There’s an old Brechtian line to the effect that ‘the people have failed us, time to get a new people’, and it comes to mind almost every time I read anything on Brexit or Trump. The liberal elite feel that they have been failed by the electorate. Rowan Williams, a thinker for whom I have a great deal of time, has even recently suggested that a ‘humane alternative’ might be needed; wisely, he does not suggest how any polity might move from Mass democracy to something less risky. He does suggest, and here he has a major point, that given the complexity and deep-rooted nature of the problems we face, it is unlikely that Trump can deliver what he has promised. Here in the UK we are currently undergoing an unreal debate in which certain newspapers simply refuse to accept any ‘economic facts’ they do not like; but Government borrowing goes up all the same, and real wages fall in value. When we start rejecting ‘facts’ because they are incompatible with a particular world-view we have entered the world of ‘Newspeak’ with a vengeance.
The notion that something called ‘education; can solve this problem can, as Williams points out, become yet another hostage to fortune if what is being said is that young people have to be taught to think the same way. It leads to lurid headlines about the ‘snowflake generation’, but under that, young people remain what they have always been, rebellious and sceptical about the settled convictions of the older generation. Williams suggests that the sort of education that matters is real life experience of politics at the local level, and he is right, but as anyone who has ever been involved at that level knows, it takes a lot of time and attracts very little interest from the particular electorate involved unless it involves something controversial.
We come back to the issue of shared values. Human beings need to belong to something, to have an allegiance to someone of something higher than the self. In our secularising Western world, it seems as though increasingly that ‘something’ is the nation state. It is no accident that Trump’s slogan was ‘make America great again’, or that Brexiteers emphasised the nation-state and the threat to it from supra-national entities. It looks quite like the same impulse that gave rise to the Protestant revolt against the Catholic Church in England and on the Continent – and we see it in the Catholic Church currently with some of the attitudes toward a Pope whose views seem too aligned with those of a certain generation of liberal Catholicism.
Our hearts, St Augustine told us, will be restless until they find their goal in Christ. It is not accidental that at a time when the great god of the State has been shown to be the falsest of idols – unable to deliver its promises of prosperity and safety from the cradle to the grave’ – that its devotees should turn to find substitutes. But these, too, will prove false idols. And so on it goes, and the gods of the copybook headings will have their revenge.