Perfect Storm Brewing: The Winter of Our Discontent

Political Science Professor Charli Carpenter

Political Science Professor Charli Carpenter

Winter is coming. Instead of setting the stage for another spell-binding episode of an epic television drama, the ominous phrase presages a time of struggle and discontent.

Commenting on the present moment in Foreign Affairs, Political Science Professor Charli Carpenter of the University of Massachusetts recently lamented the ‘jockeying for power by self-interested actors’ in pursuit short-term objectives, and ‘sub-optimal chaos’, whilst disregarding ethical norms, the needs of common people, and those of the natural world. “Gamesmanship,” Prof Carpenter writes, “distracts players from the truly pressing issues of human survival and stability.”

Vast amounts of spin and evermore outrageous conspiracy theories regarding deep states, swamps, and other figments of the popular imagination almost monopolise public opinion. Easily verifiable facts are demoted to ‘just another opinion’ and alt-truths carry the day in the echo chambers of the internet that pose as social media. Qanon is on the march – apparently capturing the imagination of millions. Informed debate has largely given way to a culture of entitlement in which each crackpot loudly demands ‘respect’ and all opinions – no matter how outlandish, ridiculous, or misinformed – must be awarded equal time, consideration, and weight.

In under a year, the world has turned into an even scarier place with at least four of its major powers turning rouge or getting perilously close to doing so. The China of President Xi Jinping is exploring its Maoist roots; the United States of President Donald Trump is fuelling extremism on all sides; the Russia of President Vladimir Putin is stalking its borderlands; and, perhaps most depressing of all, the United Kingdom of Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems intent on abandoning its formerly exemplary dedication to the rule of law.

Whilst these, and a motley crew of similarly bombastic leaders of lesser relevance, upset delicate balances of power as they ply their brinkmanship, the world battles a particularly pernicious virus that has thus far cost almost a million human lives and is on track to shear up to $8.8 trillion off the global economy according to the latest estimates drawn up by the Asian Development Bank. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) expects the pandemic to wipe out up to 24.7 million jobs, pushing global unemployment to 213 million by the end of the year.

Recovery hopes and outlooks crisscrossed the alphabet moving from V to U via L, before settling on an optimistic W – indicating periodic slumps and rebounds moving in tandem with the viral transmission ratio in a disharmonic replay of the danse macabre.

Whilst Rome burns to a crisp, alongside his ‘oven ready’ EU trade deal, UK Prime Minister Johnson, who fancies himself a classicist, fiddles merrily away, protecting British fish from dastardly continental would-be poachers, hiring advisers who boast in public that a lie is merely another man’s truth, and tabling frivolous legislation in Parliament to impress the home front and show Johnny Foreigner that Britannia – indomitable, indefatigable, implacable, and of course impregnable – still (or again) waives the rules.

Busy fighting the many demons he awakened or failed to slay, Prime Minister Johnson did not seem to have any tether left as he was verbally humiliated and fileted during Prime Minister’s Questions by stand-in Labour leader Ed Miliband last week. The prime minister, slumped rather hapless on the bench and with an almost zombie-like expression on his face, lacked the puff to grasp the despatch box and meet Mr Miliband’s challenge with some venom of his own. The poor man, a shadow of his ebullient former self, could not even mount the credible, let alone vigorous, defence the Labour leader’s unscripted assault called for. Instead, Mr Johnson stared at his phone, refusing to look up and hurrying away as soon as protocol allowed.

The prime minister’s performance, or lack thereof, in the grand theatre of PMQs is a far cry from the ‘Dazzling Boris Johnson’ whom the Daily Telegraph predicted in May would ‘beat’ any Labour leader anytime – particularly the ‘dull’ Keith Starmer who was unable to attend the unusually acerbic yet highly entertaining weekly parliamentary ritual due to a covid-19 case in his family. Mr Johnson momentarily forgot that PMQs is all about the joust.

As winter approaches, a perfect storm is gathering with the corona pandemic getting its second wind and a dysfunctional body politic unlikely to steer polarised societies towards a safe harbour. Whatever President Donald Trump or Prime Minister Boris Johnson say, exactly half of society will meet with cheer and the other half with jeer. And never the twain shall meet for common ground – the sensible centre – has ceased to exist.

To use an analogy from municipal politics: There is no ideological approach to collecting the trash. In the same vein, battling a public health hazard is not the job of politicians, but of experts and scientists who may be empowered by national leaders – but cannot be replaced by them.

Dr Anthony Fauci simply knows more about immunology than President Trump and his entire administration put together. Yet, the commander-in-chief still seems to think that his suggestions for self-medication, gleaned from YouTube snake oil peddlers, are worth taking into consideration. What do the experts know, after all?

It is the disdain for the experts, and the drowning out of their voices amidst the cacophony of uninformed opinion, that will ultimately inflict most harm. That Messrs Jinping and Putin are stone and tone deaf should, of course, surprise nobody. Their authoritarian and manipulative ways allow these leaders to get away with murder – often literally. However, Messrs Trump and Johnson should know better than to polarise their societies, play to latent nationalism, flirt with populism, and skirt the boundaries of legality.

Over the years, much has been made of Europe’s dangerous tendency to veer to the right, stoke the dying embers of nationalism, and tolerate the presence of lingering ghosts from its dark past. Each member state of the union – from Finland and Sweden to Greece and Spain plus all in between – has its own homegrown firebrands whipping up xenophobic forces, catering to chauvinism, and furthering the ironclad philosophy of ‘my country, right or wrong’. Yet, whilst these forces are indeed present within the EU, they have thus far only gained any real traction in the halls of power in Washington and London where most all pretence has now been dropped, liberalism abandoned, and tradition shoved aside – all, supposedly, in the name of serving the demos. Follow the money – the shorts placed, the funds shifted – and get a warm coat for this is likely to become the winter of our discontent.

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