Doublethink and the Em-pyrrhic-al Victory

Time and again politicians of the left and centre-left apply an academic or ideological sheen to issues on which the public craves a gut, “common-sense” response.  The right has no such qualms.  This is why personally popular leaders: Andrea Horwath, Jeremy Corbyn lose their respective elections. The danger is these loses are often presented as victories albeit pyrrhic ones.

A little doublethink may be in order.

George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four was published forty-nine years ago this week.  Orwell had already been diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would kill him at the age of forty-six, six months after the book’s publication.  He lived long enough to know it was a success, but not long enough to see how prescient his vision was or would become.  Nor how his name would become an adjective for the crushing over-reach of both states and corporations.

Nineteen Eighty-Four offered a number of key insights into how politics and society can be perverted by powerful interests.  The most important was the prevalence of ‘Doublethink’.  The whole of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s world is based on control, particularly the control of history and truth. The control of facts that doublethink espouses.  This was expressed by Orwell in the following maxim:

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

The basis for this internal deception is the holding two contradictory truths in your head at the same time, and believing in both of the them, absolutely.  The ultimate end state of cognitive dissonance, where the dissonance is reconciled and dissipates; where mental peace is restored.  It is doublethink, or the inability to consider it, that gets politicians of the left in trouble.  There is the right answer for the country and the right answer for the person.  Trouble brews when these are not the same thing and dissonance rears its head. 

Ideological purity infects center-left politics in a way that doesn’t apply to the non-fascist right wing.  It could be as simple as the fact that ideas around societal care require more definition and thought than the release of the individual or corporation from said responsibility.  The perception is that the left intellectualizes the problem, it speaks from the head, where the right is perceived to tell it like it is, to speak from the (all-important) gut. 

Perhaps the most famous example wasMichael Dukakis.  The Democratic Presidential nominee infamously suffered a evisceration over the death-penalty in a debate with GHW Bush in 1988.  The crime was not answering with technical brilliance the judicial reforms of his own governorship; the crime was ignoring the fact that the question was posed around harm to his wife and family.

When, in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK’s Labour Party,  intellectualized the use (or not) of nuclear weapons, he fell into the same trap.  His answer was a perfect example of being morally right, but perceptively out of touch.  A technocratic response to a gut issue. A perceived lack of empathy.  Just as Dukakis was seen as not caring about family, Corbyn was seen as not caring about country.  They intellectualized a problem that required, at the very least, a visceral statement at the start.   

This week, in Ontario, Andrea Horwath, the leader of the left-of-centre NDP, was the latest in this line to spout ideological points that were out of step with the popular gut.  Before the last, most watched, debate, the NDP was almost at 40% in the polls.  After that debate the NDP numbers stalled and then retreated down to the 33% they actually won.  This led to the majority government of Doug Ford.

What did Horwath say to cause such a rethink?  Firstly, she stated she wouldn’t use her legislative power to end a strike, a small point, but it showed her in the thrall of organized labour, and, like Corbyn and the nukes, happy to throw away a negotiating position she didn’t need to throw away. 

The second, more serious, was in decrying private, for profit, day-cares.  Even if you think it, don’t say it!  On this one, I’ll give Andrea the benefit of the doubt.  I’m sure in her mind she was seeing large unaccountable, greedy corporations.  In my mind, (and I suspect many others), I saw the small, local home day-care who provided a wonderful environment for my children and whose manager needs to make a (small) profit in order to be able to live in an expensive city like Toronto.  

In decrying profit, Horwath spoke to her ideology, and against the reality of most of our lives.  We all need to profit a little from our endeavours, even if it is to simply save something for a rainy day.  For a small business or indeed any employee that is what profit is, the surplus that remains when all the bills are paid; the ability to avoid living pay check to pay check.     

Through these views the press and her opponents presented Horwath as a left-wing ideologue out of step with the mores of Ontario.  Just like Corbyn and Dukakis before her, she showed a lack of political acuity, or nous as we used to call it in the UK.  Yet, like Corbyn, she exceed expectations and her loss is being presented (wrongly in my opinion) as a great victory.  Another example of the pernicious influence of doublethink.

I crave an authentic left-wing politician who gets it.  Someone smart who can connect with the populous and present progressive ideas in a way that gets a majority of people onboard.  A Blair or Clinton or even a Trudeau.  All had (or have) egregious faults, but all could project an encompassing empathy, a common touch.  I think there is an authenticity to Corbyn and Horwath, and Bernie Saunders too, but it is the authenticity of purity not pragmatism.

To deliver the change they want, leaders need to get over the electoral line.  To do that, a little bit of doublethink would go a long way.