This is our truth, tell us yours
Understanding the anger and disappointment friends feel about the persistent allure Donald Trump and Nigel Farage have for some voters is challenging.
Not challenging as in hard to understand, but challenging as in a challenge to some of the myths of liberal democracy.
The central myth is the myth of rationality, that just as markets are made up of rational actors making decisions that are in their best interests, so in politics, that each voter votes in their own bets interests.
The evidence, in economics and in politics, is that that just isn’t true. Sometimes voters vote emotionally, not rationally,and the success of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump (relatively speaking) is that they are allied to some central heroic myths of their nations.
Take Trump for instance. He fits precisely in the morally compromised tradition of the American cowboy. Most Americans know the reality of the cowboy myths; the principal actors are morally ambiguous,and the history is one of violence, of land grabs and of routine corruption. These are one set of myths of what it is to be American, and Donald Trump would fit right in. Imagine Trump as Doc Holliday and he belongs ina bona fide American legend.
Now Nigel Farage. Let me apologize to any American readers who aren’t familiar with Dads’ Army. In the 1970s it was the quintessential British comedy about class, manners and Britishness, set as it was in a local defence force (or militia) during World War Two. Itfeatured archetypes like Captain Mainwaring, a starchy, flawed and hypocritical bank manager, and Corporal Jones, the local butcher who repeatedly exaggerates his role in ninetenth century Imperial War. Farage falls somewhere between Wilson, the dissolute and disreputable Assistant Bank Manager, who won’t make an honest woman of Mrs Pike, with whom he lodges, and Private Walker, the local spiv who can always find black market goods and is surrounded by women of debatable morals.
Are sitcoms a reliable guide to Britain’s morals? The lovable rogue doesn’t just feature in Dads’ Army; think about Ronnie Barker’s characters in Porridge, and Open All Hours, or David Jason’s 80s archetype as Del Boy Trotter in Open All Hours. Think about Stan Ogden in Coronation Street, the soldier with a drink problem incapable ofmaking a stable life forhimself and his family in civvy street. Englishness is shot through with ideas of equivocation, of opportunism and economy with the truth.
It’s not just sitcoms and soap operas either. If you think popular entertainment is an unreliable guide to understanding Englishness, then turn to Orwell, and the equivocal, morally compromised men who feature in novels such as Burmese Days, Keep The Aspidistra Flying or 1984.
If you want to understand the Brexit vote, and the way so many people are comfortable with politicians who don’t even pretend to tell the truth, you have to understand the way in which people love or empathize with flawed, equivocal heroes.
To my friends who believe in democracy as a rational process whereby individuals make sensible choices, these ideas are a challenge. I think that faced with that challenge, we all need to set aside our disappointments, and acknowledge the reality rather than wish for a rational world we may never reach.