An Open Question to My Friends

I’m having trouble understanding you all. Back in December, as I cautiously lurked, considering a return to Facebook, I found a flurry of posts about the UK general election. These posts closely mirrored the ones that I remember after both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump; lamentations about the country losing its mind, apologies to the wider world, etc. All these sentiments made perfect sense in 2016, both in June when the United Kingdom made its dreadful decision, and in November when “we” made ours. But I had to do a gut check this time? What were people talking about?

                My first impulse was to ask people directly what they mean. That may seem rational, or even like the more direct, morally correct thing to do. But I have learned through bitter experience that talking to people over the internet is useless when it comes to complex subjects. Face to face, I have found that I can talk respectfully and constructively to people who I deeply disagree with. In contrast, I have found that any online political discussion, even over tiny details with people I otherwise agree with, turns into a fire storm. My hypothesis is that it’s because people feel like others can see them and this destroys any possibility of even the most minor concessions, both to civility and logic. It’s the same phenomenon you see on reality TV, where people get their backs up and fight about issues they would let drop in normal life. So, all I could do was doubt my own sanity and mull things over alone.

                This must have been December 13, the day after the election. The UK had just overwhelmingly rejected Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, voting with conservative majorities all over the country, even in districts that had historically voted Labour (no, spellcheck, I didn’t screw that up, the Brits did.) The outcome seemed obvious to me. Boris Johnson is deeply unpalatable. Brexit is a disaster. The chaos that has come in the wake of the referendum is a lesson in why major changes of policy should never be left to a simple majority decision. But the fact is that these are the least evil when the other option is a government led by Jeremy Corbyn. Somehow this wasn’t obvious to my Facebook friends.

                So, I had to scratch my head and try to understand where people were coming from. As I saw it, there were three possibilities:

  1. More of my friends than I thought are dedicated, Stalinist Communists or anarchists.
  2. My friends were placing their hopes in the Liberal Democrats despite the fact that they had no legitimate chance of winning the election.
  3. Americans don’t know anything about the United Kingdom.

Let’s consider the first possibility. I do know a few people who have radical views. They may not be troubled by the thought of a leader who gave a glowing eulogy to Hugo Chavez. I know people who still haven’t figured the Venezuela situation out in 2020. Fine. Some may not have a problem with Corbyn meeting with Sinn Fein after the attempt on Margaret Thatcher’s life. Okay, some people preferred Callaghan’s UK. Murder seems like a step too far, and I don’t get it, but I’m aware there are people like that. But are my friends really okay with a “useful idiot” who has appeared on Iran’s Anti-Semitic, Homophobic state news channel? With one who referred to the killing of Osama Bin Laden as a tragedy? With a prime minister who considers North Korea to be the aggrieved party, heroically preventing a reunification that bring about “the real horror” of the spread of a free market to the whole peninsula? Do they support the idea that 9/11 was brought about by Israel? Are they comfortable with calling Hamas and Hezbollah “friends”? Corbyn is. Brexit is bad, but not so bad as to countenance a person who has espoused these ideas as prime minister. I hope most of my friends would agree.

Which leaves me hoping the second option is the case. The Lib-Dems would have been the sanest choice for the UK in 2019. I’d really like to think this is what my friends meant.

But let’s be honest, most of my friends are American. They had no idea what they were talking about. They mapped the American political situation onto the UK, assuming that Boris Johnson was Trump, and that Corbyn was like the American left. The reality is that the United States has no radical left on the national stage. In fact, I’d say you have to shift the entire spectrum leftward to understand the United Kingdom. The farthest right politician in Britain (Johnson I guess?) is nowhere near Trump, while the farthest left on our side of the pond (Sanders) is a pale shadow of Corbyn.

In general, I have to confess to a bit of ignorance about politics, at least as far as the battle between the American parties is concerned. There isn’t a party that reflects my beliefs, and there isn’t going to be. So, I tune out a bit, not really caring about what I see as a contest between two teams who keep score in ways that baffle me. But I do know a bit more about the UK than the average American. I’m a bit of an Anglophile, but the main reason is that I get my news from Britain. The American sources are so biased as to be unusable for a rational person. The combination of social liberalism and fiscal responsibility that I get from sources like the BBC and The Economist is unparalleled in domestic news.

As much as I am disconnected from American politics, and as much interest as I have in the UK, I don’t just bring this up as an academic discussion about an important yet still foreign country. I believe there is a lesson in this for 2020. The latest poll numbers for both Iowa and New Hampshire show Bernie Sanders running neck and neck with Biden. Maybe this reflects some defections from the waning Elizabeth Warren camp, but I think it’s more insidious. I believe it reflects a danger of our party system. The selection process for our two parties is deeply biased in favor of the true believers. The average voter, the person who is going to decide 2020 in the battleground states, does not participate at the grass roots. This is due to both apathy and ignorance. Dangerously, it leaves open the possibility of selecting a candidate who reflects the hardest core of the party, but who is deeply distasteful to the majority of the country. That is how Trump came to run in 2016. I confess, I still can’t understand how it worked for the Republicans. I don’t think it’s going to work for the Democrats this year. I don’t know if Bernie Sanders could defeat Trump. But I do know that only Bernie Sanders could lose to Trump. We need to learn our lesson from what just happened in the UK. If you give the country two terrible options, they will choose the least of the two. Clearly, they didn’t do this in reality in 2016, but reality didn’t matter to these voters. They thought Hillary was eating babies and using pizza parlors to arrange pedophilia. What do you think they believe about Sanders?

Sanders is not Corbyn. To paraphrase Foreign Policy magazine, he is just dumb, not dangerous like Corbyn. I honestly don’t know who is more of a long-term problem as president, Trump or Sanders. One seems likely to kill us quickly, and the other slowly. At the end of the day, I will most likely abstain if that is my choice. Ask yourself though, if someone like me is turned off enough by Sanders to not care whether Trump remains president, what will the average voter in middle America decide? Let’s learn from Britain and make the right choice.

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