One film and two essays have come together in my mind recently that have caused me to reflect on the current state of politics.
The film was Best of Enemies, detailing how Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley came to blows throughout the US Convention season in 1968:
It’s noted throughout the film how the Vidal-Buckley debates introduced a new era of public discourse and punditry in politics, the consequences of which – essentially “news” that lacks any explanatory power – we live with today.
This linked in my mind to a case made by Public Policy and the Past that I personally find very persuasive:
Britain’s politics look a lot more sterile, and a great deal less fluid, than they did at the beginning of the year.
To watch BBC Question Time or the Andrew Marr show – both derivatives of what Vidal and Buckley started – you would never draw this conclusion about the state of politics. But yet this appears to be exactly where we are, as Public Policy and the Past sets out in some detail, concluding:
[W]e declared that Britain was entering a political ice age: but we thought that the snow and ice would fall only on the forest canopy. But now it is clear that the frost is penetrating the soil and the roots. It is threatening to kill the entire political ecosystem stone dead for years to come.
The irony is that this sterility is one part of a paradox, though, for:
We live in a time of unprecedented political turbulence – facing the rise of populism, the continuing long-term decline of old political loyalties and a febrile atmosphere of social media shouting-as-comment that undermines any and all alternatives in a welter of cynicism and contestation.
The second essay is a 2012 piece by Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest, titled “The Once and Future Liberalism“. It is a, long, wonderful, historical view of the 4 flavours of Liberalism there have been since 1688. It’s simply not possible to do it justice through summary, and I commend the whole piece to you. But it’s opening gives a glimpse of the depths it serves:
The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.
This is the same point as Public Policy and the Past’s, but writ large so that it isn’t just about politics but about the state and its institutions. Mead concludes:
The success of our institutions and ideas has so changed the world that they don’t work any more. We cannot turn back the clock, nor should we try. [Our] job is to boldly go where none have gone before, not to consume our energies in vain attempts to recreate the glories of an unattainable past. We need to do for our times and circumstances what other[s] have done before us: Recast classic liberal thought… in ways that address the challenges before us…
This should be a time of adventure, innovation and creativity in the building of [a new] liberalism. [We are] ready for an upgrade to a new and higher level; indeed, we are overdue for a project that can capture the best energies of our rising generations, those who will lead the [us] to new and richer ways of living that will make the “advanced” societies of the 20th century look primitive, backward and unfulfilled.
This couldn’t be more true, and yet we’re stuck: whilst there’s seemingly more and more for us to disagree about, exacerbated by a politics-as-entertainment media, the political environment is remarkably and ineffectively stable, whilst the world around us is actually undergoing fundamental shifts.
The current state of politics is insipid, when what we need it to be is inspiring.
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