After generations of free, compulsory schooling, the political literacy and sense of civic responsibility of two advanced democracies seems to have gone backwards to a level that would have shocked my parents’ let alone my grandparents’ generation. I don’t think that the usual explanations suffice. Yes, there is certainly a great deal of cynicism about professional politicians and a widespread alienation from “governing elites”. But none of this is unprecedented: in fact, for as long as I can recall suspicion of those who hold office has been commonplace. A degree of scepticism is in any case a healthy thing in a free society, providing a safeguard against undue deference and the arrogance of power.
Within living memory, this reached what seemed at the time to be an explosive peak during the 1960s and 1970s when the Vietnam War produced an organised resistance arguably more justified than the campaign against the Iraq war. But even in the midst of that mass revolt against government policy, and even when extreme ideologies were resurgent and dominating public discourse, the electoral scene was not peopled by leaders who talked outlandish gibberish. This really is quite new and startling. Something must be going very wrong with the way populations are being instructed in their civic responsibilities. A casual disrespect for politicians is not the same thing as contempt for the historical processes which guarantee the right to throw those politicians out of office.
To support the wilfully stupid and the perversely ignorant just because you want to flip two fingers at the predictable types who generally dominate public life is more than puerile. It is very, very dangerous in a world that is more volatile and unstable than at any time since the end of the Second World War.