Not just a local matter

Parties that spin compelling stories in which voters feel they play a historical role are winning elections in the present global order

Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 5 October, 2018

One of the most untrue of all truisms about politics is the notion that “all politics is local.” The adage was coined by American politician Tip O’Neill to suggest that voters were ultimately most interested in everyday concerns, the immediate conditions of their lives. Be attentive to the mundane and the parochial, O’Neill claimed, and your constituents would re-elect you. That theory was disproven many times in the US itself in previous decades, but it seems especially ill-suited to the present global political moment.

Local matters are, of course, very important and often the most crucial in the way they directly affect people’s lives — from running schools and hospitals to maintaining roads and basic infrastructure to garbage collection to crime and safety and so on. What constitutes “local” politics varies from country to country and by the size of a constituency (surely, it’s quite different to be immersed in the local affairs of an Indian parliamentary constituency of several million people than those of a British parliamentary constituency of 100,000). But in their detail and grain, local issues rarely offer an individual voter the chance to find the narrative that many people crave not just from politics, but from the world in general.

In Donald Trump’s US, for instance, national issues and controversies — far beyond the scope of community or town — drive voter participation. Reporters from The Washington Post attended several meetings last year when American legislators returned to their constituencies and found that only seven per cent of the questions they were asked pertained to local matters. Like everybody else, the constituents were most interested in subjects that roiled the country at large, in the storms raging in the national political conversation.

Human beings are not, by nature, policy-minded automatons, happy to make themselves subjects to technocracy. Instead, people are most excited by politicians and political movements that offer them the chance to see themselves as part of a greater story. Invariably, that inclination leads us away from the local towards the national (or the international or even the cosmic), a tendency probably even more pronounced now in the age of the smartphone, Twitter, and 24-hour news, when we can shed our provincial sense of place and step into far larger and transcendent communities and debates.

As the post-Cold War liberal consensus continues to crumble, we’re seeing this trend in clearer relief around the world. The parties that win elections are the ones that are more capable of spinning comprehensible and compelling stories in which voters feel they play a historical role. That was the case with the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (before it was snuffed out by the resurgent military); the continued rule of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who evokes visions both of historic Turkish greatness and the modern enemies at the gates seeking to undermine it; the vote for Brexit in the UK; the election of Trump on the back of a campaign fuelled by mythology and resentment; the victories of a panoply of right-wing xenophobes and quasi-authoritarians in Europe; and the sweeping to power of the BJP and its allies, with their implicit (and often explicit) promise to restore the country to those Indians who are somehow more truly Indian than others.

Votaries of the liberal establishment have struggled to muster much of a coherent and tactful response. Centre-left parties in Europe, in particular, have taken a hammering, for having drifted from their traditional moorings in the concerns of average workers towards a nebulous middle-ground. In general, centre-left parties from the US to India are lampooned as beholden to an unaccountable global elite, out of touch with the masses.

After Trump narrowly beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, members of her camp were left scratching their heads as to how they had managed to lose the election to a man so monumentally unfit for leadership. The answer was fairly simple. Despite his often racist and frenzied bluster on the campaign trail, Trump described to his voters a clear vision of the world and their place within it. Clinton did absolutely nothing of the sort. She offered a scattering of policy platforms from which the American public could only discern the most tepid sense of mission.

I was struck at the time of the election by a glaring and seemingly anomalous fact. Trump won many votes for his strong anti-immigrant positions, which demonised immigrants as criminals or as threats to American jobs. Yet it was found that Trump voters lived disproportionately in communities that had very few immigrants (and very few non-white people). Here was a rather definitive example of how politics is not at all local; a national discourse totally subsumed local realities. The day-to-day lives of Trump voters were not especially affected by the demons Trump conjured, but that didn’t matter, because human beings are creatures of imagination before they are creatures of reason.

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