So Donald Trump is going to make America great again. Remind me, when was it great before? After the Second World War, the United States emerged as the one of a small number of developed nations with its industrial infrastructure still standing. In the 1950s wages were high, and at least if you were a white man in steady work, times were good. American sociologist Robert Putnam nostalgically remembers his school days as a time of respect, good manners and equality. But most of the mothers of these children were still buried in domestic labour, and black Americans awaited the civil rights movement. When was America great for everyone? Has there been such a time?
The United Kingdom has also expressed a nostalgia to return to the golden age. When, exactly? 19th Century prosperity was built on ruthless exploitation of empire and the industrial proletariat. The first half of the 20th Century contained two world wars and the great depression. Rationing and austerity lasted into the 1950s. The 1960s swung for the liberal metropolitan elite, but for the rest of us it was the 1950s continued.
The 1970s gave us the three day week and Showaddywaddy. In the 1980s unemployment hit 11% per cent while the 1990s started with severe recession. Next came the financial crisis. And then it was now. Of course very many good things have happened too, but the rough and the smooth generally co-exist.
Exploiting a nostalgia for an imagined past is one of the key themes of contemporary populism. Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadam points out that populist politics keys into feelings of fear, mistrust and rejection. Simple messages, identifying an enemy threat, and promising a return to security, prosperity, and national autonomy win the day. Those who try to confront the complexities of policy and the impossibility and undesirability of turning back the clock are silenced. As Paul Simon put it so well, each of us hears what we want to hear and disregards the rest. And, indeed, there are many who have squandered their resistance for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises.
How is populism to be countered? Harvard Professor of African-American Studies and Philosophy Tommie Shelby suggests that to be a progressive in politics is to maintain that there are social injustices that should and can be addressed by collective action, but to deny that the solutions to these problems lie in some allegedly better form that existed in the past. It is this thought that should set the political and academic agenda. We need to concentrate on the future. But we need also to avoid a type of mirror image of nostalgic populism, in which we imagine a future that also ignores the complexities of how we get there from here, and how it would actually work in practice.
The realistic path is to start with an understanding of the social injustices that blight so many lives, and this is a task that journalists, academics, film makers and other commentators engage in so powerfully. But the next step is the harder one: can we see a way out of these problems that has a chance of success? The problem with progressive politics is that the needed reforms so often go against the vested interests of those who have the power to make change.
Our very immediate problem, sadly, is not how to make progressive politics work. Rather it is that the United Kingdom and the United States have set themselves up for ‘populist shock’. Suppose our leaders really do try to govern by slogans such as ‘taking back control’, and ‘make America great again’. They will find out that everything is connected to everything else and one change – reduce EU immigration or abolish Obamacare – can have huge, quite likely destructive, consequences for those who voted in favour of the policies. What happens then? The rediscovery of progressive politics? Or a type of ‘super-populism’ in which every negative turn is blamed on ‘political opponents’? Be on guard for the word ‘saboteur’. For we know what comes next after that.
Jonathan Wolff is Professor of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford