Tuesday, 26 January 2021

The Liberal-Left’s problem with patriotism

With fireworks being set off across America for Independence Day, it is safe to say that the term ‘patriotism’ continues to divide opinion in the United States (US) and the wider Western world. For some, it implies a deep love for the nation, a healthy sense of belonging to one’s own country. For others, it at best represents small-minded isolationism; at worst, a dangerous sense of national superiority which threatens to destabilise the international system.

The political rise of Donald Trump to the office of the US presidency sent shockwaves throughout the Western world, as did the United Kingdom’s (UK) decision to leave the EU in June 2016. These were political earthquakes in their own right. There are striking parallels to be drawn between these seismic political events. Both events, completely unexpected by the swathe of metropolitan sophisticates in the spheres of politics, media and the universities, also served the purpose of laying bare a kind of ‘liberal intolerance’ – which many ordinary people associate increasingly with the so-called ‘chattering classes’.

In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, Democratic Party candidate Hilary Clinton – the epitome of an establishment metropolitan sophisticate – slated supporters of Donald Trump as a ‘basket of deplorables’. In an act of complacency, Mrs Clinton was the first Democratic nominee not to visit Wisconsin since 1972 – and embarrassingly became the first one to lose the Midwestern state to the Republicans since Ronald Reagan’s electoral mauling of Walter Mondale in 1984. With his ‘America First’ message of trade protectionism and job creation, Mr Trump breached the Democratic Party’s supposedly impenetrable ‘Midwest firewall’ in spectacular fashion – carrying the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa and Ohio (as well as Wisconsin) in the process.

Needless to say, the liberal-left city-based American commentariat were left dumbstruck by Mr Trump’s abrupt political ascendancy to the US presidency. His election was viewed by many of these ‘progressives’ as a shock rejection of their own ‘open-minded’ cosmopolitan worldview. However, and in keeping with the increasing intolerance of the supposedly ‘tolerant’ liberal-left, their reaction has been anything but open-minded and reasoned. Mr Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’-capped supporters have been roundly castigated as ‘racist’, ‘bigoted’ and ‘xenophobic’, while he has himself all too often been labelled as a fascist. As well as being spectacularly unimaginative, the over-usage of such terms – as George Orwell warned – in everyday political discourse drains them of their historical significance and weight.

This trend of liberal-left ‘sneering’ – displaying an attitude of patronising superiority – is very much alive in the British as well as American political context.

This trend of liberal-left ‘sneering’ – displaying an attitude of patronising superiority – is very much alive in the British as well as American political context. Indeed, this has come to dominate proceedings within the modern Labour Party – a political party which was borne out of the trade union movement and established to represent the interests of the British working class. On the campaign trail for the 2010 UK General Election, Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister, was caught dismissing lifelong Labour supporter Gillian Duffy as a ‘bigot’ – simply because the Rochdale pensioner aired her grievances over large-scale inward migration from Eastern Europe. Following the election, where Labour fell from office, Alex Cunningham, the party’s former Member of Parliament for Stockton North, stated at a fundraising event that Ms Duffy was ‘a bigoted woman and that’s all there is to it.’ Similarly, Emily Thornberry, the current Shadow Foreign Secretary, once tweeted – in a snobbishly dismissive manner – a photo of a house in Rochester which was draped with English flags and had a white van in its driveway.

Brexit, however, presented a golden opportunity for Labour to reconnect with ‘blue-collar’ voters in its industrial heartlands and provincial England. These are largely hard-working, patriotic families who have traditionally voted for the party over generations. After the referendum, Labour had a chance to re-engage with their socially conservative values, driven by a strong sense of community and a deep love for the nation. It had a chance to appreciate and understand their concerns over the pace of social change and the integration of newcomers into their communities. But this chance for a renewed relationship with working-class Brexit voters, which was laid on a plate for Labour, has been well and truly squandered.

After winning back a shedload of working-class voters from the anti-European Union (EU) UK Independence Party at the 2017 General Election after pledging support for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, Labour’s fudging of withdrawal resulted in the party being humiliated in its Leave-voting heartlands in the European elections. Following the loss of council control in Leave-voting towns such as Hartlepool, Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington – all in County Durham – the party managed to finish well behind the Brexit Party in the North-East region. It suffered both local council and European Parliament losses in places such as Ashfield, Nottinghamshire and the small mining town of Bolsover in Derbyshire – classic ‘Brexitland’ territory in the East Midlands. Labour’s ambiguity over Brexit, along with standing ‘ultra-Remain’ candidates like Lord Adonis, is evidently feeding into a widespread perception that the party has little intention of representing the views of its traditional working-class voters in its Leave-voting heartlands across Northern England, the provincial Midlands and Wales.

The internal tensions within traditional parties of the left can be well understood through David Goodhart’s distinction between ‘anywheres’ and ‘somewheres’ – articulated carefully in his book The Road to Somewhere. This socio-cultural ‘deadlock’ has not only paralysed the Labour Party and the Democrats in terms of policy direction, but also many other social-democratic parties across much of the Western world. An important example are Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), who have dropped as low as 13% in recent national polling. The socio-cultural tension in the SPD is complicated by the fact that it is losing support across the board – to both the pro-EU and cosmopolitan Greens, but also the anti-EU, anti-establishment, culturally protectionist Alternative für Deutschland.

An inclusive civic nationalism which appreciates the social vibrancy that comes with ethno-cultural diversity, but ultimately understands the importance of tying this under a framework of shared values, helping to cultivate a sence of common purpose, holds the key.

This socio-cultural divide represents a fundamental polarisation – one which is deeply problematic for the political left in Western countries. The cosmopolitan-minded ‘anywheres’ which are increasingly dominating proceedings on the British and American left, views ‘blue-collar patriots’ – whether it be in the industrial regions of Northern England or the American Rust Belt – as a bothersome inconvenience. Even worse, these people – fellow citizens – are held in contempt. The ‘somewheres’ – family-oriented, community-spirited, holding a deep love for their nation – are sneered at by cosmopolitan-minded ‘anywheres’ who live by their ‘globalist’ philosophy. While this ‘one world, one community’ mentality may be trendy and stylish in Islington and Manhattan, it is certainly not the sort of philosophy that blue-collar patriots – many of whom would identify Labour and the Democrats as their natural party – can seriously relate to.

To no small extent, the problem is of the British and American liberal-left’s own making. On both sides of the Atlantic, the globalist cosmopolitans have become mesmerised by post-materialist over-indulgence and an unhealthy obsession with identity politics. Make no mistake, the liberal-left ‘anywheres’ are complicit in the near-destruction of the national community on both sides of the Atlantic. With its growing influence in the public sphere, ‘anywheres’ – with their ‘progressive’ take on the politics of race, gender, religion and sexuality ― are actively seeking to embed their values into national structures and broader society. By championing difference over integration, and celebrating diversity without acknowledging its complications, the liberal-left has to take responsibility for sowing the seeds of group-based social division – on both sides of the pond. The combination of globalist philosophy and morbid fascination with the interests of domestic minority-groups, means the importance of the nation is lost in their worldview.

But there is hope for both the Labour Party and the Democrats. An inclusive civic nationalism which appreciates the social vibrancy that comes with ethno-cultural diversity, but ultimately understands the importance of tying this under a framework of shared values, helping to cultivate a sense of common purpose, holds the key.  A useful case study is Denmark, where the Social Democrats won the won the general elections held last month. Under the charismatic leadership of Mette Frederiksen, the newly-elected Prime Minister, the Danish Social Democrats are seeking to create a national culture based on shared identity, common purpose and mutual obligations. Respecting socially conservative intuitions within Danish society, the party has also adopted a mature approach to public concerns over immigration and migrant integration.

The British political left should look to Denmark and cultivate a positive, uplifting, optimistic, inclusive civic nationalism which is based on shared values and provides a sense of common purpose. One which is family-oriented and community-spirited, emphasises the value of hard work and promotes equality of opportunity. This civic model of nationhood would acknowledge the importance of human relations and encourage social responsibility. It would understand that the sustainability of ambitious collectivist projects depends on bonds of social trust and mutual regard.

And most crucially, this civic nationalism would firmly reject the divisiveness that comes with the marriage of globalism and group identity politics.

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