Why we should reject the politics of despair

A message to Kiwi politicians this election year: Must try harder

On September 23rd politicians must give us something to hope for. 

“To be truly radical make hope possible rather than despair convincing” Raymond Williams

The problem with Trump, Putin, Farage, Le Pen and the many other populists that dominate politics in (currently) democratic nations is that in the face of massive change they have chosen to make despair convincing rather than hope possible. 

Politics should be about hope. The world is a tough enough place at any time, but right now it is going through a period change second to none. Big shifts like globalisation, the knowledge based economy and new technology are disrupting everything. 

But let’s be crystal clear, if we are to emerge from all of this in better shape we are going to have to cut with the grain of change and enable society to develop in a more progressive way. We cannot pretend it is not happening. 

This is exactly what Trump and Co are doing as they talk of closing borders, reopening coal mines, returning to the identities and ways of life last seen in the 1950s, and conjuring up jobs for people whose skills have no relevance to the world we are going to be living in. 

None of this is to say that much of the anger populists tap into is without merit. Too many people have been left behind in the wake of globalisation, their skills and their very way of life undermined. The champions of change like Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton and Blair, and Douglas in New Zealand, preached the gospel of there being no alternative to taking the medicine offered by the new world even if the taste was bitter. It is a wonder people put up with this nonsense for so long. 

But the alternative to unquestioningly embracing change is not to stoke anger and offer solutions that can only end up hurting the very people they are supposed to help.

So let’s turn to our own election. On September 23rd New Zealanders will go to the polls to vote for their future. Between now and then all of us have to work hard to ensure the kind of despair sweeping the world election by election does not happen here. Politicians can make sure of this by refusing to follow Trump into the cesspit even if that is the road to victory. Instead they need to provide a realistic assessment of the changes taking place in the world and demonstrate that we have the ability to respond in ways that will make for a better future. It would help if they can be a bit inspiring as they do it. 

The short story is that our world is being shaped by globalisation, knowledge, high techinformation and climate change. But we do not just have to stand back and accept whatever comes. As the saying goes, we might not choose the circumstances we live in but we do make the future. 

Nations can choose to work together to create the rules and regulations that make globalisation as fair as possible. Everyone can be offered that opportunity to gain the skills they need for this world and to retrain as often is needed throughout life. The huge gains new technology access to information offers in areas like health care can be made available to all. We can shift swiftly to other forms of energy than fossil fuels. 

Choosing hope over despair is something fewer and fewer people around the world seem to be doing. This is because change is making the future look very insecure. Some politicians have chosen to feed off this insecurity in their drive to gain power. They are succeeding because other politicians who may not share the populists view seem paralysed. They neither feel able to explain what is going on or to suggest better answers. 

This is not good enough. They urgently need to try harder for all of our sakes. 

Just as Trump has sought to turn despair into a movement, those who champion hope must do the same. There is a world of possibility out there. It is no exaggeration to say that across the globe millions of people are working on ideas that will change the world in ways and on a scale we not yet dreamed of.  This will not be a perfect world, only fools offer that, but it can be a better world. A world where we share the view that if we work together we can still give everyone a fair chance of succeeding.

We should expect politicians to show us what is possible. But as voters we also have responsibilities. We have to demand that politicians take us forward not back. To do otherwise is to conjure up some version of a dark age where we deny the possibilities that lie all around us because we have convinced ourselves they are reasons for despair. We cannot let that happen. On the 23rd of September we need to ensure politicians are truly radical and give us something to hope for.