Willi Brandt believed in a democracy where people had choices and voted as educated citizens, writes Fergus Finlay.
THE Foreign Ministers of Europe gathered this weekend, to discuss the consequences of Trump’s election. From the shots on the television, they were sitting down to a sumptuous dinner, somewhere in Brussels. They had jetted in on government planes, and been driven to the banquet in a fleet of expensive cars.
At the same time, the leader of the far right in France, Marine Le Pen, was giving an interview to the BBC, in which she looked confidently to a future where she will be contesting the French Presidency, with analysts now predicting that she will (at least) make it to the final two. And as we know from the USA, there’s no predicting who will win a two-horse race.
In her interview Ms Le Pen said that she would be offering French voters a choice between what she described “a multicultural society, following the model of the English-speaking world, where fundamental Islam is progressing”, or on the other hand, “an independent nation, with people able to control their own destiny”.
I wonder did the Foreign Ministers, gathered in comfort as they were, acknowledge among themselves that the election of Donald Trump was as much their failure as his triumph? Did they understand that first Brexit, and now this, sends a message about alienation that is as troubling as anything that has happened in the world since the early 1930s?
I didn’t see it coming, of course. Very few did. I wrote here last week that Hillary Clinton would win – that she would hang on grimly to her lead, and win both the popular vote and the electoral college. Well, she didn’t. She beat Donald Trump by around a half-million votes, but not in the states where it counted.
I did though predict last week that the decision of the head of the FBI to link Hillary Clinton to an e-mail investigation into someone else’s wrongdoing would do immense damage to her, and that turned out to be the case. Someday, someone is going to get to the truth of what it was that sabotaged her in the end.
But even though I was confident she would win, I said winning is not enough. America is broken. There is every reason to believe that America will become even more broken under a President who has demonstrated no capacity whatever, even to keep his promises.
But here’s what needs to dawn on all of us. Democracy is broken. It’s broken by a deep sense of betrayal among those expected to vote, a deep and widening gap between those who govern and those who are governed. Normal representative democratic politics is being gradually replaced by polarisation, by division, by extremism.
And that division is caused in the main by failure. We live in an increasingly unequal world, where wealth and privilege is being buttressed by globalisation, by free trade, by taxation and industrial policies that are aimed at affording ever more privilege to the privileged. That is a consequence of failure. It’s essentially the failure of the politics of the centre-left – whether you call that progressive politics, social democratic politics, or labour politics.
The politics I believe in has failed. It has failed to offer an alternative to the politics of greed and materialism that has dominated the last twenty years and has sown so much division and alienation. In Ireland and elsewhere the politics of social democracy has been forced (or allowed itself to be forced) into managing the country through a recession it didn’t cause, and has ended up taking the blame for the damage caused by the recession.
Elsewhere, the politics of social democracy has become largely invisible. It may be one of the great ironies of history that a billionaire, who has never shown the slightest interest in the poor, has managed to get himself elected as leader of the free world by tapping into that alienation and bitterness. He will betray them, of course he will, and they will come to realise that their lives are going to be no better after he expels a few immigrants.
But because social democracy appears to have nothing left to say, the consequences of that realisation are likely to be even more extreme politics, politics that reject all the norms and may become increasingly undemocratic.
That’s why social democracy has to find its voice again. It has to find a way of articulating a route to greater equality, and just as important to opposing all forms of inequality. It has to articulate what equality means, and that means having the bravery to identify the winners and losers.
According to the New York Times, there was a gathering of historians last weekend to assess President Obama’s legacy – a first cut, they called it. Historians being generally a liberal bunch, they were in some despair at the notion that much of Obama’s legacy might count for nothing, and much progressive policy change could be rolled back. At a dinner after the event, the chairman, proposing a toast, wondered aloud, in the face of Brexit, xenophobia, homophobia and Trump, who could save the world. Someone in the audience, without a hint of irony, shouted “Germany”!
One of the greatest champions of social democracy in my lifetime was a German, Willi Brandt. He did more in a short period to shape the modern Germany than perhaps any other individual. And he did it through democracy and patience. He came to office 25 years after the Nazis, and he turned his country into a model of social reform.
Abroad, he shaped Europe, through a policy known as Ostpolitik. He laid the groundwork for the reunification of his country, and he opened lines of communication to Russia that stood the test of time. None of that was easy – indeed it was highly controversial – for the Chancellor of a country that was split in two by a heavily fortified barbed wire fence.
But it was within Germany that a five-year programme of reform was truly transformative. All of Brandt’s reforms were based on what people needed, as opposed to what they wanted – what children needed, what unemployed people need, what old miners and sailors needed, what people with disabilities needed. He trebled Germany’s education budget. He introduced free hospital care for those who couldn’t afford it, and a contributory insurance scheme for the rest of the population.
He believed passionately in the role of the state, but above all in democracy. In his own words, he dared to believe in an open democracy – but one where voters had real choices and voted as educated citizens – not as embittered, marginalised citizens capable of being manipulated by demagoguery. And by the way, after all these reforms were implemented, inflation was the lowest in the developed world, the German economy growing strongly, and poverty levels fell sharply.
There may not be a Willi Brandt around these days, but it’s surely time for those of us who believe in equality, here as elsewhere, to start taking down those ideas off the shelves where they have been too long. The failure of social democracy has created an opening for dark forces. Those dark forces must start to be confronted now.
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