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As regular readers (I must phone my mum soon) may recall, before switching to the topic of 21st century enlightenment organisations, I considered focussing my 2011 annual lecture on the problems of existing democracy. My starting point was the suggestion that in the modern world, whilst a ‘strong democracy’ is the best model of government, a weak democracy (such as we have in the UK and US) is probably inferior in its socio-economic outcomes to a functioning dictatorship.

I was reminded of this line of thought by the Arizona shootings. We will probably never know the degree to which Jared Lee Loughner was inspired by the Tea Party or shock jock rhetoric (anything Loughner now says can be assumed to be little more than a tactic agreed with lawyers). But regardless of the causal chain, US public opinion needs to respond. Recognition of the damage being done by the long term process of blue red polarisation and, in particular, the mainstreaming of right wing anti-establishment conspiracy theory would be a good starting point. Failing that, even a bland consensus against political violence in all forms would be something. But the early signs are that this tragedy will merely stir the cauldron of anger and distrust. The rabid right is already reacting with fury to any suggestion that its tactics – for example Sarah Palin using military metaphors – might have helped create the atmosphere in which a young person can turn his psychological pathology into a political mission. That this kind of thing is a tragic inevitability in the face of the ‘socialist takeover’ of America by President Obama is an implication I expect to hear from these quarters soon (if it isn’t out there already).

No doubt the debate over how divided America really is will surface again (as always it depends on what and who you look at), as will calls for us in the UK and Europe to avoid being smug and complacent about extremism in our midst (this is Michael Burleigh’s line in today’s Times). But the aspect of this I find most depressing concerns the role of senior politicians, staffers and political activists in the media (such as American shock jocks and some of our own columnists). What depresses me is not that these people are extreme and full of hate, but that they are not but adopt their position to win votes and sell papers or radio adverts.

I don’t often agree with my Moral Maze co-panellist Melanie Phillips, but I have always had sympathy for her argument that privileged people often create social norms and fashions which they have the resources to enjoy and manage and then blame the poor when those same fashions cause mayhem when they trickle down the class hierarchy. Melanie has made this argument about family breakdown and drug abuse. I defer to social historians to explain whether this is what actually occurred in terms of social change but it is certainly the case that divorce is easier if there is enough money to fund two successor households and that the middle classes parents have the money to pay for Toby or Tabitha’s treatment if they develop a class A drug habit.

Does political extremism have some similarities? Whether its poor Phil Woolas (I say ‘poor’ because he was probably no worse than some others) making spurious allegations about his opponent in the last election or Fox News reporters knowingly caricaturing the motives of American public servants we see the spectacle of intelligent privileged people building their careers out of peddling a view of the world which it is damaging for anyone to actually take at face value. The sin of hate mongering and extreme adversarialism lies not so much among those who genuinely feel rage as those with power, prestige and choice who cynically use these tactics to pursue their own self-interest.


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