I want you to imagine a scenario. As a nation, we have been tasked to elect a new heart surgeon. Not just any heart surgeon, but the most important heart surgeon in the country, someone who will influence the very direction that heart surgery will take and thus impact directly upon millions of lives. How would we select such a person? What would we look for?
Well, training and education, of course. You wouldn’t want a heart surgeon fencing around inside you who hadn’t been to medical school. Common sense, a rational mind, someone who could be trusted to maintain a cool head when important decisions had to be made. Someone who could work well with others, who would try to achieve consensus, who would try to be inclusive rather than alienate. We would devise tests and means by which we would assess candidates along these dimensions, and, hopefully, after a rigorous selection process, we would elect our new national heart surgeon.
Now think about how we elect the leaders of our democracies and you will understand the inherent problem with democracy. Let me clear: I am not knocking the concept or principle of democracy – it is still the most equitable political system we have yet invented – we only have to look at regimes where monarchy or tyranny continue to rule to understand why this is true. But for democracy to work well – certainly insofar as elections are concerned – it requires certain conditions. First and foremost among these: rational actors and perfect information.
What do we mean by that? Simply put, we mean that everyone must have access to the (objective) facts, and then everyone must act logically upon those facts. In theory, this should ensure that the best person for the job is elected.
Of course, it doesn’t work like that in the real world.
No one has access to all the facts during a political campaign, and even if they did, such facts can be – and are – interpreted to suit particular narratives. Personal bias plays an enormous part in our decision-making, bias often based on anything but facts. And it is in this bog of anti-reason that politicians and the politics of populism flourish. Demagogues who can tap into anti-establishment resentment, loudmouths who can light the fuse beneath an incendiary cause, twisting narratives to suit the prevailing wind and their own agenda, can ride the tiger of rage all the way to the top.
We’ve seen it in Britain, America, India, across Europe.
Trump did it brilliantly. He recognised, early on in his first campaign, that millions of Americans felt disenfranchised, voiceless, deprived of economic sustenance, dismissed by the so-called ‘liberal elite’, ignored. He spoke to them, not with facts or well considered political policies, but instead fanning their fears – fear of immigrants, fear of obsolescence, fear of socialism, fear of penury, fear of disorder – and rallied them to his banner. It is easy for those set against Trumpism to criticise these communities, but the truth is they voted for a man who allied himself with their sense of injury, who told them that he would do for them what others hadn’t.
Is it any wonder that they came out in their droves for him?
And this, in a sense, is why Biden’s task is so very, very difficult, and why the jubilation that I see in (half of) America feels (sadly) just a tad premature.
Biden has pledged to be a ‘president who unifies’. A noble sentiment but also the most impotent and meaningless words in the lexicon of politics. Every incoming national leader – in major democracies, at least – feels compelled to utter this pointless statement knowing full well that even as the words leave their mouths they are falling limp and dead to the floor.
Am I being unduly cynical? I don’t believe so.
Consider the situation in America. After four years of Donald Trump, four years of divisive rhetoric, four years of feeding on people’s fears, four years of lying about anything and everything (lies that have been fact-checked by reputable sources), four years of rude, outlandish, and, in many instances, puerile behaviour, four years of infantile name-calling, the stoking of racist tensions, relentless conflict, chaotic man management, the eschewing of common decency, four years of a thinly-disguised hankering for authoritarianism, seventy million Americans still voted for him.
Think about that.
Seventy million Americans considered him the best person to lead and represent their nation. I’m not criticising these voters – they had every right to choose and, given that their choice was constrained to a Republican or a Democrat – or the right to abstain – they went with their man. The fact that so many did not abstain but voted for Trump, fervently voicing not only their support for him but also for his blatantly self-serving, ‘lying-ass’ (to use a Trumpist turn-of-phrase) narrative about ‘illegal elections’ demonstrates just how narrowly they now view the world through Trump-coloured goggles.
Since ancient times, democracy has been enshrined as the ‘rule of the people’. But the problem with democracy – and I say this somewhat tongue in cheek – is that people are idiots (some more so than others). We are all wedded to certain worldviews that colour how we vote. Those worldviews are a function of so many complex factors – mostly to do with our influences and lived experience – that they are impossible to disentangle from our decision-making. Thus, they impact upon our view of the type of person we believe is best suited to represent us. Having nailed our colours to the mast, it is almost as hard for us to change lanes politically as it is for us to disavow the religion we were born with.
And that is why I think Biden’s rhetoric of ‘it’s time to unite’ will, unfortunately, fall on deaf ears. I doubt that a single one of those seventy million Americans who voted for Trump are in any sort of listening mood. Biden could offer them a bucket of gold each and they’d still tell him he won illegally, that he’s a ‘damned Commie’; they’ll nurse their resentment, supercharge their anger and the spectrum of fears that Trump played upon, and do everything within their power to undermine the foundations of ‘Bidenism’.
Political narratives at this level are never simple tales of good versus evil. Evil Trump hasn’t been vanquished by Prince Biden. Indeed, for millions, those two roles are reversible.
I’m going to make a prediction. Four years from now, this battle will be played out again. Trump will make a bid for a second term. Why wouldn’t he? Seventy million Americans backed him to the hilt – they’re not going anywhere. In spite of the mayor of Philadelphia’s exhortation for Trump to put on his ‘big boy pants’ and accept defeat, nothing of the sort has happened or will happen. Trump has – in the right way or wrong way, depending on your opinion – reenergised the Republican party – they wouldn’t dare field another candidate should he choose to throw his hat in the ring. Age is no bar – as Biden has shown. Most importantly of all, given everything we know about Trump’s shamelessly self-serving nature, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Wouldn’t he just love to be the Comeback Kid, the outsider who stormed the Whitehouse, not once, but twice?
After all, what else is he going to do with the rest of his life?
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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here