I still remember when I was growing up in Cuba, a prevalent mindset amongst us, habanaeros. A certain city vs country dichotomy. As an “habanero”, I, together with most of my family and friends, looked down on rural folk, seeing them as unsophisticated and simple-minded. Jokes were made at farmers’ expense and there was an air of superiority amongst us that betrayed the notion of a socialism-driven, collective society.
I changed my ways long time ago, especially when the economic crisis hit Cuba in the early 90s. All of a sudden we re-discovered a “new” passion for all things rural. Habaneros were no longer ashamed to be seen growing vegetables in any available space in modern flats, or rearing animals that usually ended up on their plate.
I was reminded of this recently after watching on telly one of the many analyses on the Trump/Farage/Sanders/Corbyn phenomenon.
Of course, although lumped together, these politicians are all different. They all, however, share one trait: they have shown up the “establishment” for the sham it is. In the process of doing so, they have also, like my fellow Cuban rural folk, taught some people some lessons. The question is: will we learn them (the lessons) and are we ready to listen?
Let me state something very clear from the outset so as to avoid any confusion: I hate everything that both Donald Trump and Nigel Farage stand for. I hate their open xenophobia, racism, misogyny and homophobia. I hate the way they have got away with whipping up hatred and twisting the political discourse for so long.
But guess what, both Donald Trump and Nigel Farage are necessary if one is to have a healthy democracy. That sounds like a contradiction but it isn’t, for what I am interested in is not what comes out of the mouths of messieurs Trump and Farage but their supporters’.
Both Britain and the US political systems are characterised by a two-party structure that allows very little room for other candidates to manoeuvre. Even in the UK, the recent electoral success of the Liberal Democrats (if we can call it that. After all they went into coalition with the Tories in 2010) met an early death after its then leader, Nick Clegg, reneged on most of his pre-election promises. What this means in practical terms is that we enter a non-stopping hamster-wheel of electability-friendly leaders. Said leaders move swiftly to the centre and thus become the purveyors of meaningless, vote-wining pledges that are rolled back the minute they move into Number 10 or the White House. Just remember “Make Poverty History” and Guantanamo.
This situation has created a backlash in the last fifteen to twenty years. Just like my compadres and I could not see the importance of the person tilling the land back when we were children, politicians in the west (especially countries such as the UK, USA, Spain and France) have ignored for far too long the shopkeeper, the soldier, the nurse, the small business owner and the lorry driver. These people, however, have not forgotten what they have and they can use: the vote.
Enter Trump, Farage, Corbyn and Sanders. They have all understood that a) the political system needs to be shaken out of its complacency and b) there are rich pickings here for the right leader with the timely message. Forget for a second that Corbyn and Sanders trade in hope and openness, whereas both Trump and Farage deal in fear and hatred. The real scandal is that the “establishment” did not have an answer ready for the hundreds of thousands of people who have allied themselves to either the new left or right. Remember David Cameron? The blandest — and apparently worst — Prime Minister in living memory was shown up for what he was: a leader with no direction, no agenda, no Plan B (not even Plan A) and, ultimately, no support from his own party.
As the US election fast approaches, there is a lesson here for the winner (it goes without saying that I support Clinton and yet, I have to admit that she and her husband are part of the problem). Currently on both sides of the Atlantic there is an atmosphere of mistrust which has led to insecurity, which at the same time has begotten fear. Over here in Blighty, if we were to chart Labour’s rich political history, we would see that what started as a party for working class people mutated into a middle-class-aspiring outfit. Blair’s administration failed to see, or did not want to see, the changes and challenges ahead. In catering to the urban, metropolitan “elite”, they, unwittingly, created a narrative that has been hurled back at them over and over, like mudballs.
Listening to people with whom one does not share the same opinion does not mean that we agree with them. Listening to other people means that we engage with them at a human level. After all, we share the same space. Politically speaking, to ignore this huge chunk of the population is political suicide (David Cameron, I’m looking at you). The biggest danger we face in neglecting this group is that they will default to a charismatic demagogue who will sweet-talk them into doing things and behaving in ways that maybe would have been thought impossible weeks before. The irony here is that someone like Trump, for instance, is a billionaire who had a leg-up from daddy in order to make it in the world of business. On the other side of the Atlantic, we have a Jeremy Corbyn who, although honest, cannot see that the times of partisan, binary voting are long gone. Nowadays a Labour voter will look at immigration, globalisation and employment and their effects on their lives before they even look at internationalism. In fact, many do not even mention the s-word (socialism). It makes no sense when unemployment is le mot du jour in many parts of Britain.
It is easy to point fingers at people and call them names when they do not share our political views. It is harder to try to understand their frustrations and listen to their opinions. But listen we must. It is the only way in which we can get out of this mess. After all, we all depend on the farmer and the land they till.