Blame the identity apostles – they led us down this path to populism

With its over-defensive advocacy of minorities, the left has jeopardised half a century of liberalism

I have no tribe. I have no comfort blanket, no default button that enables me to join the prevailing hysteria and cry in unison, “Of course, it’s all the fault of X.” Meanwhile we everywhere see the familiar landscape clouding over. There are new partings of the ways, disoriented soldiers wandering the battlefield, licking wounds. The liberal centre cannot hold. It cries with Yeats, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

I confess I find all this somehow exhilarating. Cliches of left and right have lost all meaning, and institutions their certainty. Even in France and Italy, European union is falling from grace. A rightwing US president wins an election by appealing to the left. In Britain, Ukip can plausibly claim to be supplanting Labour. A Tory prime minister attacks capitalism, while Labour supports Trident. Small wonder Castro gave up and died.

Conventional wisdom holds that it is the “centre left” that has lost the plot. The howls that greeted Brexit, Donald Trump and Europe’s new right are those of liberals tossed from the moral high ground they thought they owned. Worse, their evictors were not the familiar bogeys of wealth and privilege, but an oppressed underclass that had the effrontery to refer to a “liberal establishment elite”.

Paul Krugman, field-marshal of an American left, stood last week on his battered tank, the New York Times, and wailed of Trump’s voters: “I don’t fully understand this resentment.” Why don’t the poor blame the conservatives? He had to assume the answer lay in the new Great Explanation, the politics of “identity liberalism”. He is right. It is 20 years since the philosopher Richard Rorty predicted that a Trump-like “strong man” would emerge to express how “badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates”.

This prediction has now gone viral. Likewise, the historian Arthur Schlesinger warned that a rising campus intolerance, of “offence crimes” and “political correctness”, would endanger America’s national glue, its collective liberal consciousness.

The latest guru on the “what Trump means” circuit is the US political psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Conversing with Nick Clegg at an Intelligence Squared event in London last week, he was asked over and again the Krugman question: “Why did poor people vote rightwing?” The answer was simple. There is no longer a “right wing”, or a left. There are nations and there are tribes within nations, both growing ever more assertive.

Lees deze column van Simon Jenkins verder op The Guardian

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