There is a battle for hearts and minds going on in our brave new world of algorithmic voter manipulation.
In the public sphere, there has been a dismayed – and dismaying – silence in the face of the last year’s unpredicted outbreak of national populism playing to the forces of xenophobia, isolationism and vindictive barbarity.
One minute Europe’s economic union is there; the next it’s on the brink of extinction. Ditto the United Kingdom. The least said about the 45th president of the United States, the better but the ramifications of his attitude to climate change and rampant big oil and big money alone are terrifying.
At the weekend, France didn’t elect Marine Le Pen but few of us would have taken bets on the outcome of the French presidential elections. And it’s chilling the numbers that did vote for a brutal, mob-rule change that France went through pretty thoroughly and very publicly a couple of hundred years ago.
I think most of us have a sense that copping out is not going to work; that we are going to have to fight to master the informational bear trap that is fake news and the barefaced theft of hitherto perfectly useful words in the political lexicon of social justice. Along with the extraordinary (if illusory) capture of the angry, disentitled and discontented by the equally psychotic and dauntingly well-resourced alt right.
Traditional Left-Right stereotypes – always suspect when used as pejorative tribal labels – are now functionally irrelevant. ‘Centrist’ makes cameo appearances (including for our former prime minister, which was a bit rich for a Merrill Lynch banker and reckless free marketeer) but seldom informs enforceable public decision-making.
If a society doesn’t have its social, moral and taxation settings right – which is the job we, perforce, delegate to presidents and parliaments – nothing else is going to go very well.
One of the outcomes of France’s (at least temporarily game-changing) choice of president is prompting commentary and wider clarity about the new political underpinnings.
Centrist, as applied to France’s Emmanuel Macron – young, a political outsider, with policy commitments towards social justice and national regeneration – is relatively understandable. A concert pianist and merchant banker implies at least a bold balance; a clear vision of what the potential for a unifying, restorative climate of social justice could look like if you put choices and commitment in front of voters.
In this context of citizens reclaiming power and leverage, it was a Guardian Weekly reader in Canada who gave me the most insightful moment of the week.
Edward Butterworth of British Columbia pointed out that while we cannot know the long-term difference that our actions can make, there is a distinction between demonstrations and civil disobedience.
Action changes things; reaction doesn’t, he said, quoting American psychologist Rollo May in his book Love and Will.
With demonstrations, “the government acts and the people react by demonstrating. In civil disobedience people act and the government reacts.
“People in prison, holding the high moral ground, exert a powerful influence, as Gandhi well understood,” he said. “The courageous acts of American activist Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden inspire generations.”
Fellow letter-writer, Londoner Caroline Sandes also proposed that individuals in this new world should persist in doing what they believe is right, “even if it feels like a drop in the ocean and when everyone else is excusing themselves for not doing so.
“It is the dogged following of a thoughtful ethical path by individuals that counteracts the well-proven problem of evil triumphing when good people do nothing.”
Emmanuel Macron’s win has given democracy, Europeanism and globalism another chance in France , Guardian commentator Paul Mason concluded after the French election.
“If you dig down into the polling analysis from France, the demographics of Le Pen’s support mirror those that drove the Brexit vote [in the UK]. Low education, short lifespan, pessimism about the future and blue-collar work: these are the predictors of voting far right in France or Brexit,” he said.
“Macron showed Britain another way. “You confront xenophobia and racism; you attack the dream of economic isolation as a reactionary fantasy; you lead the nation by representing the cultural values of its skilled and educated people, and the young.”
Essentially, the French establishment woke up. It realised that, given the options, an alliance with the left was better than an alliance with the ultra right, he said.
The lessons are coming clearer. • Liz Waters