Hillary Clinton got into a lot of trouble for calling many of Donald Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables”. I like the phrase. It has a poetic ring. It’s another way of saying, “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists,” which was David Cameron’s dismissive crack about UKIP.
The expression of contempt for voters by politicians is nothing new, and, indeed, in this age of incivility, it is spreading. My MP thinks I’m a ‘deplorable’ – she effectively told me so for questioning her judgement over the monumental mistake which is Brexit. A few years back you could write to an MP in green ink complaining about GCHQ controlling your mind via satellite, and you’d have got a polite response, but no more. Make no mistake – this is war. Politicians Vs Voters.
It was during last year’s general election that I first heard the arresting line that “MPs are frightened of voters”. After that bruising election, marked by a torrent of manipulation, lies and deceit (copyright: Sir Lynton Crosby), followed by a referendum of shame and political assassination, and topped off by the election of a cartoon villain as President of the United States of America, it is easy to see that politicians, pollsters and policy wonks have every reason to be fearful.
So let’s look more closely at the fears of the political class.
First of all, who are they?
In Britain, at least, they are mostly middle-class graduates, rigorously trained in politics from their teens, and if they have worked outside formal politics before entering Parliament, it tends to be in fields like the law, finance, and the media. Their world centres on Westminster, and their social lives, as well as working lives, tend to be confined to a fairly narrow group of overlapping individuals (with analogous sub-groups in the nations and regions). A similar, if less concentrated pattern applies in the USA, I’d suggest.
On one level, it’s like that for pretty much everyone. My friends are mostly people much like me. I don’t feel bad about that.
But there is another ingredient that the political class has (I very much include most of the metropolitan media in this, too). They have been trained to see the public as wayward civilians compared to their disciplined regiments. Their job is to gain ‘intelligence’ upon us; to work out what we think we want, or to guide us towards what we can be made to think we want, and to work out effective strategies to game our votes, or at least, our acquiescence.
This is what politics is now, and it is all assisted by the priesthood of pollsters, think tank professionals, and lobbyists, to whom we – the civilians – are more like zoo animals than fellow citizens.
We civilians sense this. We kind of ‘get’ that we’ve been caged, and that these weird people prod us with sticks, shine lights in our eyes, and carefully record our responses on their clipboards. Naturally we don’t like it.
Of course, some of us know how its done, and we can speak the language of the political class. We can ‘pass’ through their midst occasionally, or even enter their ranks, if we have the connections. But we still don’t like it.
As for the rest of our fellow citizens, they are increasingly mad about this state of affairs. And they show it.
When MPs attend their constituency surgeries, or knock on doors during elections, they meet ‘mad’ voters. People who are angry, who shout at them, who won’t give them a hearing, who are unreasonable, irrational, aggressive, and actually pretty frightening. They use the language of “fruitcakes, loonies, and (not so) closet racists”. They, we, are a “basket of deplorables,” unreachable by honest public servants trying to do their best.
They are scared of us.
This is where the Trumps and Farages of this world come in. People who, whatever else one can say about them, are not frightened of voters. The coarsest language, barely contained aggression, irrational and contradictory demands; nothing can faze people like this. Indeed, it feeds them. They mirror it, they ramp it up, they feed it back.
It is junk politics, high in trans-fats, refined sugar, devoid of nutrients, but satisfyingly more-ish. The Tory Party, or the Republican establishment, can sometimes offer up a lip smacking hotdog full of salt and grease, but it’s easily outgunned by UKIP/Trumpish buckets of deep-fried bigotry.
That’s the problem. Getting the junk-eaters to ditch the fat for a wholesome Mediterranean diet. ‘Swap a full English for avocado on toast? Do me a favour!’
So what’s the solution?
Like Jamie Oliver fearlessly entering school kitchens and ditching the turkey twizzlers, sensible politicians and their mates need to overcome their fear of voters, stop trying to appease us with things they think we might like (do have an immigration cookie. Or perhaps you’d like to take a disabled person’s benefits away?), and treat us with respect, even if it takes a while to overcome our suspicion.
It won’t be easy. But they’ll find they have allies. And it will be the right thing to do.