The Future of Rational Debate

A worry. – Most intelligent people, and those with expertise, have been ‘Remainers’ in the British EU debate, and anti-Trump in America. I’m not saying that sensible cases can’t be made for both Brexit and Trump; only that the weight of intellectual opinion has been presented and perceived as being on the other side. The Trumpists and Brexiteers have been widely pilloried for their falsification of facts, and their general stupidity. They themselves seem to have taken that as a compliment; or to have allowed the patronising sneers of the intelligentsia and of experts merely to strengthen them in their prejudices. That fits into a deep if hitherto submerged ‘anti-intellectual’ current in both countries. ‘We’ve had enough of experts’, as Michael Gove notoriously said during the EU referendum debate. (And he an ex-Education Minister!)

My fear is this. OK, so the anti-intellectuals will probably be proved wrong: although to the detriment of both our countries as both Brexit and Trumpism fail. That’s bad enough. But what if not? Suppose that in, say, three or four years’ time, both Brexit Britain and Trumpite America prove to be – or can be presented as being – roaring economic successes? What if, in spite of all us arrogant intellectual naysayers, America really does become ‘great’, and Britain proud and independent, again? What will that do for intelligence and expertise in the future generally, and for those of us who consider ourselves the guardians of truth and reason? Having been proved wrong in these two major instances, are people going to trust us, about anything, ever again?

And how will that leave the state of political discourse in the rest of the 21st century? In the hands of irrationalists, the prejudiced, the emotional, the unreasoning haters, peddlars of ‘alternative’ truths, uneducated hoi polloi; with ‘intellectuals’, academics, researchers and all other thinking people – my sort – stranded on the edges of the debate, mocked, and never taken seriously again? There are precedents for this, with 1930s Germany the obvious – and much cited – one. That’s one of the broader things at stake in the present crisis of liberalism.

In fact it probably won’t be that bad. The end results of both Brexit and the Trump Presidency (if it lasts that long) will probably be too messy to be able to draw any definite conclusions from them. That’s the way these things usually work out in history. Which means there will still be room for rational debate afterwards, and for rational debaters, like me. – Still, it’s a worry.

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One Response to The Future of Rational Debate

  1. I think it was Habermas – and no doubt there have been others – who argued that irrationalist regimes like Hitler’s inevitably implode. Hitler’s war strategy for example was highly effective in the short term; however, it was based on increasingly irrational throws of the dice, and when Germany invaded the USSR, Germany’s luck ran out. The absence of a self-correcting mechanism would ultimately lead to May 1945.

    Similarly, the dice may fortuitously produce the right numbers for Trump in terms of economic growth, though the chance of another GFC is heightened by the re-deregulation of Wall Street. However, in the medium term, it is impossible for his agenda to be more broadly effective if one takes into account measures other than GDP, such as: the number of Americans covered by health insurance, which can only fall dramatically if Obamacare is repealed; environmental protection, which has to be eroded by the deregulating measures Trump is taking; the defunding of science and repudiation of measures to combat climate change, which will have to have disastrous consequences; and the generalised dismantling of the administrative state is another development that will bring intensely negative consequences wherever its effects are felt.

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