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Mass democracy has failed – it's time to seek a humane alternative

Trump's theatrical politics are a betrayal of the disenfranchised. To move forward, we need better analysis of and investment in local civic activism.

No one knows yet what Donald Trump will do as president. Optimists predict that, once in the Oval Office, he will be reined in by advisers and bureaucrats or frustrated by Congress; or that he will not have the political energy to carry through the projects that he announced during his campaign – projects that will be open to all sorts of legal challenges and practical obstacles. We can hope. Yet the reality is that a US president’s freedom to appoint advisers, and Supreme Court judges, is pretty generous, by European standards. And Trump has a House and a Senate that not only share his (very) nominal party allegiance but are fully aware of his electoral significance. His patronage will be crucial for the future of many of these politicians.

We have seen elsewhere how extremists have been elected with the optimistic collusion or tolerance of those who believe that such people can be “managed” in office; and we have seen them discover, bitterly and too late, their error. Nor is there any indication that Trump’s energy is in short supply. However limited his grasp of the complex issues that he has opened up, the force of his personality will generate a hectic climate of plans and half-plans, expenditure and public rhetoric, that will be almost as damaging as the projects themselves.

We don’t know. However, we do know what this election has shown about politics in the US – confirming what was already apparent on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, it is to do with the discontent of the disenfranchised and insecure. Yes, conventional politicians of the right and the left have failed to understand this. But that might tempt us to think that there was still a solution available within the politics of a market society, in which ideas are shaped by public demand.

The problem is deeper. Trump’s campaign succeeded in spite of the cast-iron demonstrations of his total indifference to truth (not to mention decency). It has offered not a connected strategy for national reconstruction, but an incoherent series of crowd-pleasing postures; as if Trump’s real aim was not to do anything as president but simply to be president, to be the most important man in the Western world. This election represents a divorce between the electoral process and the business of political decision-making. It is the ersatz politics of mass theatre, in which what matters most is the declaration of victory.

As such, it is the most cynical betrayal of those who are disenfranchised. It confirms that they have no part in real political processes; they can only choose their monarch. They have become detached from the work of politics by the erosion of liberties and economic opportunities – one reason why there is such pressure to displace this on to a feverish defence of archaic “freedoms” such as gun ownership, and on to whatever scapegoated minority can be held responsible for unemployment or general insecurity.

The politics of mass democracy has failed. It has been narrowed down to a mechanism for managing large-scale interests in response to explicit and implicit lobbying by fabulously well-resourced commercial and financial concerns (ironically, one of the things that Trump has undertaken to change). The 2008 financial crisis sent a tremor through that world but failed to change its workings. The effect has been a growing assumption that what goes on in public political debate does not represent any voices other than the privileged and self-interested. And so, for significant parts of a population, “theatrical” politics comes to look like the only option: a dramatic articulation of the problems of powerlessness, for which the exact details of economic or social reality are irrelevant. This delivers people into the hands of another kind of dishonest politics: the fact-free manipulation of emotion by populist adventurers.

There is an issue here about education. Yet this can become another hostage to fortune if all it is saying is that a benighted populace should be educated out of false consciousness by those who know better (the “experts” we are now encouraged to hate and mistrust). The learning that matters is the experience of genuine political debate and decision-making at local levels, the experience of identifying challenges, negotiating sustainable solutions, and learning to manage conflict without violent rupture or the demonising of minorities. This is the work that goes on in co-operative practice at every level – in education and industry, and through citizens’ organisations (President Obama’s political nursery), food co-ops, microcredit institutions and voluntary street pastors.

Instead of the chilling, neo-Soviet talk (here as much as in the United States) about something called “The People” and its supposed will, we need better analysis of and investment in local civic activism. And this implies a rethink of party politics as we have received it. The conventional accounts of what is “right” and “left” are fast becoming tribal signals, rather than useful moral categories. The leviathans of the party system will sooner or later have to look at their structures and accountability – not as a step to plebiscite populism, but in terms of what they can do to nurture discussion and decision in the actual communities to which people (not The People) belong.

Naught for our comfort; but at least an opportunity to ask how politics can be set free from the deadly polarity between empty theatrics and corrupt, complacent pluto­cracy. What will it take to reacquaint people with control over their communities, shared and realistic values, patience with difference and confidence in their capacity for intelligent negotiation? It’s the opposite of what Trump has appealed to. The question is whether the appalling clarity of this opposition can wake us up to work harder for the authentic and humane politics that seems in such short supply. 

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.