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What Blairism shares with populism

Credit: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

May 17, 2019   4 mins

Last Sunday, Tony Blair was back on our TV screens, having a go at Nigel Farage. How times change. Twenty years ago Blair was a giant. Now he snaps at the heels of a populist whose party is the polar opposite of New Labour.

Or is it?

I’m not going to argue that Blairism and 21st-century populism are much of a muchness. Obviously, they’re not. They represent either end of the open-versus-closed spectrum. And yet there are echoes: in their own way, the Blairites embraced patriotism (“Cool Britannia”), law and order (“tough on the causes of crime”) and a performative disrespect for the establishment (“the forces of conservatism”).

And, as with populism today, there were hints at a deeper philosophical challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy of economic and social liberalism (at least as far as liberalism can be understood as individualism). Blairites in the UK, and their New Democrat counterparts in the US, flirted with a political philosophy called communitarianism – which, as the name suggests, emphasises the importance of community.

Fashionable thinkers at the time included Amitai Etzioni and Robert D Putnam (author of the highly influential Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which was published in 2000). Their communitarianism was not anti-individualist, but was as much about the responsibilities of individuals as their rights. Though certainly not conservatives in the American sense, they were unafraid to talk about concepts of duty and virtue and how these might contribute to progressive ends.

In a timely article for Quillette, John R Wood, reminds us what happened next:

“…the communitarian spirit and the intellectual forces gathered around atrophied with the turn of the new century. One of the likely causes of this shift was the trauma of 9/11, which refocused… the country as a whole away from parochial matters of community and towards a War on Terrorism, a development that would consume our national consciousness and further polarization for years to come.”

The War on Terror would also derail Blairism in the UK. The micromanaging Brownite tendency of New Labour took over, leaving little room for community empowerment. Then the Financial Crisis erupted followed by the Great Recession followed by austerity. Economic matters reasserted their supremacy over social concerns and communitarianism was forgotten.

But the tide turned again in 2016  – when the voters made it clear that the loss of community has political consequences. Brexit, Trump and the other populist shocks of the last few years have left moderate political thinkers scrambling for a response. Wood argues that communitarianism is back in vogue – though not under that particular label.

Communitarianism includes just about anyone concerned by the coming apart of society. It is therefore a broader category than post-liberalism and at odds with the division-sowing of the national populists. Indeed, many of the most interesting communitarians today are Left-leaning liberals (just like the first time round).

Wood gives the example of Pete Buttigieg – perhaps the most unexpected of the Democratic front runners:

“As Buttigieg himself has said, it is unlikely that, under ordinary circumstances, a 37-year-old mayor of a relatively small city would receive serious attention as a candidate for president of the United States. This is obviously true. But a large part of Buttigieg’s unique appeal hinges on his focus on the very values of localism that in other times might make a politician seem too parochial for federal office. ‘We need,’ he has argued, ‘to rally people around the sense of identity that we’re building each other up, because community is part of how people explain how they fit in to the world.'”

What Buttigieg understands is that progressive politics absolutely depends on a shared sense of identity and values – because people don’t vote for redistributive policies that benefit people they feel no connection to. He also understands that a decline in the theory and practice of the common good opens the way for divisive identity politics and political polarisation.

It’s pretty obvious that many of the voters that once made up winning progressive coalitions – including sections of the working class, older voters and religious voters – have found themselves on the other side of the culture war divide (and thus easy pickings for the likes of Trump).

It’s not that Buttigieg and those who think like him want to switch sides in the culture war. They remain liberals (they haven’t, alas, turned post-liberal) and aren’t about to confront the culture warriors on their own side.

Rather their focus is on reaching across divides, engaging in dialogue and rebuilding trust. Wood mentions a few of the US conservatives, including David Brooks and Ben Sasse, who are doing the same from their end. However, progressives have a particular reason to do so, because they’re never going to build majority support for an activist state without sufficient trust in at least some public institutions.

In this respect, they’re well-advised to work towards this goal at the local level. Whereas the national and international politics of the social media age consists of strangers screaming at each other from behind anonymous accounts, local politics at least allows for the possibility of civilised deliberation and cooperation between neighbours. It’s so much more difficult to be rude to someone you might meet on the street.

I grew up in a small town in southern England. It was, and still is, a community-minded place with thriving local institutions. On one occasion, the local freesheet gave a less than glowing review to a play put on by the local amateur dramatics society. This did not go down well. People complained that what might be acceptable from the theatre critic of The Times about a disappointing West End show was simply inappropriate for a small community where public slanging matches were not the done thing.

Similarly, the town council, though solidly Tory since the Stone Age, was just about the least partisan forum on the planet – and mostly a means of having one’s say on parking spaces and bin collections.

The cynics might say that local democracy is more civilised because there’s nothing much in the way of real power to fight over – and if ever the real decisions were devolved then things would turn nasty. That, however, hasn’t been the experience of the decentralising reforms of recent years. And as Twitter proves on a daily basis, a complete lack of significance is no guarantor of polite discourse.

Perhaps it’s time to give up on bringing peace to the disembodied battleground grounds of the internet. If the communitarian Left and the civically-minded Right want to re-civilise our politics, then they must make sure that as much it as possible happens locally.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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