The bubble and the beltway

Although people like to point to the differences between the UK and the US, there are similarities that might derive in part from a common background of sharing a vibrant democracy and a tradition of common law derived from case law and the common sense of juries.

In most of continental Europe a ten percent shift in popular opinion might result in a junior agriculture minister being replaced by someone from a different coalition party. In the UK it normally sees a removal van pulling into Downing Street next day, and in the US it results in a new President and thousands of new jobs to staff the new administration.

Another recent similarity has been the separation of much of the political class from the lives and concerns of ordinary people in both the UK and the US. In Britain we talk of the Westminster Bubble, the artificial environment centred around Parliament and government and some of the media. They parrot politically correct speech to each other and share the fashionable concerns that most of the country do not see as relevant to their lives. The world of the Guardian, the BBC, and the senior ranks of the civil service, seem to regard those who do not share their world view as ignorant yokels who simply don’t understand what it best for them. Of course they were for remaining in the European Union, unconcerned about its lack of democratic accountability because they think that bureaucrats are better fitted to govern than those answerable to uninformed and vulgar popular opinion.

In the US a similar pattern of mindset is dubbed the beltway, a ring road surrounding Washington DC that roughly corresponds to the M25 that surrounds the British capital. Within the beltway is a hothouse of concerned opinion that does not resonate with ordinary Americans and their problems. Of course it is more than DC. It is the New York Times as well as the Washington Post, and it includes the coasties of California and the Northeast as well as the mainstream media channels whose bias is so pervasive that its broadcasters don’t even think of it as bias. They regard it simply as sensible received opinion, as do their British counterparts. And in both countries it includes most of those in the hothouse of an academe that no longer even sees the real world, let alone concerning itself with its problems.

When the British people voted to leave the EU, and the Americans elected Donald Trump, both bubble and beltway went into terminal shock, unable to believe the stupidity of their respective countrymen and women. Rather than accept those democratic decisions, part of the political élites of both countries have been trying to reverse them. In the UK they have been using every trick in the book to keep Britain in the European bureaucracy it voted out of. In the US they have tried to undermine the legitimacy of the election, claiming it was Russian interference that swayed it, and seeking to unseat the President by impeachment.

Some part of this divorce of the political class from ordinary people in Britain and America is down to the echo chamber effect, in which they talk to each other and regard the fashionable view as the sensible one, and have no respect at all for alternative opinions. Some part is down to the way that social media allows those who resent the political élite and its patronizing ways to realize that there are many others who share their view, and it emboldens them to express it at the ballot box.

There is one thought that probably terrifies both bubble and beltway. It is that this might not be some brief and unpleasant blip, as the monster of popular opinion temporarily rears its ugly head. It might be that this is the way things are going to be in the future. It might be the new reality. Oh dear. That might even be worse than when the postwar consensus was overthrown.