Five reasons why 2016 was the best year in ages

Not since 1989 has there been such a brilliant political shake-up.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

It is a testament to their cushioned, detached lives that so many in the political and media classes have described 2016 as the worst year ever. They’ve moaned about 2016. Memed about it. Written books about it. ‘Dark Age’, ‘populism’, ‘fascism’, ‘END TIMES’ – the keywords of the 2016 haters.

I guess none of these people lost their homes in 2008, eh? Or their jobs in the fallout from that crash. Or their feeling of political power over the past three decades of rising technocracy and shrinking democracy. Never mind their historical illiteracy. What does 2016 have on 1347 or 1914 in terms of awfulness? Nothing, of course. If you think 2016 was an unspeakably bad year, then all that tells us is you’ve led a cloistered, lovely life, blind to the economic deprivations and sense of political exclusion experienced by others these past years. Bully for you.

Sadly, these people’s narrative, their Brexit-bashing, Trump-fearing interpretation of 2016 as a most awful year, is becoming the narrative. Because they have the newspaper columns, the book contracts, the platforms. Everyone who disagrees with them is ‘post-truth’. Every vote that toppled their Third Way worldview was an act of hatred. Every revolt against the EU is racism, every criticism of Hillary misogyny, and every mention of ‘the elite’ evidence that people are beholden to a new fascism, because didn’t the Nazis also bash ‘the elites’? ‘Sixteen reasons why 2016 was the worst year ever’, their mad headlines declare.

Enough. We can’t let their tantrums, their petty fury that their political outlook has taken a pounding, come to define 2016. For this has been the most exciting political year since 1989. Here are five reasons why.

It’s the year we said ‘We can say that’

If there’s one line that sums up the 21st-century political elite, it’s ‘You Can’t Say That!’. From immigration to multiculturalism, climate change to the EU, the response of the political class to awkward questioning is always: ‘Stop, you can’t say that.’ They have an armoury of libels to deploy against people who think and say the ‘wrong’ things. Question eco-orthodoxy, and you’re a climate-change denier. Wonder if immigration should be done differently, and you’re racist. Oppose the EU, you’re Europhobic. The aim is to shush through shame. To stifle certain kinds of public opinion. All to the end of protecting status-quo thought, of erecting a deflective shield around the low horizons, moral relativism and turn to technocracy that define modern Western elites.

Then along comes 2016 and says: ‘Actually, we can say that.’ This year people said the things they’re not meant to say. Not fascistic things – it’s a nasty fantasy of the cut-off classes that Europe and America are packed with prejudiced idiots. No, people said: we’re not sure about technocracy; we think nations should be sovereign; we think concrete values are more important than the mushy pseudo-cosmopolitanism you’ve been foisting on us; we think feeling like you belong to a particular community is not racism. The forcefield protecting the political class from public opinion has been badly shattered. We’re witnessing revolts against PC.

It’s the year TINA was sent packing

‘You Can’t Say That’ was the guardian of TINA – There Is No Alternative. This deadening notion – that this is the way society is, and there’s no other way it can be – has reigned since the days of Thatcher, who first uttered it. It became enshrined in the Third Way of the Blair/Clinton years, an explicit eschewing of the polarising political battles of old in favour of managerialism. And it became the defining feature of the EU. This vast bureaucracy is a technocratic suppressant of the unresolved questions of history, whether on sovereignty or democracy, nationhood or class. The key message of the EU is that society isn’t something to be argued over, far less transformed; it’s something to be managed.

In 2016 the demos said: ‘There is an alternative. Though we haven’t worked out what it is yet.’ Implicit in Brits’ rejection of the EU is a conviction that European society and politics can be rethought, remade. Even the vote for Trump, not as positive as Brexit, represented a 60million-strong snubbing of the political class, media establishment and celebrity set who had all said Americans must vote for Hillary because she’s a safe pair of hands, she can manage things. ‘There is no alternative to Hillary, to this politics’, they said. ‘There is’, replied the public. TINA’s dying; don’t let the political class resuscitate her.

It’s the year we said solidarity is better than identity

The most disingenuous claim of the Worst Year Ever set is that the political class is open to other people whereas the agitated throng longs to live in a monoculture. Actually, what the establishment has given us in recent decades isn’t post-race, post-gender humanism – it’s the divisive politics of identity. Everywhere from the academy to the political sphere – most notably in Hillary’s playing to ethnic and sexuality blocs over the ‘deplorable’ white masses – elites have invited us to conceive of society as a vast collection of different groups whose interaction must be managed via race-relation law and hate-speech codes. It’s the opposite of the great progressive goal of elevating our shared humanity over petty biological differences.

Brexit represents the beginnings of a yearning for solidarity over identity. Brexit was racist? Please. A poll after the referendum found that a whopping 86 per cent of Brits want EU citizens to stay in Britain. The American white working classes’ turn against Hillary and the Northern English and Welsh revolts against the EU speak to a rejection of the communal games played by the elites, whether it’s Democrats appealing to ethnic constituencies or the EU using the migration issue as a means to weaken the ideal of national sovereignty: the migrant cynically, dangerously pitted against the native. Voters this year refused to bend the knee to a multiculturalism that looks to many like racial divisiveness and an attack on the very idea of community.

It’s the year the masses returned

Those people who for 300-odd years have filled modern political elites with dread – the pesky people, intruding on polite politics – are back. Not with torches or pitchforks, as they appear in the minds of the establishment, but with votes, ideas, questions. And the bit that really sticks in the craw of observers: they have different values.

For centuries, the question that has occupied the political authorities has been: how can public opinion be managed? Through second chambers, checks and balances, and more recently the cultivation of a supposedly expert and technocratic decision-making class, the masses and their sentiments have been kept at a safe distance from power. Not this year. Referenda in Britain and Italy allowed for a more direct expression of public opinion; the rise of Trump spoke, as some observers recognised, to the waning influence of America’s traditional checks on public sentiment. This, too, is good, heralding a people’s quiet, patient rejection of expert cliques and an assertion of their own ideas – a vote of confidence in themselves.

It’s the year we took a risk

We now know that everything the political and media class has said about the public in recent years – that we’re fearful, innately conservative, desperate for dull stability – is truer of them. For this year, voters took risks. They overturned establishment ideas and taken-for-granted outlooks. And it’s the elites who freaked out. They were consumed by fear, warning of the end of decent life, perhaps even of civilisation. It’s they who long for the comforts of conformism and predictability. The public, by contrast, seem newly unafraid, confident even. In 2016 they issued a quiet but brilliant cry: ‘Hey, let’s try something different.’ Let it ring out.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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