The GOP and Labour: Parallel Lives
At the start of this year, the American conservative blogger Matt Lewis published a highly prophetic book about the state of the Republican Party. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Too Dumb to Fail chronicled the decline of intellectual thought within the GOP, the party’s insistence on doubling down on a demographically shrinking base and how it had too often failed to handle an influx of hardline activists who pushed it in unpredictable and extreme directions.
Lewis wrote his book with the rise of Donald Trump not quite complete. But he was remarkably lucid in showing how all these trends were leading to the full-scale institutional failure of his party and the triumph of a nominee who embodied a disdain for diversity of opinion, a glorification of the politics of victimhood and a populism more concerned with finding scapegoats for a flawed system than with remedying it.
As the months have gone by and the full implications of the GOP’s situation have visited themselves on American politics, the harder it has been to ignore parallels between what Lewis discerned in Republican ranks and the trajectory of Britain’s Labour Party. This is discomforting for some Labour activists who pride themselves on a lofty worldview, but the comparison shines a light on just how far the party has fallen, and why so many of its members now seem blindly intent on driving it over an electoral cliff.
One of the most striking similarities between the Republican Party and Labour in recent years has been the extent to which both their rank and files have ditched a broad range of intellectual opinion for something far more simplistic and partisan. While a talk show host himself, Lewis is unsparing in his book when it comes to the primacy a number of his colleagues now enjoy over true thinkers and their forebears, from Burke to Buckley. Labour discourse today suffers from something very similar: more activists would probably cite Twitter warriors like Eoin Clarke than they would Tony Crosland as oracles of wisdom.
Part of this trend speaks to an intolerance of thought and tradition that manifests itself in other ways. Like many Republicans, Labour members are increasingly willing to elevate small-time celebrities or media sensations at the expense of more substantive voices. Too Dumb to Fail catalogues a litany of such characters, from Joe the Plumber through to Ted Nugent and Donald Trump himself, who have captured the hearts of Republican activists. The veneration of Michael Rosen, Charlotte Church, Harry Leslie Smith and others as leading lights of the Labour movement echoes the same kind of anti-elite, anti-thought mindset that resulted in Trump’s seizing of the presidential nomination this past May.
It is tempting to ascribe these trends to a death of culture or ‘dumbing down’, but just as pertinent is something else Lewis identifies in the GOP: the entry of activists animated by major causes or events but with limited understanding of the party and its historical purpose. Lewis pinpoints the arrival of many new campaigners drawn to causes such as anti-Islamism in the wake of 9/11 as having been a particular challenge for a long-established party like the Republicans. In Labour’s case, new and returning members animated by anti-austerity in the wake of the financial crash proved hard for party leaders and structures to integrate. A hint of this was on display at some of Ed Miliband’s events in the last parliament, although the phenomenon was not fully understood until the 2015 leadership election.
Compounding all these problems for both the GOP and Labour is the behaviour of their new insurgent leaders and the response they provoke among their grassroots. In different ways, both Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn use peculiar forms of charisma to make their supporters feel like they have licence to say and do things hitherto deemed out of bounds. This might be simply expressing politically radical positions: scrap free trade or stop all cuts, for instance. But it can also take on a sinister character through expressions of superiority, chauvinism and intolerance. While a decline in deference has made people less likely to heed leaders of any stripe, Trump and Corbyn’s pushing of boundaries from positions of such authority has appeared to legitimise outlandish and disturbing sentiments in the wider public sphere. It should be no surprise then that their supporters do not wish to part with leaders who have mainstreamed their most basic and sometimes darkest instincts.
In the last few months, I have heard many of my fellow Labour activists despair about the direction of the party and mull whether they should leave it. I have also watched many American conservatives go through the same thought process with regard to the Republican Party. I am not sure this is the right course for two reasons. The first is that it is incumbent on those who have been in a political party a long time and care about it to reassert the values which make it what it is. If these traditions and schools of thought matter to you so much, why would you hollow out the primary vehicle for realising them by abandoning it?
The second is even more serious in nature. Both disaffected GOPers and Labourites know that they face the reality of political systems that only really make room for two major parties. If as Benjamin Wittes argued this week, one of those parties effectively blows its fuse and advances an unbalanced, extreme or authoritarian leader to the country, democratic institutions themselves risk being imperilled. While the other major parties in the US and Britain are fairly stable for now, there is no guarantee they will remain so in the future. Reclaiming both Republican and Labour Parties for the nations they were created to speak to is an urgent priority. If those of us who have inhabited them the longest do not stand and fight, the consequences could be severe indeed.