In recent years, political discourse in many countries has become more raucous but less meaningful than it was between World War II and the opening years of the century we are now in when, after having narrowed, the gap between the rich and the rest suddenly began widening at an accelerating rate. Unsurprisingly, the losers objected to the notion they should be written off.
The angry mood resulting from this is one reason why gloomy pessimists are fond of comparing the current political climate in many Western countries with that of the 1930s, when millions of people decided that democracy was too tame for them and joined totalitarian movements whose leaders thought the world was there for the taking.
Fortunately, the differences are far greater than the similarities, While some people who think that what they stand for is under attack feel that the prevailing political climate is much like that of almost 100 years earlier, the truth is that nowadays hardly anyone in Europe, North America or Japan is in thrall to anything like the terrible certainties that allowed the fascists, Nazis and Communists to commit mass murder with a good conscience. Outside much of the Muslim world and China, what characterises politics is the absence of grand overarching schemes for the betterment of mankind which, those who take them seriously insist, would require an enormous amount of violence to have any chance of working.
Many who are worried by what is happening put the blame on “populism” which, of course, comes in a great many varieties and, in any event, is in virtually all cases strongly defensive. People attracted by what Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orban, Narendra Modi and others who figure in the populist line – including our Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – have to say show little interest in spreading their cause beyond the frontiers of their own homelands. Instead, they want to protect their countries from baleful foreign influences and are against anything that smacks of globalisation. In their way, they are all isolationists. If they do harm, their followers will suffer most.
Like Trump, when he addressed the UN General Assembly this week, the politicians who are derided as populists are in favour of the nation state and want their compatriots to take pride in its achievements. They fear that a powerful international elite is conspiring to eliminate all local peculiarities by demanding that the representatives of all countries give away bits of sovereignty, let in more migrants and sign international treaties to “save the planet” from overheating. Such fears, and the fierce reactions to them, have helped make political arguments nastier that they were when almost everyone claimed to be a moderate centrist and international cooperation did not mean having “faceless bureaucrats” in Brussels or the United Nations tell national leaders what they are legally bound to do.
In the US and Europe, “liberals” or progressives have grown accustomed to treating old-fashioned thoughts like the ones that were expressed by Trump with thoroughgoing contempt, accusing those who harbour them if being “racists” and “xenophobes” who should not be allowed to speak in public. But in Latin America most people, whether leftist, on the right or somewhere in the middle, tend to be nationalistic. At a stretch, many will say they would like all the countries of the region to close ranks against the rest of the world, but few would go so far as to recommend opening the doors of their country to tens of millions of Africans or Middle Easterners as Europeans are told is their duty.
As far as Trump’s “liberal” compatriots – almost all of whom loathe him – and their European equivalents are concerned, his devotion to the nation state is deplorably backward-looking, but among educated Latin Americans it is still perfectly normal. Enthusiastic globalists are thin on the ground.
Democracy depends in large measure on the willingness of politicians and others who are involved in the business of government to assume that their adversaries are speaking in good faith. Even if they take it for granted that few, if any, of the people who disagree with them truly believe in the nonsense they are spouting, they feel obliged to pretend to do so. A reluctance to say what one really thinks may be hypocritical, but a society in which everybody spoke his or her mind would be unlikely to survive for very long. This is why in the British House of Commons calling an opponent a liar was for many years considered so outrageous that, when fierce arguments raged, irate MPs would resort to what, to sidestep the taboo, Winston Churchill once called a “terminological inexactitude,” a century-old euphemism which can still be heard in the environs of Westminster.
But times have changed. To the alarm of many commentators, in the UK, the passions aroused by Brexit, which is supported by at least half of the population but only by a fairly small minority of MPs, are turning Parliament into a bear-pit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who says he will do almost anything to “deliver Brexit” in the coming weeks, is being accused of coarsening the language of political discourse by insinuating that his political opponents are traitors to the country, but the trend started years before either he or his North American ally Trump, who is blamed for everything bad that is happening in the US, strode onto the scene. Their foes have never been reluctant to treating them as though they were would-be fascist or even Nazi autocrats or, in the case of Trump, a Mafia boss.
Elsewhere, decorum is an increasingly rare political phenomenon. In Argentina, Alberto Fernández says he does not want to debate with Mauricio Macri because every word the man utters is a despicable lie, an allegation he backs up by pointing out the difference between what the president swore he wanted to achieve before he got down to the job and what has actually happened since then, a discrepancy which, needless to say, is all too common not only here but in most other countries where campaign promises are prone to be excessively ambitious. So too, for that matter, is the habit many local politicians have of assuming that all opponents – apart from those you want to win over – are dead set on ruining the country.