How long will we continue to ignore the obvious?

The Brexit referendum was a perfect demonstration of what many of us have known for a long time: emotion trumps reason – every time. In the referendum campaign, the Remain campaign mounted a campaign focused on ‘rational’ arguments – largely about the economy. All the visceral emotion was with Leave. It is not surprising Leave prevailed. What is also clear is that anger trumps fear – every time. Angry people are fired up. They rise up to do things – often destructive things. Fear paralyses. People cower in a corner and hope it all goes away.

The prevailing political mood at the moment is one of widespread anger. How should one handle it?

Last night at a political dinner, the view was expressed that what was needed was to try to dampen that anger, show people that they were being unreasonable and irrational and win them over to the moderate, tolerant, open, reasonable and rational values of liberalism. I cannot think of an approach that is more likely to fail than that one. It’s the equivalent of being faced by a furious spouse and responding with “Calm down dear and let’s be reasonable about all this.” We all know how effective that is.

We are currently faced with an angry, near revolutionary mood in politics more or less the world over. Extremist forces are highly skilled in exploiting such a mood, fueling the anger and turning it to their advantage. In such an environment, the traditional liberal appeal for rational moderation will fail – again and again. The challenge is to find ways to ride that wave of anger and guide it to productive ends.

That is why in our recently published book titled “The Death of Liberal Democracy?” David Boyle and I argue for the current bland, politically correct, compromising Liberalism that comes across as a weak-willed lack of conviction to be reborn as something clearer and fiercer. A liberalism that recognizes that the time for tinkering round the edges is over and, re-discovering its radical roots, is decisive in constructing a different and open society. A liberalism that, rather than fruitlessly trying to reason away people’s anger, rides that wave of emotion and offers a vision of a fundamentally different social order.

In our review of liberalism, we show how it was born, and was successful, as a revolutionary, liberalizing force. And how it died when it started seeing itself as part of the Establishment defending the status quo – except for the odd tweak here and there. That is why the current political mood offers an unprecedented opportunity for a liberal revival. But only if it can shed its bland incrementalism and rediscover its original reason for existing – as the radical force for liberation.

It’s time for liberals to get angry.

* Joe Zammit-Lucia is a co-founder and trustee of the think tank radix.org.uk and a Lib Dem member

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14 Comments

  • Couldn’t agree more. Where is our radicalism for times of radical social change?

  • Barry Snelson 16th Sep '16 - 3:08pm

    Is this Trump ‘radical’ ? Or Corbyn ‘radical’? I followed the link but didn’t feel inclined to buy the book and the sample pages read the same as this.
    Could you please explain some of the key visible features of this “fundamentally different social order”

  • Stevan Rose 16th Sep '16 - 3:29pm

    Sounds like a book plug. I thought only Paddy could do that.

    “At a political dinner” is the key phrase. In real life outside the political bubble the prevailing conversation is around football, Bake Off and will Hollywood go to C4, maybe the Paralympics, the NHS, and all manner of trivia but not discussions around the need for a radical force for liberation. If there’s widespread anger amongst the political elite frankly few people care. I guess I’m increasingly angry myself though, with hyperbolic nonsense. I’m getting truly fed up with saying focus on practical solutions for the things people who have not been radicalised by anti-Brexititus are actually interested in. A voice of moderation is needed when faced with Corbyn madness and Tory self-interest.

  • Well the fact people think with emotions first and reasoning after is not new. That however is not a reason rush to reliance on emotion. There certainly there has been a trend to mushy magnolia stuff, but relying on hyping up anger is like trying to ride a tiger. People do get angry, they however do also think things over and change their minds over time, they also can respond very poorly to someone trying to emotionally manipulate them (or succeeded and then being found out).

    Relying on emotion should only be used where something is a safe area to do so and still backed up by reasoning.

    As for the call for radicalism, it can be good but worshiping it as inherently so is not. The electorate when angry are often angry only in one area and still insecure about other areas. Being radical on all areas can look like recklessness.

  • Barry Snelson 16th Sep '16 - 4:30pm

    I think we should earn the right to ride our dolphin and verbalise our innermost belief system paradigms.

    I realise none of this makes sense but I didn’t want to be left out.

  • paul barker 16th Sep '16 - 6:07pm

    There may be a “reasonable” argument in the book being plugged here but going on about the Referendum wasnt it. The Libdems werent a major factor in the Leave victory, we were just too small to have much effect.
    The biggest factors in The Leave win were Corbyns refusal to share a platform with other Remainers, the resulting confusion among Labour voters & Camerons very lukewarm campaigning. As far as the Media were concerned, campaigners outside The Tory/Labour/UKIP nexus could be safely ignored.

  • To say Remain was about the rational and Leave was about emotion is just wrong.

  • David Cameron going on about the upcomming WW3 was totally a rational argument. Yeah.

  • I am happy with the idea that liberalism “recognizes that the time for tinkering round the edges is over” and it’s time for “constructing a different … society” but as others have stated neither this nor the sample pages set out what this different society looks like.

    Is it a society where people work less, because every citizen receives a Citizens Income at a level high enough to pay for their need for water, food, basic clothing, and home energy (for cooking and heating in the home)?

    Is it a society where the government has as its main economic policy full employment (unemployment below 3%)?

  • Sadie Smith 17th Sep '16 - 1:04pm

    Very mixed contribution. And I much enjoyed the dolphin comment.
    I hope my Democrat friends have passed on my advice to the right people about emotion. However much we dislike it, it must be used.
    When I joined the Liberal Party I felt very strongly about some social injustices and campaigned about those as well. Most have been changed now. But there will be other causes to fight for with passion and some of these are looking likely to be found in a very strange Tory party. I have enough experience of Labour to know that they will be useless or offer even more extreme ideas.
    So half right. Liberalism though is alive, needed and in our Party.
    Fight poverty, extremism, and challenge racism and all the other ills we can see in our society. We do not have to be polite about it, though sometimes it is tactically wise to have a mix. But dump or qualify that word centre. It sounds too uncertain.

  • nvelope2003 17th Sep '16 - 8:39pm

    The left or centre left parties, Labour or the Liberals/Lib Dems were traditionally the proponents of radical ideas to improve society in the past but now are there to defend the present system. Advocating remaining in the EU or opposing grammar schools may be right but it is not radical. The right are the people who are the people who are proposing radical solutions even if they are wrong or people do not like them.

    The recent growth in membership of the Labour Party cannot be ignored even if their policies have been tried and failed before. People want a fairer society but no one seems to have come up with ideas that are likely to achieve that without creating unfairness elsewhere.

    When I read the comments on some of the news items almost all are silly slogans or trite remarks culled from newspapers. Virtually no one expresses a positive or even interesting thought.

  • Leave The EU 17th Sep '16 - 11:14pm

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37368193 – how does that sit with people? Peace and all the best.

  • I’m not so sure this is true. Radicalism is not good in itself. What we actually need to do is improve the standard of living. Most of the liberal social attitude battles have been pretty much won. Racism, homophobia etc. are not really institutional in the a policy sense and are mostly restricted to adherents of religious dogma and the odd stray bigot. Being anti bigotry at this point is the norm to the point where even rabid right-wingers get offended if you call them racist or homophobic now. So to me rather than trying to be radical, why not just aim to create a nicer country. To me people are basically decent and any anger that’s been unleashed has really been unleashed by the disruptive fiscal and to an extent social radicalism of the currant economic orthodoxy.

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