Political rhetoric isn’t at an all time low, it’s changed forever

There’s a belief among young Europeans today that we’re living in the final, best stage of human development. Liberal democracy, they argue, is what Francis Fukuyama famously, albeit prematurely, dubbed, ‘the end of history’ at the conclusion of the Cold War.

This is something of an irony. Whig historiography, as it’s called, understands history on upward curve toward greater political and liberal enlightenment. Yet, since the 19th century, the view has waned, chiefly because the sheer number of outright betrayals of humanity in the 20th and 21st has made it impossible to maintain.

Nevertheless, most people today live in a bubble that says the good times cannot be reversed. Political structures and institutions may evolve or change or cease to be, but images of genocide and cataclysmic war, whether on horseback or machine gun, are alien to today’s world.

And can they be blamed? There are very few precise moments when people feel the page of history turning. When they do these earthquakes are nearly always related to war; from the last cavalry charge to the advent of nuclear weapons right through to when the second plane hit the New York Twin Towers in 2001.

Changes in the moral epochs which govern societies are much harder to identify. Yet, in 2016 there was a palpable shift in the basic bedrock of moral mores about what is acceptable, encouraged and tolerated in politics.

Consider the United States. The election of Donald J. Trump defies every moral orthodoxy ever held about running for public office in a Western country. His lewd comments about women, ethnic minorities and his cavalier racist policies toward the world are seminal in so far as they are beyond parody. There is not even a pretence of sinister being hidden; it’s outright transparent.

The same is true of the Brexit referendum. Promises to take back money from EU (most famously the defunct claim a Leave vote would mean £350m redirected into the NHS) to the outright lies about ‘taking back control of our borders’ are lies on full display, not even hidden in plain sight.

Politicians, once the lambasted and parodied, were nevertheless given the benefit of the doubt that they might have their snout in the trough, but not their hand in the till. They’d say things to get elected, but they wouldn’t, and couldn’t, say anything to get elected because the media and the public would discern and scoff at the opacity of their lies.

There are innate, widely shared moral standards in our society about what is acceptable and unacceptable in public life. Much of it is common sense, otherwise, it’s the product of family, institutions and generational veneration of esteemed figures. The bitter consequence of creating good citizens over critical thinkers is it’s creating a dissonance and disbelief that pure deception could be taking place in broad daylight. ‘Not here’, they say. ‘Surely not, must be an explanation for it’. Yet we’ve crossed the Rubicon with rapid speed.

The monarchies of Europe once operated a basic framework of relations which governed war, societal conduct and were underwritten tenants of honour. Restrained Victorian morality, or more aptly the introduction of it, was in direct contrast to the opulent pomp of its Georgian predecessor and formed the acceptable precipice which no layman to the politician would dare step over.

It’s with this power, and the impact of centralised hierarchies and aristocracies on contemporary morality, that history is justified in bearing the name of its resident demigod, particularly in Britain. Even with the ascent of republicanism and the evolution of parliamentary democracy, the history of Western Europe over the last five hundred years has been a dialectic between what leaders think they can or should do and what the public will tolerate or embrace. Moral epochs do shift, transition and change forever and this is such a time.

Why do people vote for downright lies? Simply, incredulity is the drug of choice. It’s easier to place one’s faith in the media and the politicians themselves and presume that the system must, somehow, distill fact from fiction, good from evil.

For the first time in generations, the legitimacy of democratic institutions and political culture in the UK are at stake at the same time. In the UK, the First Past the Post system has become a laughing stock because it continually produces returns that are not proportional to total votes cast. The electoral reform referendum in 2011 was defeated and the UK again saw the absurd return of a government that gained 330 seats in parliament with only 36.9 percent of the vote (compared to UKIP who came third in terms of votes with 12.6 percent but only won a single seat).

The issue is compounded by the devolved nations who are part of a UK structure but endure successive governments which they did not vote for (Scotland returned one Conservative MP in 2015). Now, in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, Scotland faces being removed from the EU when 62.0 percent voted to Remain.

With some irony, the American Electoral College was designed to ensure that a “tyranny of the majority” would never happen. In over 240 years, it has only produced five United States presidential election results in which the winner lost the popular vote, but won by Electoral College votes cast. That a candidate such as Trump has done so now is the one time the system was required to work to ensure that, as Alexander Hamilton had hoped, “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

In both countries, little, it seems, can change the insularity of institutions that are designed to reinforce themselves while their political masters placate the populace with the line ‘nothing else could work as well, so why change?’.

The UK and the United States are now seeing an emergence of candidates who now know they can unabashedly take for granted the deficiencies of political systems. What has changed most obviously in the last year is the industrial scale by which Brexit and Trump have ushered in the age of getting what you want with not so much as a cursory nod to the semantics of the whole exercise.

Trump went through the motions of running for president, but much like Brexit campaigners the rhetoric was so lavishly sweeping and encompassing of all demographics that the lies were self-evident by their weight atop a house of cards. To their acolytes, this suggests a hunger and reactionary credentials to shake up an ailing system. To many others, it suggested a total disregard for the flawed, but well-established norms, of electing a leader or achieving a political goal.

Keyboard strokes have been shed warning that vigilance is now the price of freedom, but it should also be the lament that the age of decency is now over. Systems of government have, perhaps for too long, been contingent on basic societal standards instead of institutional protections to curtail power. Condemning the odd sex scandal with vitriol and passion has not been enough to slow the rapid decline in our political rhetoric into nothing more than mud slinging and deception.

In less than twelve months, electoral predictability which, for decades was an increasing concern about declining voter participation numbers, has been turned on its head. For many, especially young voters who have been told for a generation that the only way to create change is to vote, their en masse efforts in recent elections and referenda have been rewarded with neglect.

The criteria to get elected, or to achieve an issue, have been dragged through the mud to such an extent that no effort is even made to conceal a lie. And lies are what they are.

One wonders not about the current situation, but what comes next, so seismic has the shift in tone been. Our banal sense of sanctimony precludes any consideration that the horrors and errors of the not too distant past might reemerge. And this is not for psephology students. It’s for all of us to ponder how we return to principled engagement in the political arena before the change becomes so permanent it is the expectation of our children and their children after them. What will this age be called?