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The limits of political pain: 1 February 8, 2019

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Not particularly fond of Janan Ganesh’s writings, but he does ask an excellent question in the following column that looks at how Trump has had to waver in regard to the shutdown in the US…

Core to populism is a high-minded disdain for material comfort. To prise one’s country from transnational overlords might entail some cost, says the candid demagogue, but it is bearable and perhaps even team-building. Nothing thickens the national stew like shared adversity. This spartan ethos is at work when people claim to prefer a more homogenous but slower-growing society to a diverse and dynamic one.

It is rampant in Britain, where many voters desire the hardest of Brexits, however many cabbages they have to grow themselves. And it lulled the White House in December, which trusted Americans to put up with open-ended inconvenience for the sake of tighter borders and, in time, a more familiar nation.

I just wonder whether voters mean a word of it. We can all declare ourselves game for hardship in service of a larger cause. Events rarely oblige us to act on it. When they do, and the costs register, it is not clear that people are any less sensitive to material harm than they were before 2016, or any less ravenous for politicians to blame. Populists are right that lots of voters thirst for an unspecified yesteryear. The question is how much economic and practical disruption they will endure to achieve it. To the extent that populists overrate this tolerance for pain, they are politically vulnerable.

I’ve had similar thoughts. And it strikes me that when one looks at actual political activity in states – and how that functions, the idea of polities bearing much pain seems very very much adrift from reality. One doesn’t have to, though perhaps one should, consider the very real anger expressed during the crisis here when austerity bit deep and hard (and one should never forget how that austerity continues to work its way through the system). No one, I imagine, would argue that that came close to destabilising the state, but it has left Fianna Fáil and Labour shattered in its wake. Even today FF is compared to its previous heights remarkably weak. And Labour may have been dealt a blow that will restrict it to small party status for the foreseeable future. And that’s before we get to the attitude of voters more broadly. Sure, they delivered knock out blows to parties, but their attitude to the structures and to government was one of unwillingness – entirely correctly by the way, to bear economic pain.

Why this would be otherwise in the US or UK is an interesting question – and in the former the broad antagonism to the shutdown suggests that there are limits to the scope of conservatism in attempting to reshape the state or remove services, and in the latter that the manner in which Brexit progresses may in and of itself create massive antagonism if the effects are as bad as quite moderate projections suggest.

The Blitz spirit has always appeared to me to be misleading. My grandmother who was a nurse in Birmingham told me how she and my mother as a baby and her own parents hunkered down under a table in their kitchen during air raids. She worked in a hospital with numerous casualties from the armed forces. There was no rose-tinted spectacles on her part about what that meant, no nostalgia for simpler better times. Those times were awful but they got through them and there was no appetite to return.

I compare and contrast mentally then and now, populations who have (largely) never known that sort of visceral fear, that level of hardship in daily life in regard to food and goods, and I can’t se how that ends well.

And this strikes me as plausible:

The idea that life is more than convenience and gross domestic product is still populism’s emotional edge over arid technocracy. But the point is to keep it as an idea. Test the reality, and populists might find their cherished masses are a terrible disappointment to them.


1. Phil - February 8, 2019

There’s a famous Orwell quote about this – “Hitler offered the German people hardship, suffering and sacrifice, and they fell at his feet” or WTTE. I don’t buy it – when he was still competing in democratic politics Hitler offered the German people wealth, power and glory, and even in the ‘guns before butter’ period the promise was that Germany would be rich and powerful when it was all over. (Even the deportation of German Jews had a ‘positive’ side for supporters of the regime – Jewish families’ houses and possessions were auctioned off.)

The clever thing about austerity is that it was promoted, right from the outset, as necessary short-term pain. Apparently it’s been shown that voters in areas of the UK hit hardest by austerity tended to move to the Right; I don’t think it’s because people liked losing services, but because they found it more comfortable to buy into the ‘short-term pain’ story than to recognise what was actually going on, which would have left them powerlessly angry as well as hard-up. Even then, it did to the Lib Dems what your period of austerity seems to have done to Labour. Not sure why FF also suffered, though – perhaps because they’re seen as the more ‘left’ of the two major parties? Did FG challenge the austerity narrative or buy into it?

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Lamentreat - February 8, 2019

Spot on: until 1941 or even later, domestic conditions in Germany were great for those who went along with the regime – economic boom; v few air attacks on home soil; the booty of successful war and early genocide. The cult of hardship and suffering came later.


Daniel Rayner O'Connor - February 8, 2019

The cult, as distinct from the reality, was always there. The Nazis persuaded the Germans that they were suffering shortages for an higher goal, whereas, in fact, they ensured that enough, perhaps most of them were living better than they had in the austerity years immediately before 1933.
Since these material benefits of Nazi-ism were sustained, in part, by one-sided trade deals (notably, the celebrated Oil for Harmonicas agreement with Rumania0 and, after 1939, by simple plunder. it is difficult to see how post-Brecchshit Britain will be able to parallel the said achievement of the Third Reich for any length of time.
Mind you, Ireland would be well advised to scrutinise the fine print of any bilateral (if possible) trade agreements with its nearest neighbour.


WorldbyStorm - February 8, 2019

V true re austerity being promised as short term


Joe - February 8, 2019

“Not sure why FF also suffered, though – perhaps because they’re seen as the more ‘left’ of the two major parties? Did FG challenge the austerity narrative or buy into it?”

FF suffered because they were seen, correctly imho, as the authors of the crash and thus the ones who caused austerity. They were the government for the boom times who were completely unprepared and clueless when the crash came. Granted the crash was an international thing that FF couldn’t control but they controlled the Irish economy for the decade leading up to the crash and their policies meant the crash was worse here than in most other places.
FG bought into the austerity narrative 100%. They were/are in power when it was implemented. They implemented it.
The usual tweedledum tweedledee thing occurred of course too – with FF in opposition criticising elements of FG’s austerity policies when it was politically opportune. But with the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, FF didn’t go full throttle on that criticism cos they knew that if they forced an election they’d continue to suffer. This time the voters wouldn’t forget.


2. CL - February 8, 2019

Don’t think populists are voting for hardship. Brexit was sold to voters as being beneficial economically; few foresaw the current political chaos and potential economic difficulties of a crash-out.
Likewise, Trump promised prosperity not hardship,-and boasted about having achieved it in his speech on Tuesday night.


WorldbyStorm - February 8, 2019

Yes v fair point re them getting elected but once in when faced with difficulties doesn’t the narrative flip? At least a bit?


CL - February 8, 2019

Not with Trump; he’s still pushing the line that he’s good for the economy-and there is a boom, of sorts.
The Brexiteers faced with a possible severe economic downturn if there’s a crash-out, are attempting to maintain some legitimacy, by invoking the myth of the blitz and of Dunkirk, echoes of the imperial past.


WorldbyStorm - February 8, 2019

Yeah, that does ring true. OF course if it goes pear-shaped for him.


CL - February 8, 2019

The economy is not helping Trump; his approval rating is at 40%, disapproval at 55%. A downturn would further widen the gap.

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