Today, universal political ideas—and their champions—are in retreat. We suspect ideologies the same way we suspect religion. Faith in markets, in worker solidarity, and even in the West’s big one— that freedom of expression favors the truth—are thrown around as accusations. Cynics are sure they don’t sell. Optimists hope that uncontaminated social-economic data can drive public discourse, forward.
Unhappily, bigotry isn’t retreating along with Matthew Arnold’s Sea of Faith.
Tory backbenchers in Westminster, urban reformers in Toronto, Quebec progressives all too often work from a common script: Those Europeans, those knuckle-draggers in the suburbs, and those polluters in Alberta are holding us back. If they got out of the way, we could make this a far, far, better place. (Of Course, along with our lousy neighbors, there is always the divisive state of American politics to reassure us that we are civil and that things could be worse.)
These new grievances, however, are the grievances of true believers who are failing at home.
The right-wing backbench of the British Conservative Party has made little progress de-regulating the British economy since Margaret Thatcher’s first term—over thirty years ago. Instead of asking the British people to shrink their own government once again, the Economist reports, they rail against the bureaucrats of the European Union. They seem to believe that if Britain got out of Europe, British voters would unreservedly embrace those famous British market principles they have so often compromised in the past.
Quebec progressives claim that widespread concern in Quebec over climate change is an expression of ‘Quebec values’ and promptly solve the problem by saying oil producers in Alberta should pay higher taxes.
In Toronto, this week, downtown Councilor Adam Vaughan suggested that one way to repair a freeway that links Toronto’s core to its regional suburbs—and workforce—would be to sell the whole freeway to the private sector. Supposedly, it would go for $billions, if the City allowed the new owners to levy commercial tolls. Last year, Vaughan’s allies rejected out of hand selling the downtown’s precious subway or electrical utility, or asking for the privilege of raising revenues by imposing pollution taxes on Torontonians.
The old divisions that were driven by big ideas were not consistently more attractive or safer. However, they weren’t only defensive and they didn’t consistently divide people geographically or stereotype the other. And, above all, their leaders could challenge their own voters and compromise their own interests.
Too often, today’s troublemakers, on both scores, are simply smaller.