IT is often said that what happens in America today will land on our shores tomorrow. That’s why the events of such a bitter and divisive Presidential campaign should be watched closely.
Not just by us, the observers who look on in horror at the twisted spectacle and horrendous mud-slinging between the two Presidential candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the billionaire who has redefined the notion of Republicanism.
The campaign, and the result this week, should also serve as an object lesson to our politicians. This is what happens when those who purport to serve entirely lose connection. Not just with reality, but with the people of their country. It is also what happens when people entirely lose faith in the process of government as a democratic ideal.
In place of empathy and understanding comes a bitter manipulation of people’s worst fears and insecurities. A terrible rallying cry drowns out proper political thought. And actual policies, the things which would make a difference to education, healthcare and the economy, never stand a chance.
I hate to add my voice to the doomsayers, but Britain is half-way there already. You only have to look at the EU referendum to see that.
The simplicity of the question – do we want to belong to Europe or not? – crystallised the debate for all and made it easier for those with extreme views to gain a foothold in popular support.
The resultant mess has led to months of political stagnation and now a legal ruling on Article 50 which has overridden the democratic process and looks set to land us all with a General Election.
While pollsters and academics were tying themselves into knots over “voter apathy”, they missed the point. Millions of people might be choosing not to participate in politics, but they were still political.
In this country, it was this groundswell which woke up and voted in favour of Brexit.
In America, it is a broadly comparable politically disaffected demographic who are lining up behind Trump. It’s known as “identity politics”, a situation in which voters no longer stick to the established voting patterns of their social class and economic background, but opt for a party or politician which best represents their own beliefs.
In doing so, they are putting two fingers firmly up at the political elite represented by Hillary Clinton and her camp. Our own politicians must take serious note of this. In Britain, there are massive tranches of the country which feel no connection whatsoever with the political establishment, either at national or local level.
This cannot be measured in geographical terms. It is not confined to particular constituencies. It is a generalised condition which millions of ordinary people simply identify with.
In America, it has been the “white working class” who have turned the Presidential race into a battle.
I hesitate to generalise on our behalf. Our own society is not directly comparable: in our post-industrial heartlands, it’s difficult to say exactly who is and who is not working class, and the nuances of race and immigration in our towns and cities are too subtle to summarise in one descriptive colour.
However, it is simple to see that our own politicians too have been tremendously guilty of over-riding the real issues which matter to their constituents. Decades of false promises, seemingly-attractive policies which have fizzled out to nothing; self-serving politicians with only their own interests at heart and a growing sense that we all live in a society driven by division have contributed to an echoing sense of disconnection.
As in America, those who operate in the political capital, in our case Westminster, are all too likely to become entangled in a world of their own. Instead of getting out into their constituencies and talking to people on the ground, really talking to them, they use their power to wield blows against each other.
The alienation of Hillary Clinton from the supporters she took for granted illustrates this only too well. By turning away from her, the blue-collar urban working class of America are proving that they have little time or patience for the liberal elite with their gilded holiday homes and $50,000 a ticket charity bashes.
Can we reverse this? Yes, if we find good leaders capable of doing more than putting up soundbites. For instance, they must not just talk about “jobs”, but talk about the quality of jobs, what the hourly rate of pay is and their views on zero-hours contracts.
Similarly, they must prove to those whose support they seek that they understand their concerns about education. Not just in terms of exam passes and school league tables, but about how children are being prepared for their place in an ever-evolving global economy. I’ll add to this list pensions, housing, social care and public transport. And, yes, immigration.
America must now get on and live with its own legacy. I only hope that our own politicians accept in time that what has happened over there could happen here sooner than we think.