Chris Johns: Ireland risks populist culture war between young and old

Populist politicians who stoke – or seek to ignite – culture wars are everywhere. They have lots of readily available tools: the divisions that normal politics, decent politicians, seek to soften. It is trivial to assert that populists make promises they can’t keep. It is more important to observe that those promises often involve the identification of an interest group and, as well as promising the moon, paint that group’s interests in terms of conflict. The message is often subliminal and sinister: we will do something for you (the promise) at the expense of someone else. When the message is that the ‘other’ is somehow doing you harm the resulting politics are rarely pleasant.

The message is often subliminal and sinister: we will do something for you (the promise) at the expense of someone else

Modern culture wars involve many different tribes slugging it out with each other, sometimes in shifting coalition with other groups. We divide ourselves by race, religion, class, education and geography. Trump and Brexit share many characteristics: a rural versus urban divide. People with degrees were more likely to vote Remain and not for Donald Trump. And so on.

Ireland can count itself lucky that many of these tribal forces, so obvious elsewhere, are relatively muted. We’ve our own history that, maybe, contributes to a wariness based on acute awareness about possible consequences. Caution that is clearly absent in both Washington DC and London.

One of the key features of politics in both the US and the UK is increased risk taking. The ability to say and do pretty much anything, without consequence, is a heady psychological mixture for some people. Each time a risky bet pays off, a lie does no political damage, the instinct is to go for an even bigger one next time. That’s how populists thrive. Until they don’t, which is only when consequences bite. Populists are often only vanquished after terrible consequences. Even then, memories can be short and we learn that cockroaches can survive anything. Maybe it’s because we don’t teach much history any more.

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