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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 29-06-2024 04:19

A bad time for politicians everywhere

Once upon a time, successful politicians were held in high regard. This is no longer the case.

Once upon a time, successful politicians were held in high regard. This is no longer the case. Not only in Argentina, where with few exceptions they are despised by most of their compatriots, but also in other parts of the world, politicians are blamed for all societies’ many ills and, unless they are lucky, get treated like comic-book villains. For what to many seem to be very good reasons, politicians are in the process of being downgraded, as in Argentina were military men 40 years ago, though since then their stock has gone up in comparison with that of the “civilian politicians” they once derided. 

Is the egalitarian ethos that underpins democracy to be blamed for this unhappy state of affairs? The assumption that nobody is better than anyone else and that all opinions or tastes are equally respectable must have had something to do with it, as must the resentment bred by that fact that to some extent all societies become hierarchical even though the pecking order will often change, with new elites rising to displace old ones.

Can democracy survive for long in societies in which most politicians are regarded as self-seeking confidence tricksters? If democracy depends on the reputation of the local “political class,” it is in danger almost everywhere. For many people, elections are of interest only because they provide them with an opportunity to give those in office a kick in the guts. In the recent elections to the European parliament, the French President Emmanuel Macron and the German Chancellor Olav Scholz got clobbered, though for constitutional reasons both have been able to cling to their jobs.

An even worse fate is being predicted for the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose Conservative Party, which over the centuries has done far better than any other political enterprise on the planet, is facing a wipeout. To console himself, Rishi can take it for granted that – before too many months have gone by – the man tipped to lead the next government, Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, will have got used to being jeered at as a wretched incompetent liable to drift in whatever direction the wind happens to be blowing. Another top politician whose future looks increasingly bleak is Canada’s hyper-progressive PM, Justin Trudeau.

In the United States, President Joe Biden would surely have been sent out to grass months ago had it not been for the fact that the main beneficiary of such a move could be Donald Trump, a man who, by retaining control of the Republican Party, has made a laughing stock of most of its members. Though most North Americans say they would like to see both elderly gentlemen stand down, many fear that if only one did so, his rival would win handily in November. Naturally enough, the duel between two individuals few really respect is encouraging pessimism, as, for that matter, is the declining reputation of once admired institutions; according to the opinion polls many, among them the Supreme Court and the FBI, as well as the media and Ivy League universities, have fallen into disrepute because they are thought to have become pathologically politicised. What is more, in the still reigning superpower, there are many who think most politicians are slavish apparatchiks, narcissistic ideologues or outright crooks.

In Argentina, distrust not just of politicians but of politics as such put Javier Milei in the Pink House. In the US, it helped catapult Trump into the Oval Office. In Brazil Jair Bolsonaro – despite serving many years as a not that distinguished political pro – contrived to make out that in some way he represented something entirely different and that allowed him to stride into the presidency.

Similar impulses are changing the panorama in continental Europe, where the strong showing by a gaggle of groupings worried defenders of the status quo say are on the “extreme right” of the spectrum did very well at the expense of the traditional parties, most of which are habitually assumed to be “moderate” or “centrist.”

Though Milei is often included among the leaders of the “extreme right” and evidently thinks that this is to his credit, he really has little in common with Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Giorgia Meloni and the rest of them. As far as such people are concerned, Milei’s economic theories are every bit as weird as his arcane metaphysical speculations and his fascination with biblical precedents. What they are most interested in is the challenge that is posed by large-scale and so far uncontrolled immigration from far poorer and less developed countries, especially the Muslim ones, and the growing difficulties it is causing. In Argentina, immigration from remote parts of the world where things are done differently is not a major issue; in North America and Europe, it most certainly is.

This would not be the case if it were simply a matter of a few thousand talented people persecuted for their opinions or even, as in Germany immediately after World War II, the influx of huge numbers of fellow-countrymen uprooted by invaders, but of the arrival of many millions of men and some women who will either find it hard to adapt to whatever awaits them in their new homeland or will have no particular desire to do so.

For many years, “progressives” in the United States and Europe, haunted by memories of what had happened in the first half of the 20th century, not only insisted that the doors should be kept wide open but also told their compatriots that the ensuing diversity would be good for them and it would be wrong for them to ask the newcomers to change their ways. Of late, all but the most determined have changed their tune. 

However, saying that immigration will have to be slowed down, as even left-wing politicians now recommend, is one thing. Deciding just how many should be allowed in and what would have to be done to prevent others from joining them is another thing entirely. So great is the perfectly understandable urge of people living in desperately poor and murderously violent regions governed (if that is the word) by corrupt tyrants, to do whatever it takes to move to Western countries, that there will always be millions more who are ready to risk their lives in an attempt to break through any barriers that are set up to keep them out.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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