There are reasons to be cheerful…but only for a moment
Half a lifetime ago, on a bright, crisp December day in Harrogate, I was reunited with an old friend. We had first met 12 years before at university — as politics students, fellow Labour Club members and union hacks.
Tragedy had brought us together again — the premature death of a mutual friend who had been killed in an air crash in Kathmandu. It wasn’t that we’d not seen each other in the intervening decade. But even the best friendships can be messy and ours had been just that.
We had arrived on campus just five months after the election of Margaret Thatcher. That had been our first taste of democratic participation. But neither of us had voted Conservative.
We were already impatient for the world to change. We believed it was possible. We even thought WE could do it. Or at least that we could be part of making it happen.
And so, we wrote motions, printed leaflets and posters, went to conferences, and demonstrated on the streets about everything from cuts to nuclear disarmament.
There was a delicious naivety to it all. Yet happily, long before the advent of social media, we were too busy living in the moment to see that. Still on a voyage of discovery.
Now, as we retired to Bettys Tea Room after a day lounging about in the splendour of Harrogate’s Victorian Turkish Baths, we compared notes about where our lives had got to. It was all very grown-up.
It hadn’t been plain sailing either. My partner of seven years was HIV positive and his health had deteriorated enough to force his retirement earlier that year.
What’s more, we’d both experienced our fourth general election as losers six months before — 1992 was an especially sore one as early hopes of success had slipped away in the wee small hours.
As we entered our fourth decade, we were a little more worldly-wise. Yet for all that, the space between the words we exchanged animatedly that afternoon was filled with possibility.
We still believed the world could change. And that in our different ways we could do our bit.
I have returned to that day in my mind’s eye many times this past week, coming as it did just after Bill Clinton’s victory a month before. We know how that went now, of course.
But before the disappointment comes the hope. And long before the Lewinsky scandal and his subsequent impeachment, the charismatic President-elect was enough to fill us with hope aplenty.
The Reagan-Bush era may have seen the fall of the Berlin Wall three years earlier, but we wanted more. We wanted our people to be in charge. And finally, at the beginning of middle youth, we believed that was possible.
For all Fukuyama had just published The End of History, it felt like history was just beginning. The future could still be ours.
I exaggerate, of course. But the skies were bright blue, the bond between us renewed, and Christmas was just around the corner. We had reasons to be cheerful.
Last week my friend and I texted as we so often do at totemic political moments. A kind of ritual. Still marking our shared journey.
Our hopes have been raised and dashed so many times in the intervening three decades. History had been ours for a while, only to be snatched away again.
But our friendship has been resilient. And each other’s perspective has remained a touchstone in a world where uncertainty had begun to feel like the only thing we could be sure of.
Perhaps the most sobering lesson of all had been the realisation that the progress we believed in back then wasn’t inevitable. Still worse, the idea that 20 years after the new dawn had broken, it could all just slip away.
And yet, whatever the ebb and flow of domestic politics, even the crushing blow of Brexit, the arrival of Donald Trump had been something else altogether.
Losing to the other side was part of the deal. We knew that now. But the hollowing out of democratic politics altogether? That wasn’t supposed to be part of the script. Neither was the cheer others appeared to feel in its wake.
For all that cheer looked utterly contorted to us, it was plainly, distressingly real, just as the congas in the streets after Brexit had been. And with it the awful realisation that in our earlier optimism, we may have been part of the problem.
As our lives had got better, the lives of others, for all our good works, had not. We had somehow become complacent. Enough, perhaps, to have been complicit. To have colluded, unwittingly, in the implosion of the very institutions we had come to cherish.
Yet, now at the 23rd hour, here we were in a thick CNN fog. Somehow, as Matthew Taylor remarked wryly on Twitter, still believing that by totally immersing ourselves in a story thousands of miles away, we could carry Biden to victory.
Our righteous will was our Trump card. Nonsense, of course. Yet we couldn’t tear ourselves away until the election was ‘called.’ Then finally, as Van Jones cried, we cried with him.
We believed, once more, that we were on the right side of history. That for a moment, we had reason to be cheerful again.
There’s no denying it was — and is — a relief. As the journalist, Chris Deerin, said this afternoon, ‘oh god, the change of tone with Biden is extraordinary. God bless him.’
Amen to that. These last four years have been a recurring nightmare for sure. Even those of us who had not been normalised by Trump’s tone had become inured to it.
So, is that belief, that cheer, such a bad thing? Decency may have prevailed after all — just. American democracy may have pulled through, even if it’s still in intensive care. We can allow ourselves a moment of celebration.
But no matter the temptation, we must resist indulgence. We can catastrophise about the next 70 days all we like. With good reason. More than 70 million Americans don’t share our joy and little boy Donald is still in the big White house.
However we can no more influence events just by being right than we could the result itself. And anyway, that we thought we could plays, albeit subconsciously, to the very conspiracy our American friends are up against.
What we can do is ACT. The erosion of democracy is a global problem, not merely an American one, and our own democracy is hardly in fine fettle. The problems we face are from a companion songbook.
The best thing we can do right now is to get our own house in order. And that won’t happen on the sofa in front of CNN or any other channel.
As Biden himself said on Saturday night, quoting the late John Lewis: ‘Democracy is not a state. It is an act. And each generation must do its part.’ Democracy is a verb, not a noun. It is in our hands.
As Anne Applebaum said in a warning before the election, it is irresponsible to be pessimistic and immoral to be nihilistic. Democracy must be defended.
And as Applebaum reminds us in Twilight of Democracy, change doesn’t happen by itself: ‘Liberal democracies always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort, struggle.’
Concluding her recent essay, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, Elif Shafak says, ‘After the pandemic, we won’t go back to the way things were before. And we shouldn’t.’
The same applies to the crisis of liberal democracy. Trump, the man who would deny the pandemic, is symptom as much as cause.
The wallowing we have done this past week won’t get us out of this God-awful mess. Nor will clinging to the wreckage. Action might. Change can.
Shafak ends her essay by quoting Eliot, as I have often done: ‘What we call the beginning is often the end… The end is where we start from.’
We have reasons to be cheerful. But not for long.