It is not enough anymore to cynically comment on the demise of political discourse in the United States and Europe, it is not enough anymore to belittle those we deem so arrogantly to be of inferior intellectual capacity. A democracy can only function if the public is well informed and it can only function in the framework of a common democratic understanding, a few core principles concerning which the debate cannot be whether they exist or not, but how best to achieve the goals set out by them.
The GOP is in the midst of falling to pieces, the tea party has been dramatically underestimated, whether Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann or who many might call the mastermind of its values: Grover Norquist. This is a tragedy and I cannot stress this enough. It doesn’t matter who you voted for in the last election or who you are planning to vote for in the next election. In a country with a two-party system like the United States which has seperation of powers and the system of checks and balances so engrained in its DNA, how can one let one of the major two political parties break apart, its intellectual elite thrown out to be replaced by fundamentalist immigrant- and tax-fearing populists?
A functioning democracy needs a reasonable, intellectually challenging opposition. It is in the interest of the country that such opposition exist at all levels of government, that compromises be struck after an informed and principled debate.
In Germany, last night, a populist party gained entry into the state legislature of three different states stretching from east to west. What shouldn’t happen is the demonization of the people voting for such parties. What should happen is a thorough introspection into our own behaviour, the media’s behaviour and the behaviour of established political parties in order to find the root of the problem. We all share responsibility for the formation of the public’s will. Misinformation needs to be countered by information, lies need to be countered by the truth, populist activism by informed activism.
Saying nothing is what brought us here. Saying the wrong things is what is going to keep us here.
For far too long has the intellectual elite of our society kept quiet in the public sphere for fear of offending or having one’s opinion dissected by fellow academics.
Here’s the problem: When reasonable people who actually believe in our fundamental principles of democracy and freedom stop defending those values, right-wing populists (who don’t really understand what these values imply) pretend to defend them, the populus is swayed by their apparent heroism and happy that “finally someone is defending our interests”.
Defending western values, which have long since developed a certain claim to universality, cannot be left to right-wing parties who trample on those values in the process of “defending” them against ennemies which they wrongfully see in people instead of harmful ideas proponed by those people.
It is the distinction between people and their ideas which is the single most important skill our society needs to relearn right now if it wants to uphold and defend the western “acquis” of freedoms while preventing a descent into xenohopbia and an antagnoism between itself and the rest of the world.
People are not defined by the positions of their governments or by an extremist fraction of their faith. Governments in democratic countries are (or at least should be) defined by the majority opinion. Majorities can change because opinions can evolve.
If one believes that one is dealing with people that possess an intellect of their own and that are simply processing the information that is available to them through the prism of their own experience, a sound and healthy debate is possible, minds can be won and rationality can trump emotion.
If one believes that one is dealing with people who are inherently inferior, if one has so genuinely lost trust in the capital of human reason that one’s worldview is one of a world split into two immovable camps, the future of intellectual discourse seems very bleak indeed.
While we live in a world where Donald Trump is the GOP frontrunner for the nomination as candidate for the office of President of the United States, where the AfD is polling high in Germany and has gained entry into three state parliaments, where the FN is gaining traction in France while the recently renamed Les Républicains is pandering for votes from the extreme-right in a bid to stop Marine Le Pen from gaining more power at the behest of remaining the largest center-right party in France, ignoring that doing so might lead to the word “center” in “center-right” to be struck, we also live in a world where there is an African-American President of the United States, a woman is leading the polls in a bid to become the next President, it is no longer political suicide in the U.S. to use the word socialism in a positive way, acceptance of homosexuality is on a constant rise, advances in technology and medicine offer new exciting possibilities and art and literature are thriving despite attempts to silence the voices of those who speak inconvenient truths.
So, how do I feel? Optimistic.
Fear-mongering and name-calling is not the solution, it is the problem; a problem that can be solved.
Nothing is lost, all is to be gained: by principled discourse, by trying to understand where people are coming from and offering them viable solutions to their problems, by non-coercive persuasion.