Sunday Stories: Mr. Presessor
Looking back on the end of that year named 2012, we can say that it delivered poorly in terms of ending the world but was kind of a good start for the world finally putting an end to the 20th century. At the time Obama’s re-election was interpreted as having taken place despite his failure to bring about any excitement in the electorate. With hindsight, I put it to you that his victory can, in fact, only be attributed to him earning his nickname of Mr. Presessor, a nickname coined in the week after this debate as internet research shows.
We have grown used now to the respect for academics and their nuanced views in the public debate but way back then, as the post-debate polls and discussions conclusively show, nuance was commonly held to be the liability when running for any public office. Nevertheless, other elections and events during 2012 provide good evidence for my hypothesis that it was in that year that the shift to the more rational politics we know consider the norm started. Hence that said shift began much earlier than we have hitherto believed under the pressure of the persisting loudness and hysteria in public debate during the rest of that decade.
I will focus on three European events: the Dutch general elections of September 2011, the Belgian municipal elections of October 2012 and the European ‘Treaty of Christmas’ (ironically signed at the exact date of 21/12/2012).
When the Dutch government fell in the first half of 2012, the public debate was dominated by a euro-skepticism that had turned to euro-hatred and an anti-capitalism that did not even bother to identify concrete alternatives. This was so until weeks before the actual election such that the discussion focused not on whether the new Dutch government was going to be a problem for the European integration but on whether it would be an extreme right or an extreme left problem. All of this was in the line of at least two decades of polarization in European politics and everything seemed to indicate that the two extremes had finally found the battleground on which populism could not but emerge as a political fact in the West.
Then something extraordinary happened, or rather somebody: he was called Diederik Samsom. He was unremarkable in every way except for deliberately choosing a moderate rhetoric where nobody was blamed and nobody was named nor was shamed. I do not have time here to go in the specifics but at closer inspection his rise in the opinion polls and finally the ballot itself can only be explained precisely because of his moderation. There was not any other single exceptional thing about either him or the rest of the campaign. He only just lost it (mostly because his rise in the polls provoked a massive shift from the extreme right to the center right). However, he helped to form a stable government which was – as we shall see later – pivotal in that other key 2012 moment, the European ‘Treaty of Christmas’.
It will maybe look odd to take the Belgian municipal elections as one of the illustrative events. After all, Belgium is small and the Belgian municipal elections are only the third in rank with topics ranging from parking places to the building of a new swimming pool ( or not). Still, these elections (and particularly the elections in the city of Antwerp) were generally predicted as the next -to-last step for the Flemish nationalists to be able to break up Belgium. In the meantime Belgium may have, to all extents and purposes, been broken up but it was not done based on the anti-rational blaming game of the so called moderate Flemish nationalism. It was not done this way because against all odds, trends and even opinion polls the N-VA (as the party was called) did not manage to break through (and specifically didn’t win the race for mayor in the city of Antwerp).
What happened? Again I cannot go into the specifics in the frame of an informal contribution like this one but research is showing that strangely enough nothing out of the ordinary happened. The most notable campaign event of the re-elected mayor of Antwerp, Patrick Janssens, arguably was that his new life partner gave birth to a second son (and the mayor did rather successfully avoided that news to become a campaign event). The only conclusion can be that as with Samson and later Obama, the voters just started to quietly turn away from anything bordering on political war rhetoric and wound up siding with the inconspicuous and calm who seemed hell bent on not raising their voices.
The 2012 European ‘Christmas Treaty’ is an event that has been commented on profusely. Mostly it is characterized as an ultimate and desperate effort to ‘keep things together’ by putting an 8-year road map towards political integration. Most of my fellow historians regard the 2012 event just as buying time and locate the actual ‘rational turn’ in politics at the tail end of that 8-year period, when the debate on implementation was won by academics proposing a rationalist doctrine to replace the 20th century notions of capitalism and communism. I don’t think the evidence supports seeing the ‘Christmas Treaty’ as something of a historical coincidence that created space for a later evolution.
If it would have been like that, and considering the already mentioned undercurrent of populism in the two decades that preceded the Treaty, something like the Treaty would never have been able to be signed let alone survived the 6 years of continuous elections in the nation-state Europe between 2012 and the commonly held start date of the ‘rational turn’. To the contrary, the above two examples show that political and economical rationalism is the only explanation for election outcomes prior to 21/12/2012. Furthermore there is abundant evidence that the elections (notably the German general election after the treaty) were no longer dominated by emotions, blaming and separation of the good and the bad but by an increasingly level headed consensus that competition between political entities (nations, regions, continents) was the problem to solve.
Of course, the realization that such competition was the root cause of the evils of the beginning of the 21st century is the basic characteristic of the ‘rational turn’. For sure the analysis that the concept of competition only has a place in sports and, to some extent, in business was not made until the Declaration of Rationalist Politics in 2017. Still, what I wanted to show is that this Declaration was not a feat of imagination of a few but actually based on an undercurrent in the electorate that started to show itself as early as 2012.
As with all historical analysis, one might wonder what concrete learning one can draw from pinpointing an evolution to a certain specific period of time. I think history shows conclusively the merit and added value of such an analysis. I invite the readers of this short piece to investigate the detailed research which, happily, extends well beyond my personal work by now. I assure them they will find it very illuminating because our present day is for sure open to improvement and we would do well to try to find inspiration for improvements not just in the bright ideas of the happy hyper-educated few but also in the slow mills of the opinions of the many.
In fact, but I will not provide arguments for that stronger conjecture in this paper, I firmly believe that if the so called ‘rational’ turn did not start as early as 2012, the beginning of the 21st century would have had to turn out much more like the beginning of the 20th century. And there is unfortunately still every chance that the middle of the 21st century turns out to be a lot like the middle of the 20th century if we neglect now to detect new ideas as early as possible. After all, new ideas are always to be welcomed – but as history has it – not all new ideas should be implemented before having a proper think about them.
Maybe Mr. Presessor himself can weigh in on the matter.
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