IT is a cliche of contemporary social comment that the world is angry – that people everywhere are voicing their anger, resentment, frustration and fear through social media, demonstrations, riots and support for extremism, fuelling the rise of so-called populist politicians.
If Brexit is the most obvious example in this country, it is not the only one – the violence of some militant vegan activists against farmers is another, as is the increase in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim behaviour, and the inflammatory rhetoric of even mainstream politicians.
Whatever happened to rational discussion, reasoned debate and respecting different points of view? Compromise, like liberalism, seems not so much a dirty word as a forgotten one.
Across the Atlantic, it is easy to cite Donald Trump and his cult-like followers of driving this rise in extremism, but dangerous and disruptive though he is, Trump is more of a symptom than a cause. American politics is so deeply divided that words like “progressive” or “liberal” to describe Democrats have long been terms of abuse, while Republicans are routinely accused of racism and other far-right attitudes.
Tribalism in American politics is so extreme that my daughter, who lives in liberal California, hesitates to talk about politics with people she works with – or even with some friends – for fear of provoking an angry response. She grew up in a liberal household in a tolerant country, where everyone had opinions and expressed them but we mostly respected each other’s views.
Now those norms of tolerance and respect seem to have been lost in a maelstrom of anger, and utter intransigence is the order of the day. And some of that intransigence may play a significant role in any trade deal between the UK and the US.
For people outside the US, the epitome of that intransigence is the NRA – the National Rifle Association – with its refusal to accept even the smallest curbs on America’s gun laws, such as introducing background checks on anyone wanting to purchase an assault rifle.
The argument, put simply, is that if they (America’s gun-owners) agree to even the smallest restriction, it will inevitably and inexorably lead to the removal of all guns from everyone. One of the most effective (and mendacious) campaigns against Hilary Clinton in the 2016 election was that she would “take our guns away.”
The NRA was founded in 1871 as a recreational group designed to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis” but that bland definition has been expanded, not to say traduced, to the present situation in which the principal spokesman for the NRA can blame the lack of an armed guard at a school for a maniac with an armoury of assault weapons killing young children and their teachers.
Guns are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year but any attempt to restrict gun ownership is opposed by the NRA, which exerts massive power over lawmakers, partly because of its highly politicised membership and partly through its targeted lobbying, officially estimated to be worth $3m annually – but that does not include fund-raising by independent supporters and the wealthy and influential PACs (Political Action Committees).
Protect The Harvest sounds like something we could all support, with its mission to protect America’s farmers. The website (illustrated with attractive photographs of cattle, pigs and horses) says that Protect The Harvest was created “to defend and preserve American freedoms and to support farmers, ranchers, outdoor enthusiasts, and animal owners … to inform and educate … protect … respond.” These aims including reporting on the activities of “animal rights groups, anti-agriculture groups and other non-governmental organizations that threaten agriculture, animal welfare, our traditions, and way of life … [protecting] our freedoms and way of life by supporting agriculture, land use, hunting and fishing, animal ownership, and animal welfare … [responding] to laws, regulations, or misinformation that would negatively impact animal welfare, animal ownership, restrict our rights, and limit our freedoms.”
In the context of current American politics, Protect The Harvest supporters oppose any moves to alter accepted farming and livestock practices. (It is within this context that Trump’s action to overturn court decisions against Bayer/Monsanto and its widely used glyphosate pesticide makes political sense).
Supporters of British farming, animal welfare and environmental practices want our government to reject any deal which opens our markets to the products of American industrial farming. But against the “no changes at any price” attitude of the powerful US agriculture lobby, it is hard to see how a trade deal can be achieved which will not be deeply harmful to British farmers, livestock and the environment.