Much has been said recently about the threat of populism on the right and the left. People have been calling for tolerance and freedom of speech – sentiments which I wholly agree with.
When we tolerate people and their right to hold opinions however, it doesn’t mean we have to tolerate the opinions themselves. It means challenging them, not banning them from being expressed. It means making sure that people are exposed to the counter-arguments and taught critical thinking.
But it’s not just the far left or the far right who are out to censor and silence their opponents. It is intolerance on the part of the centre which has helped fan the flames of intolerant extremists.
I often find myself repeating the same things to others on both the left and the right: it is not enough to simply hate your opponents. You have to understand them, then you have to empathise with them, and then you have to change their minds.
Rather than being innocent of this demonising, many people in the centre double down. For example, centrists are often to be found defending first-past-the-post electoral systems, because ‘it stops UKIP from gaining representation’. But in trying to silence controversial opinions, they are pushing them into further and further extremes.
For years, the Parliamentary Labour party had selected candidates for leadership in a fashion that prevented the hard left from entering the race at all. When Jeremy Corbyn was nominated, people in the Labour Party leapt at the chance to vote for somebody out of the mainstream. This was their chance to finally express their frustration at business as usual. After he won, many on the centre left were furious or ashamed of the ‘mistake’ of allowing him to stand.
I can understand the thinking of this in private. It’s politics, and there’s always scheming and backstabbing going on. But to openly say that Corbyn’s victory was proof that he should never have been allowed to run is pure contempt for democracy in general, and the Labour Party in particular. And some might say this is proof that tolerance doesn’t work. I would say it’s proof that intolerance just makes things worse in the long run. The Labour party is tearing itself apart from factional infighting because its MPs allowed themselves to drift too far away from the mood of its members, potential or otherwise.
In the same way, the vote for Brexit was another failure of the establishment. I don’t think referendums are an appropriate way to make once in a generation decisions. But the centre-right had for years relied on the scapegoating of the European Union to sell newspapers or win votes. The best kind of scapegoat is the one you can keep alive indefinitely, and milk to your heart’s content. They thought it was harmless, because the general public would never vote for an option so radical as leaving. When they finally decided to listen to what people had to say, after years of being told the EU was to blame for everything, it turns out people weren’t so willing to change their minds again.
Governments have a long and sordid history of meddling in the affairs of radical political movements. Even the Russian Revolution itself may have taken a different turn if the Tsarist secret police had not sown distrust and division between moderate and radical Marxists.
Agent provocateurs seem to remain popular within the ranks of the police and security forces today. By pushing organisations towards violent, extreme or ineffectual ends, they hope to diminish the appeal these groups. But this warping of potential opposition only sets the stage for more problems in the future.
During the Cold War, the CIA sponsored liberal ideology within the Warsaw Pact. They hoped to encourage liberal capitalist ideas in order to challenge communism, and perhaps lay the foundations for a successful entry into the world market. However this government and corporate interference distorted the growth of new ideas. By sponsoring some currents and leaving others relatively dry, they potentially altered the face of post-Soviet civil society. If we judge their efforts based on what many of those countries look like today, it has to be considered a disastrous approach.
In broader analyses, history will look back at Russia’s transition from a failed communist dictatorship to a failed market democracy as a Treaty of Versailles moment – not the end of the Cold War, just an armistice of 20 years.
Now, Russia has been looking to weaken its enemies by interfering in Western democracies. But if Putin thinks Trump and the European Right represent anything other than a very brief moral victory, he is going to be sorely disappointed. Nationalists make awkward bedfellows at the best of times and gratitude simply isn’t in their nature.
Every society, every establishment, requires a healthy opposition which can freely articulate its own positions. The critics don’t have to be always right – they may only be right once in a hundred years – but the very fact that voices of dissent are allowed to flourish is what prevents inefficiency and corruption from building up.
So if politics is descending into a spiral of hostility, who can we blame? Those who are advocates for change, or those who currently hold all the power? If radical agitation is becoming an issue, then the fault must lie with the moderates who have failed to address their concerns.
If universities are locking their gates to controversial viewpoints, is it the fault of the students who have been whipped into a frenzy by dogmatic ideologies? Or is it the fault of a cowardly establishment and legal system which has failed to protect freedom of speech?
If people are being deceived by false information, is it their fault for being misguided, or is it the fault of our educational system and news media for failing to inform appropriately?
If the early 21st Century marks a return to extremes of left and right, it is only because of the arrogance and incompetence of the extreme centre – those who believed they had reached the end of history, triumphed against all opposition and that nobody could pose a credible challenge to the establishment ever again.
It’s time for people in the centre to stop pretending change is impossible, to stop insisting there’s nothing to be done, to stop trying to keep the radicals out of sight and out of mind, and to start offering better solutions to the world’s problems.