Political Normality: Idealising the Past and Constructing a Future

The world is not a Playstation 5. This console does not come with a reset button.

As we let out a collective breath of relief at the end of the Trump presidency, there was immediate talk of a ‘return to normal’. On the heels of that sharp political change in America, Britain witnessed the sudden exit of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain from no. 10 Downing Street, prompting similar predictions for politics in the UK. However, no matter how comfortable the fantasy of the good old days might be to old school political types on both sides of the pond, this talk of a ‘chance to reset government’ is, at best, misguided, and at worst wilfully naïve.

While traditional politics has been with us for generations of people, it may be time to embrace more forward thinking with regards to the operation of politics and governance, and to question whether the ideas we typically associate with our halls of power are still wholly relevant. Traditional or ‘conventional’ politics has, until recently, been heavily reliant on symbols, institutions, and history. This lends it weight and authority, but increasingly these historied ideas are creaking under the multiplying and accelerating concerns of the modern world and as those elements continue to multiply and accelerate, we can expect that creaking to grow louder.

It was, in recent decades, let alone more distant periods, easier to get people to accept institutions. Throughout civilisations, institutions, in whatever form they take, have guided and influenced their respected populations towards acting in accordance with whatever intentions the heads of those institutions desired. However, with the rise of better educated populations, and the ease of ability to question, critique, and deconstruct all ideas both past and present, and the circulation thereof, people today are less easily led by the nose. They are less likely to adopt the same mindless adherence to centuries-old institutions without reasonable justification in the same way that they may have been bullied into in the past when their main in-group came exclusively in the form of their direct communities.

Now that tribes have diversified and scattered, all the while remaining interconnected and in communication, that pressure to conform to in-group tribalism has been, mercifully, diluted. This tribalistic carnival barking has been made all the more redundant by the free sharing of collated information and data, so when one person asks a question of an institution, the response can be measured against the evidence and historic record. As should be expected, all too often the public story does not match up with the private reality.

This clinging to tradition is no doubt comfortable, but ultimately Ostrich-like. It risks a political ludditism that rejects the reality of the unknown for magical thinking that suggests that it is possible, even viable, to go backwards into a whitewashed past that has never existed – no matter how near or far that idealised past is. Ultimately, this type of thinking that relies on evoking tradition for the sake of tradition simply gets in the way and must be removed for the benefit of progress. It works in a world that moves slowly and the fact of the matter is that we no longer live in that world, nor have we for some time.

The Palace of Westminster seems itself to be parodying the politics. In an advancing state of decay, with masonry plummeting from the rooftops, and despite the conclusions that the inhabitant members of parliament need to go somewhere else before someone is injured in the mere process of moving from room to room, it seems nigh-on impossible to convince MPs to leave. Why so reluctant to move? Because nobody is going to look at, potentially, a big shiny metal and glass obelisk somewhere else and hold the same sort of inherited reverence for it and its inhabitants. Despite the fact that it would likely be a superior location to this archaeological site, simply by virtue of having been built with the current world in mind – initially the original building stretches back to 1016, later rebuilt in its iconic gothic revival grandiosity, which was completed in 1860 – they are well aware that the building has a cultural gravitas to it, and thus anybody working there gains some of that gravitas by cultural association.  

How about the US Constitution? Despite its revered status to the North American population, it is only the loudest and most obnoxious voices that will outright veto any suggestion of change or questioning. Despite the fact that it has already been amended 27 times. There are, however, serious questions, that become ever more pressing, regarding the scalability of an 18th century constitution to a 21st century world. One cannot keep screaming about the Founding Fathers if the world in which they wrote the constitution could not have remotely anticipated nor conceived of the world we inhabit presently. Credit where it’s due, it’s a remarkable demonstration of its efficacy that it has remained at all functional for as long as it has; but it is naivety, if not wilful ignorance, to believe that it can remain applicable indefinitely.

How does this contrast with modern or contemporary political ideas? Put simply: Today’s world is data. Today’s world is analytics. Information drives everything – literally: we have AI-driven vehicles running automated deliveries in London right now. It extends well beyond social media metrics, the marketing industry, ecommerce statistics, or the algorithms that now control the stock market from servers rented out in the basement of Wall Street. Data even controls your agriculture. Crop farming is a storm of genetic engineering and legal hurdles, but less well known is the astonishing extent to which it is now at the very root of livestock farming. Have you bought some bacon recently? The pig it came from may have been monitored and conditioned to produce more of one chemical or enzyme than another because that means that when the pig is slaughtered, the meat it produces is more enjoyable. This is not some sort of cyberpunk style nefarious bio-engineering, it can be as simple as making sure the pigs are calm before they are slaughtered, by playing certain kinds of ambience or music to them. The point is that we have measured these things and drawn conclusions based on the data produced in the measuring. Data and information has permeated society to the point where cashless societies are being seriously considered, and we are now at the point where major financial institutions are investing in cryptocurrencies, rather than writing them off as short-term trends.

Now this is running through politics. American election campaigns are massively data driven, pollsters running complex models – that still manage to be wildly inaccurate, but that’s a conversation in itself – breaking down states, towns, and boroughs into component demographics and, from there, expected behaviours. However, owing to the restrictions on campaign finance in British politics, this was brought screaming into the spotlight during the Brexit vote, courtesy of Dominic Cummings and Cambridge Analytica. In America this doesn’t get a second look, in Britain campaigning is slightly less of a reality show, so this sort of extensive demographic data mining and manipulation, also known as basic marketing and messaging, is more noticeable. The fact of the matter is that, whether you support Brexit or not, it was a reasonably significant part of the leave campaign and it worked – because the better you know audience, the easier you can target your influencing efforts. Some will point at this data harvesting and claim that it’s unethical or unfair, but they’re wrong. It is totally fair. Use the tools at your disposal or don’t, but if you do not use those tools then you should expect to lose.

China is our resident techno-autocracy, seemingly hell-bent on becoming a literal science fiction dystopia by making smart use of the available technology. They have an advantage in the adoption speed of this rapid technological advancement, as their citizens don’t get a say in the matter, but that isn’t the point. The technology is there and, regardless of intention, locations, or extent, it is going to make its way into society and the governing thereof.

It isn’t like the West doesn’t know this. CIA, FBI, NSA, GCHQ, MI5, Five Eyes Network all use data analytics to carry out their work – to extents of varied acceptability. Every time there’s a new creepy privacy-invading bill to send through governmental cambers we see this in action. This is not a segment of the future you can wall off from everything else. The Internet of Things, the cloud, data, information, it’s in the roots of society now and what happens when you have the ability to analyse everything in terms of data and modelling, is that old ideas that were based as much on observation and personal philosophy, run up against hard evidence-based testing and there’s every chance that they are not correct – on all sides of the left/right divide, and regardless of whether it benefits old money or not.

Stepping back from this focus on grinding existence into data points on various graphs, in the more immediate-term the behavioural mechanics of political dynamics and interactions, in the wake of the last few years, will have undergone a significant impact. This probably won’t be truly observable or contrastable until mid-2021 and beyond, but with the re-establishment of the establishment, we can expect a slide towards more traditional forms of messaging, however we should not expect a wholesale reversion. The spectacle of politics over the last four years has become too ingrained in both politicians and voters. In the near-term, we can expect to see any attempt to re-cement traditional behavioural norms grating against the less guarded and bureaucracy-hostile modes of communication that have characterised both the American Whitehouse and British politics in recent times.

Talk of ‘returning to normality’ should first contend with the reality that the behaviour of the last four years has become normality. What they will actually be doing, is attempting to define a new normal and that will have to be established with some amount of reference to the behavioural changes adopted over the last four years – conscious or not. It is myopic to pretend, as much as people are more than happy to move on from Trump and Cummings, that their presence has had no impact and we can dismiss it all as an aberration. This is not the case. Not to mention, that the likelihood of the Brexit campaign, various demagogues across both nations, and Trump going gently into that good night is precisely zero. They got where they are by being obnoxious and loud and they are not going to suddenly stop.

Politics has become more overtly combative and we should not expect a snap back to Elizabethan decorum. Johnson, Trump, and Cummings were all noticeably combative characters – it’s what set them apart and helped them win. Cummings, famously contemptuous of previous governments and institutions, has not seemed to soften his rhetoric after winning the Brexit vote and his feud with Whitehall has been high profile, with Cummings promising that a “hard rain” would fall on the civil service. In September Johnson shocked people across the globe by threatening to break international law by rewriting parts of the Brexit divorce bill that it constructed with the European Union, although we were assured by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis assuring us that a breach would only be in a “limited and specific way.” Trump, I need hardly mention. As many professional, and by now thoroughly exhausted, journalists have commented, this vaunting orange psyche-hazard sucks up all attention in any room to the detriment of all else. In every case, he is the story, and if he is not the story he will do his level best to become the story. Not a day goes by without some sort of absurd slew of all-caps twitter meltdowns or a statement so profoundly vacuous, yet delivered with such undeserved conceit, that every unfortunate witness has to stop, process the brain damage they have just endured, and then plough on with their days between episodes of manic gibbering.

So do we conclude that, at least for the immediate time, diplomacy can be treated as optional, with expected moves to reassert its use as compulsory? It would seem so. Biden’s first debate with Trump featured the future president becoming only slightly less civil after extensive antagonism, before immediately withdrawing ‘clown’ for ‘person’ – so we can see where the ideals lie. Conventional British parliamentary public facades will endeavour to look much the same. One problem that both sides of the pond may have is that the new normal has embraced the new frankness, and will be disinterested in returning to veiling every barb and criticism with a webwork of allusions and humorous quips.

For Biden, the progressives will be bluntly pushing for the embrace of progressive policies – much to the irritation of the mummified husks of the main democratic establishment, no doubt. The republican party will split into pieces – the current sycophants of Trump and the GOP will either continue to idolise him at obnoxious volume, or they will look for the first available demagogue to latch on to at which point we can only hope that their new daddy is equally as ineffectual, else their overly-malleable dispositions could become a legitimate social threat. The rest of the GOP will continue to wrestle with adapting to life in the 21st century, in a sort of distended series of public senile crises as they continue to reject concepts like relativism, freedom of choice, and an educated public. For many, on both sides of the political divide, on both sides of the Atlantic, a threat to return to old ways of communicating is just a reestablishment of communication style that was widely perceived as disingenuous, elitist, and untrustworthy.

So we should avoid expecting a snap back, but expect that the more ‘centrist’ wings of the political world to exert a moderating influence. We will probably yo-yo back and forth for a while until we reach some new natural equilibrium. The point being that Johnson and Trump being in power has churned the socio-political earth enough to make things move and thus change. When things settle down it will be in a new configuration – not drastically different, but different, nonetheless. The key takeaway from this is that this may allow for new directions and proposals to be considered, taken, and accepted.

Potentially the most significant takeaway from the Trump presidency, is a reaffirmation of the nullity of the smile. Baudrillard, commenting on Raegan, another actor-turned-President, in ‘America’, noted: “It is also Reagan’s smile – the culmination of self-satisfaction of the entire American Nation – which is on the way to become the sole principle of government. An autoprophetic smile, like all signs in advertising. Smile and others will smile back. Smile to show how transparent and candid you are. Smile if you have nothing to say. Most of all, do not hide the fact that you have nothing to say nor your total indifference to others. Let this emptiness, this profound indifference shine out spontaneously in your smile.”  Effectively Trump’s success, even, and especially signified by his still significant numbers in this past election, confirms a hierarchy of presentation, of the façade, over the substance.

So now we have Trump, now we have Boris, now we have Farage. These politicians who are taken seriously because of their projected image, rather than the substance of their words. Whenever we examine their words we find a hollow shell – a façade. People suggest that Trump was an experiment for America, but they are wrong. Raegan would have been the experiment. Trump would have been a follow up, if not just an answer to a hypothesis: Yes you can throw a personality at people and yes they will support it because it is shiny. Trump, if any meaningful information can be gained from his presidency, merely indicates a broad set of parameters, for both citizens and political candidate, within which an incumbent must operate before they are viewed as unsustainable by a majority of the voting population. So can we expect more TV-dinner Presidents, Prime Ministers, and politicians?

You would be a fool not to.

Once again, we’ve opened a box. Not a cataclysmic pandora’s box, but a box that, nonetheless, in its opening has far-reaching consequences. A box that we cannot just shut as we wish and ignore what has come out of it. Whatever that turns out to be, it’s already out. You cannot put it back in without reverting society to the way it was decades ago under some naïve rose-tinted illusion that things were ideal back then. Needless to say, you cannot revert society – you cannot go backwards. The world has moved forward. The law is that you move with it or die. Normal has shifted. You may take a couple of steps back towards the ground to came from, but you’re not going to be able to call that ground normal again, because it is not.

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