Since Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election a short video has circulated around social media, in which the fictional news reporter Jonathan Pie delivers one of his typical ‘off the record’ pieces to camera, expressing his anger following the result. In colourful language, he points his finger directly at ‘the left’ as the agent bearing the starkest responsibility for the billionaire racist’s triumph.
“The left did this,” he declares. “Of course” this was going to happen. Anyone who had adequately removed themselves from their respective “liberal elite” could see the inevitability of Trump’s victory, but our continuous detachment from his voters had blinded us to its obviousness. Complacently accepting a vision of history as an inevitable procession of progressive victories within “the culture wars”, we had failed to ever hear the voice of those disturbed by globalisation and modernisation.
Whilst we congratulated ourselves on our successes, he continues, we forgot to ever attempt a justification of such change to those who never understood or agreed with it. Why then, goes Pie’s argument, were we so surprised when this ‘unreasonable’ section of the population – far bigger than we had ever considered – reared its ugly head and helped catapulted into power someone who actually registered their concerns, however despicable?
According to Pie, the same story lies behind the unexpected Conservative majority of 2015 and the EU referendum result, each the product of ‘the left’ (broadly construed) having “lost the art of debate…and discussion.” Rather than giving such views a hearing, it has refused them a platform altogether.
The solution, he says, is the provision of space for the expression of such opinions within political discourse, where they can then be subject to rational discussion. Out with our cosy “politically correct” standards of debate, which have blunted ‘the left’ with a deluded sense of victory for too long; into the television studios and newspaper columns come ‘the bigots’, allowed a say, presumably to be defeated or convinced by the power of our actual arguments.
Pie paints a coherent, yet dangerously misguided and simplistic narrative which demonstrates serious offence to any of the constituencies targeted by the politics of the populist right. Detached from his rhetorical flourishes, can anyone faced with the stark reality of political discourse in the US and UK seriously affirm that outright racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant language has occupied anything other than the most prominent position on the front pages of our print media, the sofas of our television studios, and the ideologies of our ruling political parties?
Nigel Farage seems to have been on BBC Question Time more often than David Dimbleby. The Sun and Daily Mail circulate daily with a fresh dose of racist vitriol. Our political elites have long since given legitimacy to anti-immigrant fervour: who set up our detention centres? Who sent deportation vans into the centres of communities? Hell, who even put ‘controls on immigration’ on a campaign mug?
Racism and xenophobia have been the positions of the political mainstream for far too long. Of course, they might be said half-heartedly or adopted instrumentally, but they have still defined the parameters of debate. Try telling anyone with black or brown skin, who’s worn a hijab in public, or dared speak Polish on public transport that racism has been a repressed, ‘unacceptable’ point of view.
In part, Pie is right. The left, or more specifically, the liberal centre left, is quite directly to blame for where we currently stand. Not because it has conspired to exclude such views from the parameters of acceptable debate, but precisely the opposite. In aping racists and xenophobes, for whatever reasons – whether the perceived wisdom of ‘triangulation’, or to appease an extreme wing inside their own party – sections of the left have continued to enable and encourage the success of such politics. Racism has always had a hearing. The same cannot be said for the fears of those afflicted by it.
What has been missing is politics – more specifically an unashamed socialist anti-racism that stands in defence of immigrants. As some have consistently held for quite some time, the left will never be able to out-Ukip Ukip, so to speak: this, ultimately, is where it leads us. We – or truthfully, the centre-left that has practised such tactics – have lost the ability to argue, not because it has refused to listen to racists, but because it has too often conceded before such a debate has even begun.
Despite its dangerous reading of the current political conjuncture, the traction of Pie’s video should perhaps be unsurprising, given its neat fit within two narratives that have dominated sections of recent centrist politics: firstly, a ‘Blue Labour’ narrative that the ‘white working class’ has been excluded and patronised by the metropolitan left; and a second reactionary position, masquerading as one of enlightened liberalism, that ‘the left’ at its ‘politically correct’ worst is guilty of active intolerance. In trying to contest the prominence given to fascists, misogynists and transphobes in civil society, it ends up practising a sort of ‘fascism’ itself, so the argument goes.
Both these and Pie’s account profoundly misread an environment in which the real danger is not a left that aims to actually challenge explicit racism, but those who continue to provide it with a platform or who echo it from the dispatch box. Some of us have long maintained that a liberalism which (at its strongest) expresses a weak internationalism but consistently supplements it with a concession to its ‘obscene underside’, would inexorably lead us here. A politics where immigration is first presumed problematic only to be justified by a conditional exception (“apart from when it benefits the economy”), and Islam is assumed naturally suspicious although its practitioners might be acquitted if they ‘integrate’ sufficiently, reaches an inevitable dead end.
Now, as the reality of a Trump presidency and the fallout of Brexit confronts us, is not the time to pretend that it reflects a failure to give racism a ‘fair hearing’ within political discourse. Rather, we need face up to the fact that a centre-left politics which constantly concedes grounds to the populist right only serves to strengthen the latter. No more concessions.