How “Vanguardism” generated Populism

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Democracy / Feminism / Party System / Populism

By definition radicals and progressives take positions rejected by the rest of the population with the aim of shifting the mainstream towards their viewpoint. Events sometimes play out as “progressives” hope. For example, five decades ago the first gay rights demonstrators put forth a viewpoint that was deeply repugnant to the rest of society. Their outlook is now mainstream. A vanguard took the lead on a social issue against majority opinion. Almost all of us now agree that they were right and the rest of us wrong.

The gay rights vanguard – the first demonstration 1969

But events sometimes play out quite differently and the vanguard fails. The composer Arnold Schönberg provides a striking example. A century ago he developed a radical ‘serialist’ alternative to traditional melodic music. “Within fifty years,” he claimed “the mailboy will whistle my tunes.” A hundred years later no postman on earth whistles his music, and its unlikely that any ever will.

The failure of a musical vanguard has few consequences, but as we’ll see, the failure of a political vanguard can be more problematic. It can destabilise our political system. The wave of populist political parties seen recently across the world can be partly attributed to this phenomenon.


Attitudes to homosexuality by cohort

The chart above – derived from British Attitude Survey data – tells a remarkable story. As recently as 1987 every age group, including the supposedly socially liberal baby boomers, viewed homosexuality as morally wrong. Over 90% of those in the two oldest cohorts expressed this view. Levels of homophobia were rising.

Yet a mere 35 years later the percentage of younger Britain believing homosexuality to be immoral had fallen below 20%. Not only has the prevalence of homophobia fallen, the age profile of these views indicates that it will fall further still. In less than two generations there has been a complete transformation of social attitudes.

Support for the Death Penalty fell below 50% for the first time in 2015

The second chart tells a slightly different tale. The Death Penalty was abolished in the UK in 1969. Nevertheless, a majority of the population would have voted to reinstate it in any year up until 2015. Attitudes have changed, but it took almost 50 years for a position MPs took in the year of the first moon landing, to be accepted by the majority.

“Vanguardism” can play out two ways. Sometimes events follow the script laid out for them. As with the attitudes to the Death Penalty and gay rights the attitudes of the population follow behind the campaigners – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. The impact on the political system is then benign. But sometimes the story ends differently. The vanguard takes a position which the majority never accepts.


A recent survey by the feminist campaign group, the Fawcett society, found that only 9% of British women, together with 4% of men, self-identify as feminist. If the popular tide was turning towards feminism we would expect many more young women to accept the vanguard position. But only 19% of young women aged 18-24 identify as feminist, and young women were more likely to actively oppose it. The survey evidence proves that decades of social campaigning have failed to establish feminism as a mainstream view. Although homophobia is now marginal, identifying as a feminist is more marginal still.

When the vanguard leaves the majority behind for good it creates a political problem. Social liberals often succeed in building their norms into law, company policies and public sector employment codes. It may get them incorporated into the unspoken elite orthodoxy, effectively putting them beyond question. Yet it remains impossible to defend them electorally.

How does this destabilise the party system ? We are used to thinking of politics in personal, ethical terms. For instance, we feel that Germany turned towards Nazism in the 1930s because one individual happened to have a particularly amoral character and a peculiarly compelling persona. But there is another more impersonal way of thinking about politics. Rather than the politician creating the political environment, the environment forms the politician.

Imagine the political and economic environment as an eco-system. On the Galapagos Islands the varied ecologies generate the idiosyncrasies of their finches. In the world of politics, politicians are formed by political opportunity. The bigger the gap between the opinions of the electorate and those of established parties, the greater the possibilities for the political opportunist. Where there are permanently embedded divisions between the elite and the electorate it is inevitable that a political actor will, one way or another, evolve to exploit this political niche.

In this sense, when vanguardism succeeds in establishing itself within elites but fails to conquer the mainstream it leaves a ticking time bomb beneath the party system. When progressives leave the majority behind, they create a social divide. Two classes emerge. A minority understands, submits to and enforces the new public codes. The majority either fails to understand them, or refuses to endorse them.

Where the number of these issues is small the political system may succeed in suppressing them. The ‘first past the post’ system in the UK prevented the Death Penalty from becoming a live party political issue for decades. However as the number of these issues grows they present ever more material for political actors who reject the elite consensus. Eventually populist parties are generated to exploit a growing ecological niche.

Unfortunately, the number of vanguard positions that will never absorbed by the mainstream is exploding. The system of socially liberal norms are being multiplied, layered, refined. Codes are critiqued again and again, rendering them ever more complex, pushing them ever further from majority opinion.

For instance, although statistics prove ‘traditional feminism’ to be a marginal view in broader society, it is now regarded as far too mainstream by the arbiters of contemporary social codes. The no platforming of Germaine Greer by students in 2015 is proof of the growing divide between modern radicals and those of the ’60s and ’70s. It is remarkable that the man who was the icon of uncompromising social campaigning in the 1980s, Peter Tatchell, now receives more support from the Daily Mail than from contemporary radicals.

Despite the extremism of contemporary radicals, measured against popular opinion, they are again succeeding in getting their ideology incorporated into social and professional codes. Consider, for instance, a recent proposal from the British Medical Association that the word ‘mother’ no longer be used by employees in the public sector.

“Gender inequality is reflected in traditional ideas about the roles of women and men. Though they have shifted over time, the assumptions and stereotypes that underpin those ideas are often deeply rooted.

“A large majority of people that have been pregnant or have given birth identify as women. We can include intersex men and transmen who may get pregnant by saying ‘pregnant people’ instead of ‘expectant mothers’”.

Let’s imagine a world in which the BMA succeeds in this campaign. First in the NHS, then across all government bodies, documents and procedures are stripped of the word ‘mother’. Next forward looking companies eliminate the word. Gradually the practice spreads through the media. Use of the word ‘mother’ in public begins to be viewed as insulting and offensive. Organisations begin to sanction employees who speak it in public.

There is, however, no prospect whatsoever that this linguistic practice will be accepted by broader society. ‘Mother’ is the first word we speak and the last that any linguistic code will take away from us. Children, and families inside the protection of their own homes, would inevitably continue to use it. As would workers outside the professions in environments protected from theses codes

Let us further imagine, that this was just one of many such codes absorbed by the elite over the coming years. How would society develop? A sharp division would surely emerge between behaviour in public arena and that within the home. Following these norms (or not) would then mark the line between the professional social class and the rest – between the small group of insiders and the mass of people outside it. The codes would form a barrier to moving between classes. Speaking in public, holding public office and or, in fact, executing any public role would become conditional upon public acceptance of these norms.

This is a movie we’ve seen before. It replicates the notorious split between the public and private worlds that developed during the latter years of the USSR. Just as during the Brezhnev era, the conversation around the kitchen table would be at odds with the codified speech on television. The ideology of our own nomenklatura would be as alien to the UK population as that of the Communist Party was to the Russian public. The barriers to entering it would be just as wearying, and the burden of  cynical public lip-service just as heavy.

The resemblance between this imagined world and a totalitarian system in its final stages of decay is not entirely accidental. “Totalitarianism” is so named because it seeks to control every aspect of citizens lives. The intrusion of politics into family life marks out the highpoint of authoritarian systems. The story of Pavel Morozov in Stalinist Russia, or the common practice of family members denouncing each other during the Cultural Revolution in China, arose at the peak of the totalitarian madness in those countries. Once that wave passes, the regime softens and the threat of violence recedes, citizens retreat into the family – a safe space protected from politics.

Of course our thought experiment is deeply unrealistic. No democratic society would ever support such an environment. Long before a society reached this point political actors who rejected these norms would mobilise the majority that rejected the codes and overturn the system. There would inevitably be a revolt against the elite ideology by everyone outside it – a populist revolt.

What does this mean for social campaigners and political parties in the UK? Campaigners cannot embroider ‘politically correct’ social codes forever. Whatever the merits of any proposition, if it can’t be conveyed to a ten year old child of average intelligence, campaigning for it may be counterproductive. Social campaigners have had many successes, but progressivism is reaching natural limits beyond which it cannot pass. Taking up a vanguard position that will never be accepted by the rest of society may succeed only in handing power to those who will roll back their past achievements.

The Onion puts it like this.

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