Making sense of political change

Given the staggering events of 2016–2017, you may be struggling to understand politics, and even the wider world. For my part I confess that I have called numerous elections incorrectly — for example, Labour’s leadership contest; the EU Referendum; and the US Presidential election. I wasn’t the only one. Events have defied all traditional expectations.

Whilst still struggling to understand the implications of these seismic events, I picked up a textbook from my literary studies degree back in the mid-1990s, and one chapter caught my eye, on the topic of postmodernism.

For the uninitiated, the best definition for this concept comes from the amusingly-named Frenchman Jean-François Lyotard. A philosopher and sociologist, he defined postmodernism as an ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’.

Before you condemn him for talking pretentious nonsense, let’s simplify that line to make it easier.

· Incredulity = disbelief

· Meta-narratives = an overarching account of events

In a nutshell, Monsieur Lyotard says that throughout human history groups of people have attempted to define the entirety of human existence through the lens of a particular ideology. Notable examples would include: Christianity, Islam, Communism, Socialism, Thatcherism, and Capitalism. The list goes on.

Proponents of those ideas would suggest that everything around us can be absolutely explained by their particular ideological framework. Over time, wars of violence and words have raged over which ideology is correct, with terrible consequences.

However, postmodernism neatly rejects the entire basis of ideology. It suggests that no ideology is correct, and that human history is not a linear process and therefore no-one can claim a monopoly on truth.

Other parts of the world (for example, where Islam is the defining belief system) do not share this incredulity in meta-narratives. It is one of the reasons why we struggle to understand fundamentalism because it requires such certainty of belief which we ourselves have largely rejected in the West.

The mass population seems compelled to reject everything that the ruling orthodoxies tell us to do or think.

Let’s take a few political examples:

For a generation we were told that in politics, it was only the economy which really mattered. If you win the economic competency argument, you win the overall battle. In the EU Referendum, this strategy failed miserably. People rejected this orthodoxy — many millions of Brits actively voted against their own economic security, seemingly on purpose. A Remain pollster told me that he had tested a key message on a focus group in the North of England which made clear that a vote to Leave could lead to the collapse of the FTSE-100. The unanimous response from the group? “Good”.

Jeremy Corbyn was widely assumed to be unable to secure the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015, beginning the campaign at odds of more than 100–1. This was primarily because it was an accepted fact that he was not capable of winning a General Election, which has been the point of Opposition politics since the beginning of time. However, his supporters have rejected the orthodoxy that ‘winning’ is the purpose of party politics. They don’t care if they lose, because for them winning is an elitist activity which requires unacceptable compromise.

Donald Trump became President by rejecting numerous orthodoxies in US politics. People would not vote for someone so far removed from the mainstream party system. They would not vote for someone who did not require campaign donations. They would not support a candidate who had not ‘tested’ their messaging in focus groups. They would not support someone with outspoken views on race in a multi-ethnic country. Well, they did in their many millions.

The events of 2016–17 therefore begin to make better sense when viewed as the predictable result of the rapid rise of postmodern thought in the West.

In terms of politics, we should expect this adherence to counter-intuitive opinion to continue in forthcoming elections, and we need to accept that those of us who have made a career in professional politics may be at a disadvantage in trying to predict what happens next. Many public affairs agencies in the US are packed full of people with direct experience of Hilary Clinton, but next to none for Trump.

Similarly, in terms of business, the meta-narratives you tell about your company or your sector may need to be rewritten and re-imagined because you too could be washed away by the rising tide. This might mean increasing the diversity of opinions within an organisation and a willingness to take more creative risk, because this is not a period of history you can choose to ride out. As the saying goes, you need to change in order to stay the same.