How 2016 Became the Year Politicians Forgot How Politics Work
The world's scheming geniuses have spent 2016 completely screwing everything up.
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
If you've been listening carefully this year, you might have heard a gentle, regular sound in the background of world events, the sound of rakes slapping people in the face. And not just anyone: The lauded and powerful—our liberal political elite, the very best among us—have spent the whole of 2016 vigorously pummeling themselves, striding blindly into rake after rake after rake.
The far-right victories of this year—Brexit, Trump, all those now-dull and familiar horrors—are mostly being treated as something that just happened, an inexplicable seepage of bile bubbling out from under the ground. A few people are still pointing out that the liberal order set the stage for this kind of response: Wherever the far-right wins, it's because mainstream politics have failed; people voted for Trump and Brexit because decades of callous and indifferent centrist administration had made life so stupid and miserable that any change, even total destruction, would be preferable.
But this is also true on a far more basic level. Politicians didn't just set the stage for the far-right surge—they actively encouraged it at every turn, thinking they could twist it to their own advantage and come away unscathed. Every time some gang of witless, terrifying Poujadists ends up steering another country into a lake, the proximal cause is always the same: one puffed up politician and their very clever plan. This year, 2016, was the one in which all the very clever plans stopped working.
Representative democracy was—for its founding ideologues, like John Stuart Mill—supposed to put a barrier between the unenlightened mob and the levers of power; the general desire for brutish and unacceptable things like communal ownership and not being mangled to death in some vast hellish industrial machinery would be safely abstracted away by the ranks of parliamentary representatives drawn from a better class. Better because the upper classes respond to "wise and noble things"—high art, the classics, the great tradition of Culture with a capital C. On reflection, this hasn't really worked out.
We still have a democratic elite that stifles the population in its own name, but instead of constipated old Latin orators, they seem to get most of their worldview from TV boxsets. David Cameron loves Game of Thrones. Barack Obama loves House of Cards. These shows present a world of intrigue and power play, long and careful plots in which our heroic sociopaths bring everything together to undermine their enemies. And on TV they tend to work. It's not impossible to imagine that there's a mimetic effect at work—that our elected representatives, watching all this cleverness and skulduggery on their screens late at night, were stupid enough to decide that maybe they should try it out themselves. After all, the global ruling class has turned itself into an army of shit Baldricks, thinking up endless cunning plans to improve their own personal fortunes and every time unleashing utter chaos. And we're the ones suffering the consequences.
Take Brexit. The most significant decision in postwar British history wasn't taken out of the genuine desire to let the British people decide their own constitutional future; nobody in politics wants that, however much they occasionally pretend to. It was a cynical little scheme on the part of David Cameron. He promised a referendum on EU membership to get what he wanted out of two different groups of people he had to pretend not to hate: the Eurosceptic backbenchers in his own party and the general public. The idea was that by making that promise he could whip up enough anti-European fervor among the electorate to give himself a second term in 2015, but not quite enough that they'd actually vote us out. This way, the issue would be put to rest forever, and he could carry on with his important work of emitting strange plumy choking noises unperturbed, going down in the history books as Britain's milkiest Machiavelli.
It didn't work. Of course, it didn't work. It's hard to think of a stupider plan: "First, I'll just reach in and pull my legs out; now I'll pull my arms out with my face." He thought the British people were infinitely malleable and infinitely stupid, that he could arrange them on his big and complicated chessboard, and they'd do whatever he told them to. He was wrong.
The same thing happened in the US. From the moment Trump announced his candidacy—actually, before he even went public—the Clinton campaign was working out its fiendishly complex plot. Trump was seen as a golden opportunity for Clinton, a candidate so gimmicky and divisive that a weary public would have no choice but to vote for her. As leaked emails show, they did everything possible to make sure that he was the Republican nominee, dignifying his candidacy every time she responded to him, turning the election into Trump vs. Clinton long before all the other possibilities had exhausted themselves. In other words, they considered Trump so unelectable that they helped him win, without any thought for the millions of marginalized people who were left at risk of violence by his rise.
And even once a Trump victory came charging out of the realm of fantasy and started to appear as a genuine possibility, they were still playing clever House of Cards–style tricks. They openly announced how clever they'd been in diverting Trump's resources away from battleground states to the Republican heartland, and all the while traditionally left-leaning states were falling away from them. When private polling showed that Trump might actually win in key Midwestern states, they didn't send a Clinton campaign there. Instead, they hatched a very clever plan: By not campaigning there, they'd make Trump's strategists think the Republicans had no chance of winning, so they wouldn't campaign either, and then Clinton would win. She lost.
You'd think people would learn, but politicians have decided for themselves that they're very smart people, and it seems that no number of rakes to the face will convince them otherwise.
And they're still at it: Just in the last few weeks, British politician Zac Goldsmith hatched a very clever plan to resign his seat in protest at plans to expand Heathrow, and then be carried triumphantly back to Westminster by the grateful Heathrow-haters of his constituency. It was clear from his bizarre and racist mayoral campaign that he didn't really understand London, but as it turns out, he doesn't even understand Richmond: Instead of doing exactly what he told them to, his neighbors summarily turfed him out of Parliament, overturning a Tory majority of 23,000 to announce their unhappiness with Brexit.
Meanwhile, in Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wanted to push forward a raft of unpopular neoliberal reforms that had little chance of making it through parliament, so he very cleverly decided to drastically reshape parliament—there would have to be a referendum, but he could make it so abstract and boring that nobody would bother opposing him. He didn't understand that people are free to interpose their own meanings into these things, and that they tend to dislike the idea of an oily twerp in a tie cleverly manipulating them to get what he wants.
These people have never understood: The more you deny people agency, the more they'll fight for it, even if that means choosing the stupidest possible option as an empty signal of defiance. Look forward to more of the same in 2017: the patter of rakes against faces growing into a cacophony, thudding across the world—blundering stupidity as the only form of political action from every social sector, the birth of a hideous new evil tearing itself free from the world in a storm of blood, and all because a few Netflix addicts can't admit that they're not as smart as they think they are.
Follow Sam Kriss on Twitter.
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