In the French presidentials, the establishment candidates were dismissed in the first round. But here, for reasons difficult to explain, there had been a political realignment giving voters who wanted to reject the establishment a centrist alternative to go to. We have perhaps thought that the politics of anger must find its outlet on the extreme right or extreme left, but that may not necessarily be the case. France is showing the way – who would have thought?
There are two dimensions to the politics of anger. One goes to the substance of public policy. There is a failure to respond to the pressures of modern capitalism with a credible agenda of fairness and social justice. Economic progress trickles up but not down, resulting in a landscape of affluence on one side and public poverty and exclusion on the other side.
The other dimension goes to the way politics is made. Citizens are able to vote but otherwise feel, or many of them do, that they have no say in public affairs, that they are not involved and not invited to be involved.
For now, we have no good answer to the challenge of social justice. Following the economic crisis of the 1930s and World War II, advanced democracies invented welfare states that were effective as a civilising influence on industrial capitalism. Now we need a similar civilising influence on post-industrial capitalism, but that is yet to be forthcoming. In Britain, for example, where the Labour Party was the leading force in the welfare state revolution, that movement is now without ability to confront the fact of a very different capitalist order.
To the question of how politics is made, however, we probably do have an answer. The reason many citizens feel excluded from influence, is that they are excluded from influence. “Populism” is hardy a wave of irrational anger, but a reasoned reaction to the gulf of distance that separates “them” up there and “us” down here. The way to respond to “populism,” then, is not by blaming angry citizens for not understanding their own good but by rebuilding structures of policy-making for less distance.
Democracies with decentralised governance are more successful than centralised ones in terms of cohesion between political leaderships and citizenry. It is easy to understand why. When public policy is made in a balanced way between central and local decision-making, citizens have more opportunities for involvement, and for involvement in matters that are near and relevant to them. If you are on the losing side in national elections, for example, that is not the end of the line for you. There are still real and meaningful local arenas to be involved in.
The age of deference is over and citizens expect to be taken seriously and to be involved in public matters. The more governance is centralised, the more citizens have no other way of “participating” than by airing anger in demonstrations, protests, manifestations and the like. Hence we get the paradox that many young people in particular are involved and ready to spend time marching, but cannot bother to vote.
Much of the answer to the how-politics-is-made dimension in the politics of anger, I am suggesting, lies in local government, local democracy and a setting of real local authority and responsibility. In trying to understand matters such as democratic culture, it is generally advisable to assume that people are as they are and good enough and to look to how they are treated. If citizens have arenas of meaningful involvement, we can expect social peace. If all that is available to them is to respond to removed and centralised governance, there is no involvement within reach and no other “participation” than in the venting of anger.
An optimistic reading of the French situation, one week ahead of the final round of the presidentials, is that the new centrist force is responding to both challenges of populism, both the substance of policy and the way policy is made. That is perhaps a very optimistic reading, but there is at least some hope for a non-extremist alternative to the politics of anger. Looking out from Britain, it is good to have a straw of hope to cling on to. Here, too, we face elections, but so far the campaign gives no promise of any innovation, neither in the substance of policy nor in the way policy is made. In the country in which the politics of anger made itself felt with such force that the constitution is in turmoil, it is as if there is nothing to be learned form that experience.