There is a strange dialectic at work in Western society, or so it seems to me, between political apathy on the one hand and political rage on the other. In the recent French elections, for example, the rate of abstentions was the highest ever seen, more than half in the second round of the election of the legislature. But in the first round of the presidential election, the candidates of the extreme Left and extreme Right, both of whom drew their supporters by appealing to subliminal rage, had more votes than the eventual winner, a man previously almost unknown.
The British election reveals the coming clash between the old and young in much of the West. The social welfare state naturally creates divisions between groups with immutable characteristics like age as each group maneuvers to get a larger share of money from the state before it runs out. This sad truth was at the heart of the Conservative Party’s lost majority in the last election.
The young voted almost two thirds for Labour, despite the fact that party was led by Jeremy Corbyn, who was regarded by his own parliamentary party as an unelectable tribune of left wing protest and had as its shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, an open admirer of Lenin and Trotksy. To be sure, the young do not remember the real costs of socialism of either the hard Eastern European kind or the softer British variety. It would almost contribute to the net happiness of Europe if a member of the old Soviet bloc remained to be a negative exemplar for everyone else.
But even with its compromised leadership the Labour party knew how to exploit the fault line between the old and the young created by the modern welfare state. Much of the budget of Britain, like other Western democracies, goes to pension and other benefits to the old for which those younger are largely paying. But given longer life expectancy and lower birth rates, young people fear that they will never get similar benefits, because the well will have run dry by the time they become eligible. Thus, they are energized by the Labour Party’s promise of free college tuition. That promise can be cashed in now, unlike the illusory ones of state pensions four decades hence.
In politics, there are no final victories and no lessons that are learned for good: error, like hope, springs eternal. Moreover, what counts as error for some may be wisdom, or at least temporary advantage, for others. There is no catastrophe, political or economic, from which someone does not benefit.
In modern democracies, promises to tax-and-spend are like sin, a permanent temptation: only that they are worse, in so far as they are an instrument for some to gain and (as they hope) to keep power. And so the pendulum swings, seemingly for ever, between extravagance and retrenchment, the former always being more popular than the latter.
In Britain, Mrs. May has overthrown the legacy of Mrs. Thatcher, though nominally she is of the same political party.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the opposition Labour Party in Britain was conducted in a rather peculiar fashion. All one had to do to obtain a vote in it was to declare on-line that one supported the aims of the party and pay £3 ($4.60). It was rumoured that a number of Conservatives had voted for Mr Corbyn in this fashion, in the belief that Mr Corby was so left-wing that he could never be elected, thus assuring a permanent Conservative government.