In a thoughtful new book the journalist Chris Hayes takes a close look at the importance of certain social norms that most of his fellow Americans take for granted. Depending on where you live, and how local law enforcement sees you, the state either works imperceptibly in the background, like a computer’s operating system, or it disrupts your routines like a virus or malware program. Governance and the justice system either underwrite your normal life or they hover close by, waiting to harass you. Hayes points out that the American middle-class tends to live in the first scenario; many minorities, in the second.
Hayes’ book, A Colony in a Nation suggests that the former group are essentially citizens in a republic while their less fortunate counterparts are forced to behave more like colonial subjects. It is hardly surprising therefore that each group’s social and political views are often mutually incomprehensible. Occasionally, some citizens enter the colonial reality. In 1999, for instance, the political consultant Corey Lewandowski, a Congressional aide who would later became Trump’s campaign manager, was arrested for carrying a firearm into a federal building on Capitol Hill. Lewandowski had forgotten his weapon inside a bag of laundry but he was nevertheless arrested and charged with a misdemeanour. He later described the experience as “humbling, because you go from freedom to not freedom in a matter of seconds.” After a few hours, however, Lewandowski was released on his own recognizance and he subsequently got the chance to explain himself to a sympathetic judge. Both then and now, millions of his fellow citizens would have lacked both the access to, and the resources for, a similar reprieve. As a result, more than two million Americans collide with the legal system that he managed to sidestep. Many are serving long custodial sentences for nonviolent crimes, many more languish in the system for minor offences, or because they cannot pay fines.
Every day tens of thousands of Americans feel the sharp end of policies that deepen this sense of marginalisation and alienation. Just six years ago, for instance, only one in ten of the 680,000 subjected to New York City’s stop-and-frisk programme, supposedly at random was not Black or Hispanic. Just 0.02 per cent of the searches found guns – the ostensible reason for the policy – but the police nevertheless used evidence uncovered in these random searches to make arrests for tens of thousands of unrelated offences, such as drug possession.
The unfairness of the criminal justice system is one part of a much larger social problem. In fact economic disparities may be even more consequential to one’s sense of alienation. Entire swathes of America’s post-industrial Rust Belt, for instance, are in many ways like foreign countries compared to prosperous big cities elsewhere in the US.
Similar rifts have become more noticeable in other parts of the world that are also drifting towards populist politics. In several of them, growing cultural and economic divisions have fostered a culture of ressentiment – anger that is directed against clearly identifiable targets. Europe’s populists have exploited this new landscape by readily denouncing elites, or foreigners, presenting themselves as champions of the downtrodden proletariat, and promising to roll back globalism and other menacing abstractions, regardless of the practical consequences. They focus less on the state’s shortcomings – its failing institutions – than on blaming outsiders for current woes and promising some sort of retribution. One version of this message won the Brexit vote, another version placed Donald Trump in the White House. A third may soon lead Marine Le Pen to victory in France.
Such rifts have troubling historical echoes. When political parties lose the trust of their electorates to such an extent, strident rhetoric tends to displace the traditional give-and-take of a healthy public sphere. Surveying the erosion of German democracy before the start of the Second World War, Hannah Arendt was struck by its absolute rejection of different points of view. “Ideological thinking becomes independent of all experience from which it cannot learn anything new,” she observed, “even if it is a question of something that has just come to pass. [It …] insists on a ‘truer’ reality concealed behind all perceptible things, dominating them from this place of concealment and requiring a sixth sense that enables us to become aware of it.”
Arendt argued that when societies were so divided it became more important than ever for them to strive for open discussions; to find common ground before totalitarian leaders seized their moment and imposed crude solutions. Most importantly, societies in the midst of upheaval had to preserve a space that lay beyond partisan extremism. In an account of her experience as a refugee she warned that: “Moral standards are much easier kept in the texture of a society.” If the moral fabric unravels, other failures quickly follow.
As a new age of populism dawns, there is an urgent need to preserve the freedom of thought and opinion that will allow the colonies that still exist within many modern nations to argue their ways towards independence. Modern history suggests that democratic societies can absorb hard truths and discordant political realities, but nations that ignore or tolerate profound internal inequalities should not be surprised when they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a revolution.