. Brexit and Trump, two movements that would have been impossible to imagine even two years ago, are proudly ignoring facts, stoking racism, and at least in the case of Brexit, winning. Why?

I believe the Brexit vote and Trump’s rise are not mere blips, and instead underscore two central problems in modern Western democracies. The first is the failure of expertise, specifically that of elites, to convince the public of its worth and veracity. The second is the failure of liberal political movements (Democratic Party in the US, pro-EU Labour/Conservatives in the UK) to provide an attractive version of the future that people can latch onto.

Some writers have asked whether we’re living in “post-factual democracies” and focused on how information is distributed, especially with the increased use of social media. While there are certainly some interesting effects of social media, like the political clustering it produces, the issue is much less with how information is distributed than with how it is interpreted. For Brexit’s claim that money sent to the EU would be given to the National Health Service or Trump’s claim that Mexicans are rapists to be believed, people have to be so distrusting of the current political system that they’re willing to set aside all the facts and norms associated with it. Yes it might not be true, but the system is much less trustworthy.

It is not that we’re living in a dystopian present, and that there was a recent past where people could easily separate truth from lies. But what has changed qualitatively it seems, is that people are losing faith that liberal political movements and governments will produce the political outcomes they aspire to. While it would be comforting to adopt a Marxist critique, and attribute the relative unpopularity of pluralism solely to austerity and liberals’ reticence to bank hard left, thus fully embracing social democracy, it would neglect the ideological component. Over the last two and a half decades, intellectuals and politicians are failing to shape a vision of politics that provides meaning to the individual.

I’m not sure this failing is particular to the current crop of leaders and thinkers, and is partially the result of popular expectations in the current historical moment. The fall of the Soviet Union represented the vanishing of an obvious, existential threat to Western democracies, providing leaders with few excuses for economic and social stasis. Simply, it is difficult to assure people that the world can only get better, that all the major struggles have been overcome, when it seems the next generation might be worse off.

In the absence of rapid material progress for the upwardly mobile, politics also needs a powerful ideological component; something people can find meaning in, something people can identify with. Technocratic, incrementalist politics, so common among today’s liberal political parties, does not deliver this. Part of the problem is that the institutions representing the international order that liberalism aspires to evoke little sentimentality. Few people feel personally involved in attempts by the UN or World Bank to solve the world’s problems through multilateral diplomacy and development. Not only in international organizations, but also in national governments, there is a growing economic and cultural gap between those that make decisions and those that are supposed to benefit from them. This encourages suspicion of these institutions and those within them. Hillary’s historic unpopularity is a testament to this dynamic.

This is where nationalism, and other forms of identity politics of the dominant, come in. Unlike technocratic liberalism, nationalism provides its disciples with an identity and a mission. “Make America Great Again” is compelling, because it serves both as a call to action and a vision for the future. And especially in an era when it seems pluralist politics can’t deliver the goods for all, nationalist movements like Trump pledge to restore a supposedly marginalized group to its imagined previous prosperity, implicitly at the expense of outsiders. Not only does nationalism become attractive as a antidote to failed liberalism, but anti-politicians, who deride the norms of political life and even basic decency, like Farage, Trump, and (Boris) Johnson, appear “authentic”, untainted by the failure of political institutions.

The need for meaning in politics is well-articulated by Shadi Hamid here, speaking about Islam and political life in the Middle East:

As political scientists, when we try to understand why someone joins an Islamist party, we tend to think of it as, ‘Is this person interested in power or community or belonging?’ But sometimes it’s even simpler than that. It [can be] about a desire for eternal salvation. It’s about a desire to enter paradise…There’s a desire for a politics of substantive meaning. At the end of the day, people want more than economic tinkering. I think classical liberalism makes a lot of sense intellectually. But it doesn’t necessarily fill the gap that many people in Europe and the U.S. seem to have in their own lives…

Hamid isn’t the only one to make such an argument. In Modernity’s Wager, Adam Seligman posits the need to reincorporate the sacred (i.e. religion) into Western societies to prevent extremism from flourishing outside mainstream political life. Now Seligman was writing in the early-2000’s, immediately in the aftermath of 9/11, when religious extremism seemed to some a potentially catastrophic threat to Western liberalism. Fifteen years later, it’s clear that’s not the case. But Seligman isn’t wrong about the need for meaning in politics, but it is not clear to me that that meaning has to be organized religion, especially as religious adherence declines rapidly in Western democracies.

In the last half-decade, several leftist movements have sought to challenge liberal technocratic hegemony. There’s Sanders in the US, Corbyn in the UK, PODEMOS in Spain, and Syriza in Greece. They have all adopted an anti-elitist, anti-capitalist approach to politics, leading many to describe them as “populists”. I am, however, deeply skeptical the term has any meaning (Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is relevant here; it’s on my bookshelf but I haven’t read it yet).

Most basically, what all four do understand is the need to make ordinary people feel that they have an active role to play in politics. They have largely done so by painting a picture of the majority of society engaging in a struggle for survival against a small, wealthy elite. While this may or may not be the right story to tell, liberal political parties need to incorporate similar approaches. It is certainly important to recognize that “left populists” are not perfect, and sometimes promote impractical strategies. However, do liberal elites really have any other choice if they want to to fend off racist, xenophobic, and nationalist elements? The liberal order is not as strong as it once was.

For liberal/left intellectuals, the success of politicians in both creating a form of politics invested with meaning and delivering goods and services is of tantamount importance. Academics aren’t always looked at as beacons of knowledge in today’s society, especially on the right, and it doesn’t help when the politics that many academics espouse are unpopular. However, there’s still intellectual work to be done. As John Sonbanmatsu argues in The Postmodern Prince, the left needs a new way to view the world following the fall of communism. Postmodernist theory remains obtuse and terribly impractical, while technocratic liberalism isn’t cutting it either. Intellectuals need to do a better job of sketching what the future might look like and how to realistically get there if there is to be a renewal in trust of the academy’s expertise.


One Response to “Brexit, Expertise, and Finding Meaning in Political Life”


  1. Scattered Thoughts on a Tragedy | The Widening Lens - November 14, 2016

    […] policies, modest social protections, and proclaiming that “America is already great” is no longer good enough. It doesn’t answer the more fundamental concerns of too many. And therefore, if this election […]

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