When are radicals popular?

Janan Ganesh criticises Ed Miliband for the belief that ‘radicalism’ is a good thing in itself, arguing that a British electorate fresh out of recession would prefer a steady and cautious approach. This raises the interesting question of when exactly social circumstances are suited to radicalism.

Ganesh’s assumption seems to be that voters are more open to dramatic shifts in policy in the trough of a crisis: “There is only an electoral majority for great upheaval when the country is in such disrepair that new ideas could not make things much worse”. For example, he might argue, the severity of the Depression in the 1930s created the desperation necessary for the rise the extremism of Fascism and Communism, as well as the reformism of the New Deal in the US. It is this sort of thinking that leads to the maxim ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ – a common exhortation in recent years among those who believe the recent economic difficulties have created a fleeting opportunity to reshape the economy and society while the current model is discredited.

There are a couple of objections to this view. Firstly, there is the problem that people cannot ever know they are at the nadir of a crisis, because the low point is not clear until the recovery is underway. This is significant because people never quite arrive at the point where they have nothing to lose, and so the pure desperation suggested by Ganesh’s argument. Without this point, it is harder to explain why people are motivated towards extreme positions before but not after recovery, as Ganesh wants to do.

A second objection is that historically radical measures have been approved after the worst of a crisis is over. Ganesh’s view seems to be that once recovery is secured, people will either be too afraid of jeopardising the recovery, and falling back into crisis, or too satisfied with the status quo to have any appetite for radical change: “the past six quarters of growth do not mean Britons are skipping around maypoles and high-fiving each other in moneyed delirium. But it means they have something to protect”.

But equally it could be argued that crisis management is a separate debate to structural change, and that confusing them risks messing both up. If people take this view, they will have more appetite for discussing big dramatic measures once they think the crisis has passed. This, for example, could be seen as the reasoning behind the substantial post-war socio-economic measures across the industrialised world, particularly the British welfare state. Similarly, Miliband’s pitch in 2015 could be that the economic war of the recession is over, and Labour’s new vision is the best way to manage the peace.

I don’t know whether radicalism is better placed during or after a crisis – that is a question for political scientists, though I suspect it varies between polities and across time. However, I think there is another dimension that ought to be considered – how powerful people believe the government is. How people respond to radical vision for the country is likely to depend upon the chances of those radical visions actually being realised.

The complication is that this could cut both ways too. On one hand, voters are likely to be put off politicians they believe to be making unrealistic promises they can’t keep. On the other hand, radical plans could be seen as a ‘regulative ideal’ – a set of principles which cannot be achieved themselves, but which guide action by showing which of our options are closest to the optimum. Thus if a politician has the right regulative ideals, I will be more inclined to vote for them as they are more likely to defend and promote the sorts of principles I believe in. Moreover, those who are more conservative might see the unrealisability of radical visions as a good thing, seeing them as the mark of a politician with the right sorts of values at heart, but with limited risk of doing excessive damage.

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