In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, it is tempting to rail against democracy, against post truth politics, against voters who seem motivated by fear, anger, xenophobia, and misogyny. A facile wish is for politics to remain in the hands of the epistocracy – the people who know how the world works – and for the masses remain content with their panem et circenses(in this case factory farmed meat, reality TV, and stadium sports).
This response is rooted in the dangerous conviction that the voters are not us, however we define ourselves: liberal, educated, urban, tolerant, worldly, informed. It allows “us” (whoever “we” are) to absolve ourselves of any responsibility and to eschew self-reflection about our own prejudices and our own complicity in the status quo.
Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are a repudiation of the political and economic establishment in the United Kingdom and in the United States. They are a rejection of neoliberalism and unfettered financial capitalism, the redistribution of resources upward to the wealthy, and to the politics of austerity. They are a response to the relentless securitization that has driven the post-9/11 world. Immigration and trade are easy scapegoats for a changing, highly complex world.
Political philosophy has something to offer here. Ideas do change the world, though they do so through people and through organizations. For our ideas to have any effect, they need to be based in an understanding of the world – the task of social science. Also, they need to inspire and motivate people to put them into practice in real settings and to work against the formidable obstacles to reform and change. Nonetheless, vision, ideals, and guiding principles are indispensable.
I offer here three political philosophical banalities that seem to me worth embracing.
First, it may seem that democracy is the culprit, but we in fact need is more democracy: democracy not simply as casting a ballot for a candidate, but democracy rooted in dialogue and the joint exploration of how to improve our communities. We need democracy that demands openness to opposing views, that insists on understanding before disputing, and that accepts thoughtful disagreement as grounds for compromise, not for opposition. We need democracy that incorporates ordinary people, that gives them a voice, that provides genuine accountability. We need democracy that acknowledges complexity, imperfection, and fallibility, but does not take these as grounds for complacency or despair.
Second, we need to nurture the cosmopolitan impulse, the insistence that every human has equal moral worth whatever their place of birth, nationalism, creed, ethnicity, or gender. Politicians, the public, and many intellectuals have been turning inward toward the nation state. Instead, we need to turn outward from our neighborhoods and states toward people around the world. We need to recognize that most of us are immigrants – if only from a town to a city or to a new neighborhood – and that all of us have ancestors who migrated (usually more recently than recognized). We need to realize that we are all strangers to most of the people of the world and to embrace xenophilia and to abhor xenophobia. We need to celebrate how we are interconnected by millennia of trade and immigration and how we are all cosmopolitan, whether or not we recognize it. Finally, we share a single biosphere that will cease to sustain us if we cannot jointly work to protect it.
Third, we need hope. Gramsci’s quip about the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will is as relevant as ever. Hope is an emotion that moves us toward a future that has not been realized. It is tied to action: to hope is not merely to wish, but genuinely believe that the future can be different and that we can play a role in making it so. We live in a period of transition, in which the world is changing. The natural reaction is to recoil and lash out. Hope opens us to the possibility of welcoming change as a harbinger to a better world.