A Time of Regressive Politics

by Adele A. Wilby

A brief scan across global politics generates concerns as to what is actually going on in the politics of many states. Authoritarian regimes have always been with us, and will probably be with us for some time to come. Of greater concern is the emergence of political leaders in liberal democracies who espouse a politics which resonates with the past: a politics of nationalism, and nativism, and the inward-looking thinking that is associated with those ideologies. This trend, in what I would call a ‘regressive politics’, is in opposition to the process of globalisation.

The ascendency of regressive political tendencies has surfaced and gained force in the states of the two global leaders of liberal democracies: the United States and the United Kingdom from 2015 onwards.  Since then we have witnessed a time where the ‘progressive’ in the ‘liberalism’ that is associated with the two states has come under considerable strain.

Glimpses of a beginning of a period of regressive politics in the UK became evident with the publication of the Conservative Party Manifesto of 2015. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, faced a major political challenge from the political right both inside and outside the Conservative party. On one hand, the incessant grumbling and whining from English nationalists and Euro-sceptics over the ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ of the UK was a persistent source of discontent and division within the Conservative party.  The far right anti-European Union political party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was a growing political threat.

UKIP had the potential to split the conservative vote in the elections, and hence deprive the Conservatives of an outright victory. To placate these two political trends in the British polity Cameron included a commitment to a referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU in the 2015 Manifesto. The strategy worked, and the Conservative’s romped home in the election, winning 330 of the 650 seats. In June 2016 Cameron followed through on his Manifesto pledge, and an in/out choice in the referendum on the UK’s relationship with EU got underway. However, it was not the result Cameron had championed: ‘remainers’ lost the vote, gaining only 48.1% to 51.9% for the ‘leavers’; a slim margin, but enough for the ‘leavers’ to claim victory, and the divorce of the UK from the European Union was set in motion, an event that was to have historic significance for the UK, and indeed the European Union.

Despite his pledge to remain in office regardless of the outcome of the referendum, Cameron resigned and retired to the quiet and comfort of his home in the beautiful surrounds of the English countryside. Teresa May, Cameron’s successor, inherited the difficult and complex task of negotiating UK’s exit from the EU. However, Cameron cannot be exonerated from responsibility for this momentous development in British politics. His capitulation to the right-wing Euro-sceptics in his own party was a   questionable strategy. His complacency in his certainty of a ‘Remain’ victory is more difficult to comprehend. As Prime Minister, Cameron had deep insight into the issues that leaving the EU would involve, but he failed to draw on that knowledge and effectively take the country into his confidence and convey to the electorate what the process of leaving the EU entailed. Thus, the calibre of the ‘remain’ campaign in the referendum can only be considered a failure of effective leadership. In fact, politicians on all shades of the political perspective resorted to demagoguery, misleading information, and failed to offer an in-depth exposition of the complexities and consequences that leaving the European Union involved. Instead, the arguments allowed xenophobia to become respectable, reclaiming the idea of national ‘sovereignty’, and misconceptions about trade and rules and regulations and the UK’s financial contribution to the EU, dominated the discourse. It was, in short, one of the shallowest episodes of political debate on such a crucial national issue ever witnessed. The outcome is what we have today: poor political leadership on all sides; confused thinking amongst all sections of the society, including MPs; business uncertainty; unprecedented constitutional issues; a growth in anti-immigrant sentiment, and a divided population. The UK is now poised to break away from one of the strongest trading blocs and political voices in international politics.

While the Conservatives were laying the foundations to sever the treaties and agreements that bind the UK and the EU in mutual interests, across the Atlantic the US was about to experience a full dose of social and economic retreat that undermined the ‘progressive’ in the ‘liberal’ of US politics.

Donald Trump’s announcement to the world in 2015 that he would run as the Republican candidate was met with some mirth and derision from wide sections of people within the US, and globally. A reality TV star and property billionaire as President of the United States? His announcement was seen at best as a publicity stunt, or an example of a man with an over inflated ego, and at worst that he just did not understand the depth of politics he was aiming for. His victory in the 2016 Presidential election defied sophisticated political commentators’ predictions, and mortified many throughout the world. Was it really the case that the American people could vote into office a person so lacking in ability and credibility to occupy the office of President? The world held its breath as to what to expect from this unknown and untested political entity in the form of Donald Trump.

Thus, the US has, arguably, one of the most politically inexperienced and inarticulate conservative Presidents occupying the most powerful office on the planet. If, as it is often commented, we are to judge a man by the company he keeps, there is little choice but to question the calibre of Trump: some of his closest allies have been indicted for lying and various types of financial fraud. His reliance on his politically inexperienced daughter and son-in-law as policy advisors is example of nepotism in the American polity, and their explicit conflicts of interest raise concern about where their real interest in politics lie. People of calibre have found it necessary to step aside, or have been asked to step aside: experience, expertise and professionalism, and institutional knowledge have little significance in Trump’s political world. The long-anticipated Mueller report, commissioned after the elections amid concern over just how far Trump was involved with the Russian influence in the US elections, found no evidence of Trump collusion. However, the report has failed to exonerate him on charges of obstruction of justice. Thus, the saga of the report findings is not yet over, and is likely to rumble on for the foreseeable future. It is a pity that it is only the redacted version of the report that has been published. Nevertheless, now that the redacted report is available, it is up to the public and politicians to scrutinise the report, and draw their own conclusions about the findings.

But the issue of Trump’s involvement with the Russians, important as it is for American democracy, is just one contentious issue around Trump’s conservative presidency. As many have argued, Trump seems more concerned to turn back time on the political and economic institutions the US put in place in the post-World War II era. His slogan ‘make America great again’ has all the hallmarks of a burgeoning nationalism and the economic and political isolationism that surrounds such an ideology, the anti-thesis of previous US leadership on the global stage. He prefers conflict over consensus in trade relations. He demonstrates disdain for international law. His anti-immigrant rhetoric and practice encourages division and gives legitimacy to racist practices against the ethnic minorities in the US society. He opts for a taxation system that favours the rich at the expense of most Americans. He is equivocal on white supremacist views and activity. His aspiration to build a border wall, is in effect, an aspiration to build a wall between peoples. He cosies up to dictators. His patriarchal behaviour and demeaning of women is well known. He chooses conservative officials into positions with the potential to undermine progress in social policy. He aims to undermine a healthcare system that works to help the most vulnerable in US society. His abrogation of treaties reflects his lack of appreciation of issues and decades of painstaking diplomacy and intellectual endeavour to reach mutual agreements. He has an utter disregard for the environment and the science that surrounds the subject. He disparages any media that is dismissive and critical of his views. All these issues signify a President who looks more to the past for political inspiration than seeking to edge forward on policy. Underpinning his ‘vision’ of society and the world, is an Evangelical Christianity.

Teresa May, the UK Prime Minister has not been exposed to questions over her integrity and the manner in which she assumed office, but that is a minor consideration in her Premiership. Her intellectual depth and political judgement at a time of historical significance to the future of the UK have come under severe challenge and persistent scrutiny.  From the outset, May miscalculated the British public’s support for the Conservatives and their brutal and cruel economic austerity. She lost a Parliamentary majority when she went to the country and sought a mandate from the people to negotiate the UK’s exit from Europe. Her political judgement, and hence her ability, have since been called into question. Without a clear Conservative majority in the House of Commons to negotiate the UK’s divorce from Europe, May’s hands have been tied from the time she evoked Article 50 that would take the UK out of the EU. Lacking in vision or strategy for such a process, faced with a diversity of opinions and interests inside and outside Parliament, May has failed to negotiate a deal with the EU that would command majority support in the House. Politically crippled by widespread opposition to her deal, and with the option of a no-deal Brexit off the table, May has had to return to the EU to seek an extension of the UK’s leaving date. Ironically, considering how far opposition to the EU has been based on the UK’s aspiration to ‘take back’ control its own affairs, the future of the UK has been dependent on the EU agreeing to its request for more time to find a consensus amongst MP’s on a deal. With the departure date now set for 31 October, the UK has months to ponder its next move, perhaps under the leadership of a new prime minister.

Both Trump and May, for different political reasons, represent the politics and rhetoric of a deeply entrenched conservatism in these oldest liberal democracies. Whereas people and politicians have, over decades, striven to various degrees to move forward in favour of more inclusive and tolerant societies, the politics in the UK and the US today are dominated by a nostalgia for a return to social and foreign policies that ultimately divide relations between nations, and entrench prejudices and discrimination between people.

Given the triumph of an era of regressive politics in the US and the UK, all that remains is a hope that all things have their day; politicians come and go. Only time will reveal for just how long the reactionary politics of today will remain a dominant political trend, or are we witnessing the emergence of new configurations in the politics of the two countries?