The growing poverty of political debate

Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri
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As the year 2018 draws to a close, what are the trends that it highlighted in political life?

The first trend represents a growing global disaffection with international organizations to the benefit of the traditional nation-state. Supporters of the status quo regard that trend as an upsurge of populism and judge it as a setback for human progress whatever that means.

Today it is not the United Nations alone that is reduced to a backseat driver on key issues of international life. Its many tentacles, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, too, have been reduced to a shadow of their past glory. In the 1990s the two outfits held sway on the economies of more than 80 countries across the globe with a mixture of ideology and credit injection.

Today, however, they are reduced to cheer-leading or name-calling from the ringside.

Another significant trend concerns the virtual collapse of almost all political parties across the globe. Even in the United States and Great Britain, which have the oldest and most solidly established tradition of party politics, the system has been severely shaken

Amir Taheri

Political systems decline

The European Union, too, is clearly on the decline. Despite Pollyannish talk of creating a European army and closer ties among member states, the EU has lost much of its original appeal and faces fissiparous challenges of which the so-called Brexit is one early example. I believe that the only way for the EU to survive, let alone prosper, is to recast itself as a club of nation-states rather than a substitute for them.

Less than a decade ago, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and the German Pope Benedict XVI claimed that the nation-state was dead and that in Europe at least, the way to salvation was a revival of Christianity as a cultural bond if not as a traditional faith.

However, the trend towards decline has also affected almost all Christian churches, especially where and when they tried to cast themselves as political actors.

A similar decline could be seen in all other international groupings ranging from the African Union to the Organization of the American States, and passing by the Arab League, the Russian-led Eurasian bloc, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the South American Mercosur.

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Another significant trend concerns the virtual collapse of almost all political parties across the globe.

Even in the United States and Great Britain, which have the oldest and most solidly established tradition of party politics, the system has been severely shaken.

In the US the Democrat Party has morphed into a hodgepodge of groups from crypto Marxists to bleeding-heart liberals held together by little more than their common hatred for President Donald J Trump. For its part, the Republican Party, first shaken by the so-called Tea Party, has been reduced to second fiddle for the Trumpist “revolution”.

More divisions between parties

In Great Britain, Brexit has divided the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, into three factions that could, in time, morph into separate parties. For at least two centuries Britain’s power was mainly based on the stability of its institutions and the ability of its political elite to meet every challenge with a firm attachment to the rule of law plus moderation. All that edifice has been shaken by Brexit.

In France and Italy, insurrectionary parties have wrested power away from the traditional one. In France, the Gaullist and Socialist parties that governed the country for seven decades have been pushed to the sidelines by the Republic-in-March movement of Emmanuel Macron which, in turn, is now shaken by the “Yellow vest” insurrectionary outfit.

In Italy, too, all traditional parties, have been driven off stage by populist groupings of both left and right.

In Germany, the Alternative for Deutschland (AFD) has cut across the left-right divide to win a leading role in national politics. Even a well-established regional party such as Christian Socialist Union (CSU) is now in decline in its home-base of Bavaria.

Within the year now ending, a number of mostly new parties forced their ways into the center of power in several European countries notably Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Holland and Sweden.

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Interestingly, the more ideological that a party is the more vulnerable it is to the current trend of decline in party politics. This is why virtually all Communist and nationalist parties have either disappeared or been reduced to a shadow of their past glory.

Separatist parties, including in the Basque country and Catalonia in Spain, have achieved nothing but an upsurge of chauvinism within the ethnic Castilian majority.

Another trend that took shape in 2018 concerns the emergence of single-issue politics, replacing debate on large overarching policies, as the norm in many countries.

Once again, Brexit in Britain was the most glaring example. Those seeking withdrawal from the European Union appeared prepared to ignore all other issues provided they could promote that single quest, not to say obsession.

The massive development of cyberspace has given single-issue politics an unexpected boost. Today, almost anyone anywhere in the word could create his or her own echo-chamber around a pet subject from Frisian secessionism to saving the polar bears from extinction, shutting out the outside world and its many other concerns. Here, the aim is to fight for one’s difference with as much passion as possible.

That trend is in contrast with another trend, promoted by the traditional, or mainstream media, offering a uniform narrative of events.

Turn on any TV or radio channel and go through almost any newspaper and you will be surprised by how they all say the same thing about what is going on. Thanks to a sharp decline in field reporting, mostly caused by economic constraints, mainstream media today have to depend on a narrow compass provided by a few agencies and/or “citizen” journalists.

That, in turn, encourages the growing belief that facts are nothing but opinions expressed in the manner of shibboleths.

All that leads to an impoverishment of political debate. The weakening of political parties, trade unions, international organs, and institutions like parliaments that provided platforms for debate and decision-making, has deprived may societies of both a space and a mechanism for the battle of ideas and the competition among different policy options.

The bad news is that 2018 was not a good year for pluralist politics. The good news is that 2019 may expose the fundamental flaws of fissiparous populism.

This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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