Why media misses political earthquakes
Last week, as the shocking results of the British elections arrived, the most overused sentence in Britain seemed to be: “I was wrong.” Another insurgent mass movement following Syriza in Greece, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States, and the Five Star Movement in Italy had caused a political earthquake. In one of the biggest political upsets in British history, Theresa May of the Conservative Party lost her majority in Parliament, and her socialist rival Jeremy Corbyn led his Labour Party to its largest increase in its share of the popular vote since 1945.
Yet the eruption of mea culpas by political commentators after this seismic shift had a special pathos to them. For it was not only the British tabloids, reflexively and rowdily right-wing, which had been hostile to Corbyn and his young supporters. The centre-right and centre-left intelligentsia also unanimously saw Corbyn and his supporters as deluded cultists and dead-enders.
One of Corbyn’s most vociferous critics, Nick Cohen, a columnist at the left-wing Observer, predicted in March that Corbyn would lead his party to an “historic defeat”, and warned his supporters in the most colourful terms that they should change their minds.
It is now Cohen who has had to change his mind, and to write: “I was wrong.” And this bathetic declaration is now so frequent that it is worth asking: How did so many commentators entrusted to get things right get them so spectacularly wrong?
This is no longer an academic question, or dinner-party quibble, since public trust in the media is at an all-time low. A simple explanation is “generation gap” — a phrase last heard widely during the great youth revolt in the 1960s. Most senior media professionals find themselves on the wrong side of the age divide. Their concerns about the future are rather less urgent than those of the young men and women facing student debt, poorly paid internships, zero-hour contracts, long-term unemployment and permanent exclusion from the housing market.
There is also the class gap. Most senior journalists have enjoyed relatively high socioeconomic mobility in recent decades. Their exposure to what for many people are everyday realities — underfunded schools and hospitals, insecure jobs, communities hollowed out by deindustrialisation — is limited.
But nothing has dated political vision today more than obsolete ideology; especially among those who claim to be free of it. Most commentators today came of age as the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe revealed the criminal inefficiency of central planning, and crisis beset the social-welfare state in Western Europe and America.
In the new wisdom that dawned on Anglo-America in the 1980s, government, as Ronald Reagan put it, was the problem and not the solution, and there was something “magic” about the marketplace when it is left unregulated. As the years passed, the rising tide of globalisation seemed to be lifting all boats, in the East as well as the West.
Consequently, political programmes of previously opposed parties blended until they were indistinguishable. Margaret Thatcher could claim Labour Party leader Tony Blair as her inheritor. Radically shrinking the welfare state, David Cameron of the Conservative Party declared himself Blair’s “true heir”. In the United States, Bill Clinton pushed through cuts in welfare spending more savage than anything Reagan proposed.
With much entrusted to the evidently self-regulating mechanism of the global market, and competitive individuals and corporates, politics lost its old conflictual nature. More and more citizens turned away from political life, as is evident in the falling membership of mainstream parties and poor electoral turnouts.
A technocratic centrism prevailed among media, business and political elites, with much stress laid on fine-tuning market-oriented policies. Faith in “expertise” was never more cherished than when the French philosopher Auguste Comte first declared politics a “positive science” and appealed public should endow experts in it the same authority as it “grants astronomers for astronomy and doctors for medicine”.
In recent years, a general revolt against the inequality bred by unregulated markets, and its alleged promoters — technocratic elites — has undermined the credibility of the experts. Politics, far from being a stable science, is now subject to the contagious volatility of insurgent movements.
Corbyn, for instance, rapidly added half-a-million members to the Labour Party. Before the British elections, organisers from Sanders’s campaign travelled to Britain to help to train young British activists in the art of canvassing. Corbyn’s improbable success was made possible by tens of thousands of young men and women who knocked on the doors of ordinary voters, armed with some idea of their concerns and intentions.
Let there be no doubt: The age of depoliticisation is giving way to an era of intense repoliticisation, and mass movements are back on both the Right and the Left. The widely embraced certainties of the 1980s and 1990s are dead, and those who still cling to them are condemned to repeat: “I was wrong”.
•Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond and An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World
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