It’s widely accepted that politics over the past 5–10 years has taken a turn to the crazy. The political debate has moved significantly from questions of economic interest to questions of identity. Unconventional figures are succeeding in elections: Donald Trump is president of the USA, Boris Johnson is joint favourite to be next Prime Minister of Britain.
The chief mechanism of this shift has been the destruction or bypassing of the old centres of power. The institutions and informal hierarchies that used to be important to politics no longer are. Obama was said to have bypassed the Democratic establishment with an internet and grass-roots campaign (though is that really true?) Trump undoubtedly ran against the Republican establishment and won, and his ad-hoc campaign seriously outperformed the institutional support behind the Clinton campaign.
Money is still important, in US politics, but the fund-raising establishments that mediated it are much less so. A candidate can appeal to donors directly, whether rich donors in person or large numbers of small donors via the internet. The money isn’t flowing through kingmaker fund-raisers who could influence the direction of a party with other people’s money.
From the other side, donors can get influence through big-name candidates, or through pressure groups that set the media agenda, better than through party institutions.
In the UK it’s access to media rather than money that gave the party establishments real power, but that power has declined in the same way: the old gatekeepers can be bypassed.
These are material causes, but there are also social causes. The political parties were once socially important — politicians believed in the party as a force in society, and as a kind of class consciousness. Politicians in a party were insiders, everyone else was an outsider, and insiders knew what was going on in a way that outsiders didn’t. The important people in the party were those who could organise and persuade in private. That has faded: the parties have become more diverse in every sense, and there is much less in the way of solidarity and social ties to political institutions.
That’s the first element: the loss of power of political institutions. That certainly goes back more than the timescale of 5–10 years that I referred to. But its effects are still playing out. The new, open, meritocratic political mechanisms have given rise to a new style in politics.
When politics was carried out within powerful institutions with social and organisational coherence, political factions could keep secrets. They could plan to carry out actions, and to present arguments, without publicly announcing what they were going to do. Today that is not the case. Because political factions are open and meritocratic, collective decisions can only be reached in public.
The effects go further: because all communication within a faction is essentially public, the only way to advance within the faction is through public statements. If you can plan privately and then act, you can be responsible for the consequences of your actions. If you can only contribute to a public debate, then you are responsible for nothing but your public statements. The loss of institutional power has led, through the loss of secrecy, to a loss of responsibility.
The other significant effect of the loss of secrecy is a catastrophic decline in dishonesty in politics. It’s no longer possible to pretend to adopt a political position but to secretly work against it. It’s not possible to express a claim confidently as a bargaining position, and yet negotiate to minimise the risks. If you have publicly expressed confidence, you have to publicly act in line with that expressed confidence. And you can only act publicly.
“It is a feature of any large movement that pretending to believe something is effectively the same as believing it.” — though size of movement isn’t the whole point, the lack of selection into the movement is as important.
Because there is no longer a line between political insiders and outsiders, a majority of your faction are people who haven’t been selected by anyone and who aren’t necessarily in a position to understand compromise or complexity. Your public statements — and therefore your actual actions — have to be simple, clear and extreme.
The failed coup against Trump is a good example of the phenomenon: If there was an actual conspiracy it was tiny, and most of the work of making the Russia frame stick on Trump was done by people who genuinely believed it was real, and therefore adopted the wrong tactics. At a stretch, it’s possible there was no real conspiracy at all: Hillary and her team were making up excuses for their failure, and some intel people were just nuts (an occupational hazard) or were showing off to their friends. It’s important to understand that the publicly claimed positions get internalised. Even if they start as cynical lies, in the absence of private meetings where everyone agrees, “yes we said that, but it’s not really true”, people end up really believing what they pretend to believe.
What this means is that the purity spirals that characterise the Cathedral have now migrated directly into party politics itself. In the old model, the “Modern Structure“, the political agenda is ultimately driven by the Cathedral, meaning elite academia and the prestige media. They set the common understandings of the electorate and society, which in turn compel politicians to follow. But as politics shifts from private compromises to public debate, the distinction between media and politics dissolves. Every politician is a pundit, and not really anything more. This development has been going for years , but only reaches its full effect when the politicians become conscious of it, or have carried on their whole careers under these conditions.
So that ultimately is the cause of the insanity: The old political class which followed the ideological line produced from the Cathedral but with a delay and a practical, moderating influence, has been dissolved into the Cathedral itself.
The civil service is still—for now—out of this: it can still form policy in quiet and carry it on. It is now the last remaining holdout against true popular democracy. It used to be able to make deals with the political class in private, though. The exposing to the public of all political decision-making has taken that mechanism away from it—the question of “what is the official advice” is now part of the public debate on every major issue. It’s also worth noting that it has always been more directly influenced by the Cathedral proper than the old political class was.