Opinion pieces attempting to explain why people voted for Trump or Brexit have become a cliché in the progressive media. But no matter how many soul-searching articles I’ve read on the subject, none of them address one important question. Whether our condemnation of mainstream politicians has gone too far, and if it led to these troubling outcomes.
Now I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be sceptical of politicians – of course they should. As an American and British dual citizen, I can think of many times that my representatives have let me down: the expenses scandal; deadlock in congress; continuing wealth inequality and public sector cuts all being good examples. And sometimes politicians do live up to their stereotype. Sometimes they lie; sometimes they cheat; sometimes they break their promises.
But a lot of the time they don’t. Many great achievements have come out of politics: the NHS; gay marriage; economic growth; basic welfare. These are all things which help millions of people, and which were pushed through by politicians for no personal gain. Whatever their faults, I just don’t believe the cliché that most politicians are power-hungry mercenaries who have no deeply-held beliefs. No one has ever given me a reasonable explanation for why people would subject themselves to a job which involves constant scrutiny, long hours and frequent public condemnation – apart from the fact that most of them really do care about creating change. But condemnation of the political class has become so widespread and automatic, that many people ignore the examples of politicians fighting for what they believe in, and fixate on cases of their dishonesty.
Hillary Clinton is the clearest example of this. She was so widely depicted as a pantomime villain, that even many progressives conceded that she was a crook who ran to be President for cynical reasons. But is this really reasonable? Whatever her faults, Clinton is a woman who dedicated her entire life to causes such as free healthcare, women’s rights and wealth re-distribution. Yet when I argue that there is even the slightest sincerity behind her character, I’m usually told that I’m being naïve.
Let’s contrast this with Donald Trump. He encompasses all of the downsides which people attribute to “typical politicians”. He is egotistical, ideologically flexible and uncaring. And yet – maddeningly and paradoxically – he is often forgiven for these faults precisely because he is seen as an “anti-politician”. It’s almost as if people are willing to look past any number of terrible attributes in a political candidate, as long as they don’t present themselves like a typical politician.
Anyone would agree that we shouldn’t blindly trust whatever the political class tells us. But now we seem to be doing the opposite – blindly disbelieving whatever the political class tell us. And that doesn’t sit well with me either. Cynicism about anyone who resembles an establishment politician has become so out of hand, that even the tidal wave of reasonable warnings they gave us about Brexit and Trump were ultimately ignored.
There were many factors which led to the votes for Trump and Brexit. I wouldn’t want to simplify such a multi-layered phenomenon into one simple explanation. But if we continue to allow the entire political class to be sweepingly condemned as cold-hearted cynics, then it shouldn’t be surprising when people ignore their advice.
It feels like progressive commentators have found ourselves in a dystopian state of the boy who cried wolf. “Politicians are liars, politicians are liars, politicians are liars,” we’ve been shouting for years. “But not when they talk about Brexit and Trump. Then you have to trust them.”
* Ben Andrew works as the Development officer for the Liberal Democrats in Sutton. He is in charge of organising events, fundraising, and energizing volunteers in the local party. He has been a member since the 2015 election, and is particularly motivated by Electoral Reform, Mental Health and Criminal Justice.