politics & power priorities – relatively open immigration, the expansion of higher education, a focus on all inequalities except socioeconomic ones – with insufficient regard for how this was impacting the economically or educationally left-behind or the socially conservative. The competent, reasonable old establishment that Applebaum identifies with was also partly responsible for the policy errors that contributed to the Iraq War mess, the financial crash, the euro crisis and, maybe one should now add, the failure to respond to the ‘woke’ drift in higher education and other institutions.
The challenge to the status quo has sometimes been ugly and incompetent – look no further than Donald Trump. But to dismiss this as the resentment of the little people is to miss the point. Where did so much resentment come from? And isn’t the point of democracy to channel and give voice to such resentments? The push-back against the consensus of the past thirty years is politics working, not failing. According to Pew surveys, support for democracy is holding steady in the West. And in polarised Poland, trust in democracy, the EU and public institutions has actually been rising in the four and a half years since Law and Justice took power.
It is one thing to oppose the more populist and socially conservative strands of politics; it is quite another to rule them illegitimate. Yet this is what too many illiberal liberals are now doing. They include the senior Conservative who told me at the height of the no-deal Brexit row last September that the new Tory government was not just wrong but led by ‘really bad people’, and the US-based German commentator Constanze Stelzenmüller, who has accused the leading CDU politician Friedrich Merz of promoting far-right policies by saying that not all refugees can come and live in Germany.
Applebaum ends the book as she starts it, with an account of a party in the same house in the Polish countryside in August last year, twenty years on from the first. And she uses the social mix at the recent party as a rebuke to the distinction I drew in my 2017 book The Road to Somewhere between ‘Somewheres’ (the less well educated, who value security and familiarity and have strong attachments to group and place) and ‘Anywheres’ (better-educated, mobile people who tend to favour openness and thrive in the cognitive meritocracy), a divide she calls ‘false and exaggerated’.
If Applebaum were to read my book, she would find that, while those labels are invented, the value groups they describe are real, as a close reading of British attitude and opinion surveys will show. I stress in my book that both ‘Anywhere’ and ‘Somewhere’ world-views are equally valid and that the principal aim of modern politics is to mitigate the divide between them. Some people have found the value divide (and its many subdivisions) useful for thinking about big social trends, but most individual lives are too idiosyncratic to fit neatly into one category or the other. The fact that at her 2019 party, local Polish friends were able to mix happily with well-known journalists and politicians from across Europe does not, alas, prove the non-existence of a divide which stands behind much current political discontent.
But if liberal conservatives practised a bit more of what they preach about toleration and accepted that it is possible to hold socially conservative attitudes towards European integration, immigration or abortion and still be a decent person, then maybe there would have been more overlap between the guest lists at Applebaum’s two parties.
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