A quick thought experiment: imagine if you’d been told on January 1 2016 of everything that lay ahead for the year. Would you have believed that British democracy would be brought to the brink by a referendum on the EU? If you’d heard that a billionaire renowned for paying few taxes and low wages would be elected to the White House as a champion of poor Americans, would you have believed that?
And yet, here we are. 2016 has been a topsy-turvy, through-the-looking-glass year. Black is white, rich is poor, lies are truth. The Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, and the surge of populism across Europe have left the West more divided than many can remember. No matter what side of the debate one sits on in any of these events, these are seismic, disruptive events that will have profound effects on people’s lives.
The key now is not to lament these events, but to work out how to respond to them. A starting point might be to ask what individuals and nations need to do in the West to make sure they get the best out of 2017. Here are five suggestions of areas that need attention, reflection and thought.
1. Accept compromise
First, consideration must be given to the concept of politics itself, of what politics in liberal democracies should look like. Perhaps most important here is to accept the first dictum of life in a democracy: you can’t always get what you want. That is, in societies made up of many millions of people who are politically represented by one equal vote, you are not going to always have things your own way.
We all know this, deep down, so perhaps the real lesson here is: let’s concede that the fact we will not always get our own way is absolutely fine. It should not lead to rage, to anger, to emotional dismissals of the people we disagree with, as has all too often been the case in 2016.
What tells us that this is fine? Well, in every other area of our personal lives, we know this is the case. Our individual wills and desires are thwarted at every turn, and rightly so. To make our lives work, we compromise constantly – with our parents and siblings when we are young and with our spouses, friends and children when we are older. We compromise with our neighbours, with whom we share our towns and cities, and with the colleagues with whom we share our offices and factories.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that our personal lives are one long succession of compromises. Why should politics be any different? The first thing we need to do in 2017 is refocus on this notion of compromise in the collective political realm.
2. A plea for honesty
Second, we should demand exactly the same of our politicians. For far too long, way before Brexit and Trump, the strong politician who refuses to compromise has been an admired figure – heroic, even. But this, in truth, is, and always has been, a nonsense. Behind the scenes, compromise is what makes liberal democratic politics work.
Even in the most ardent cases of a public heroic commitment to principles, such as Margaret Thatcher’s avowedpledge to no discussion with the IRA in the 1980s, in the background, the channels of communication are open. The UK government desperately tried to get all sides to the table to make compromises and bring the Troubles to an end, despite Thatcher’s public position.
We should demand of our politicians that they are open and honest with us about how government and politics works. No more grandstanding.
In 2016, we were told that “Brexit means Brexit” and that the US will pull down all trade agreements. As the year draws to a close, we can see both these positions softening as reality hits home. So please, let’s cut out the intervening stage of political positioning and have an adult discussion of how we work together to make politics work for all.
3. Stop calling people losers
Which leads to our third lesson for 2017: we need to talk about the role of the minority position in democracy. This is a conversation for politicians and voters alike. Let’s please disavow ourselves of the notion that people who voted against Trump and Brexit are losers or whingers. Let’s dismiss the ludicrous claim that if you disagree with Brexit, you are trying to subvert the democratic will of the people.
No – categorically, no. In a democracy, the role of the minority position is essential. The role of the minority is to dissent and criticise the position of the majority. Every political thinker who has ever written on democracy tells us this. Every government in Britain and the US since universal suffrage has understood this.
4. Reassess what’s normal
The fourth thing we should insist on in 2017 stems, in fact, from one of the more useful concepts introduced by the convulsions of 2016 – the notion that in the US, people should not “normalise” Donald Trump. We should ensure that the unacceptable misogyny and bullying of minorities displayed during the campaign trail should always and forever be called out, lest it seep into US politics in general. It is an excellent rule of thumb generally. Politicians who do not adhere to the basics of dignity and respect in polite society should be challenged.
Other problems should be de-normalised. When politicians lie or mislead, it should not be deemed a normal part of politics. For too long, the whole political system has accepted that what politicians say in public may be different from what they say in private. That not only encourages more mendacity, but also leads to the loss of legitimacy of the whole political class, as it just becomes par for the course that politicians are liars.
5. Get reading
Finally, there is one other thing we can all do in 2017 – perhaps the simplest of all of the five recommendations, and yet one that underpins the preceding four. We as citizens should pick up a book, a book chapter, a newspaper article, a journal article, that argues for the very thing it is that we oppose. If you voted Brexit, pick up some reading on what the EU actually does – on the history that brought it into being. The same goes for the other side. If you voted Remain, do some reading on euroscepticism and where it came from.
If you voted for Trump, read something on the positive role of free trade, or on the actual impact of immigration on US history. If you voted Clinton, read some of the critiques of the Democratic party and the role of money – or read some Chomsky on the many failings of mainstream democracy in the US over the last several decades.
You do not have to agree with everything any of these works say, you just have to understand why they are saying it. And pretty soon, as you read this stuff, it is possible to move from distrust and fear of the other side to understanding, to seeing that there is merit in their position, too.
We need to relearn the notion that the other side could be right, too, that they have quality in their arguments as we do in ours. This might help us challenge decades of falling engagement in political issues. It might help remind us that politics is ultimately a fascinating and rewarding part of our lives and that it’s worth investing time to follow it.
So here’s to a bright, progressive 2017, where differences of opinions do not drive people apart but rather bring them together in an open and respectful discussion. The future of liberal democracy depends on it.