There are two main elements to governing a consensual society:

  • Politicians have to take the people with them. When large numbers of the electorate disagree vehemently on values, rather than on simply who gets what and dividing up the cake, culture wars arise – or worse.
  • In the BBC’s excellent TV comedy series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby said that government was about keeping the show on the road.

Western elites have failed on both these counts and are now thoroughly discombobulated following the temerity of the masses to reject their omniscience.

But instead of fundamentally reassessing their views and assumptions, it is more of the same.

Even well into 2017, months after Trump’s election victory on 8 November 2016 and after the UK’s formal notification to Brussels on 29 March 2017 that it was triggering Article 50 to leave the European Union, the elites still largely believe the Marxist idea of “false consciousness” – that electorates in the United Kingdom and the United States voted against their “real” economic interests.

And yet, it is surely not necessary to be religious to know that man does not live by bread alone.

Dostoevsky explained one crucial aspect of human nature that many “educated” people have overlooked completely in their astonishingly naive fixation on, and narrow definition of homo economicus.

But let me repeat to you for the hundredth time that there is one instance when a man can wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid and even completely idiotic.

He will do it in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things and not be obliged to have only sensible wishes.

But what if a quite absurd whim, my friends, turns out to be the most advantageous thing on earth for us, as sometimes happens?

Specifically, it may be more advantageous to us than any other advantages, even when it most obviously harms us and goes against all the sensible conclusions of our reason about our interest – because, whatever else, it leaves us our most important, most treasured possession: our individuality.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, 1864.

Talk to ordinary people, or analyse the interviews they give to mostly uncomprehending journalists, and it is precisely themes such as individuality, dignity and respect which occur repeatedly – and which repeatedly trump “pure” and “rational” economic interests.

Millions of people across the West now believe that uncaring, incompetent, self-serving, out of touch and corrupt elites have foisted values, assumptions and policies on them to which they never agreed and indeed strongly reject as being counter-productive not only to their own personal interests, but also inimical to their nation and the West as a whole.

The putatively well-educated elites have blatantly ignored the lessons of history – and warnings from within the elite itself:

Neither the [interwar] League [of Nations] nor the UN was able to… create in the peoples of the world an attachment to international organizations exceeding national patriotism.

Peter Calvocoressi, World Politics Since 1945, 9th edition, 2009, p. 741

Calvocoressi graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, but his warning is hardly new.

That other famous elite project, the European Union, has also suffered from same problem. My first-year course in Politics and Modern History at the University of Manchester in 1979 covered the “democratic deficit” of the EU’s forerunner, the European Economic Community – just two years after the term was originally coined in 1977.

Hit by long-term economic decline due to outsourcing to the developing world, computerisation and robotisation, mass legal and illegal immigration and the lousy economy since 2008, furious voters have therefore taken the opportunities offered by Brexit and Trump to vote against elites, and will do so again in the elections due in France in April 2017 and in Germany in autumn 2017.

The only questions are how many will vote thus and whether this will be sufficient to displace the incumbent elites?

Western elites, however, are now far too heavily invested educationally, intellectually, emotionally and financially in their own ideologies to understand, let alone counteract current developments.

Signs of massive cognitive dissonance have been apparent for years:

What really upsets him in Time To Start Thinking is that so many Americans who should know better don’t seem to realise how serious the challenges are.

I found myself from the outset wanting to quarrel with Luce, a former Washington bureau chief and now chief US commentator of [the Financial Times].

But… by the end of the book this fan of America was a great deal more anxious about the health of the republic.

Mark Damazer, The Fate of the Nation, a review of Time To Start Thinking: America And The Spectre Of Decline by Edward Luce, 2012. The Financial Times, 7 April 2012

Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, a former Controller of BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 7 in the United Kingdom and Harkness Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Outrage and ad hominem attacks on their populist opponents and supporters do not constitute political arguments or solutions, and indeed exacerbate the polarisation, offering succour only to those in the same echo-chamber.

In 2012, U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was dismissive of the 47% who were not paying federal taxes and would vote for Barack Obama “no matter what,” only to be followed by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s contempt for the “deplorables” and “irredeemables” in 2016.

The result is not just a dangerous weakening of Western and international institutions and democracy, but also of the internal cohesion of Western countries themselves. Numerous analysts have long since feared that this process and other trends are now irreversible. Indeed, some have even written off the West, in particular Europe, and believe that the United States might be just a few decades behind.

ESC looks at the reasons behind this failure in a series of articles on the media, the academy, politics and business.