Fortune favors the bold is one of those expressions popular in political circles because it tends to confirm things people want to believe about themselves. The guy who wins wants to see himself as a swashbuckling risk taker. The guy that loses wants to see himself as an exception, a bold swashbuckler who was not rewarded by fortune. That way, he can try again another time.
The truth is politicians are risk adverse in the extreme. They hate risk and it is what often gets them into a jam. When one choice has a 90% chance of success, they will get hung up on the 10% and not act swiftly. Alternatively, they fixate on hugging the shore to the point where they are blind to looming danger. The Republican Party made this error with regards to Donald Trump.
There are two types of acceptable risk taking in politics. One is when the fix is in and the politician knows something before the public sees it. He comes out and takes a “bold stand” on X and has his media arm champion him as a great risk taker. When X happens, he is vindicated and promoted as a bold leader. Not everyone falls for this, of course, but enough people do. Bismarck was a master of this sort of risk taking.
The other type of risk is the reverse of this, when the pol figures out he is going to be on the losing end of something. With nothing to lose in the campaign, for example, he will champion some controversial policy so he can pretend to go down because of his bold fight against the forces of darkness. The whole point of this gambit it to set up the next fight. It’s putting your last chip on seven at the roulette table.
Smart politicians figure out that in uncertain times, even the safe bet is a gamble. In Europe, the turmoil created by the Million Muslim March makes all positions a risk. The public is unhappy, but not ready to break into a full nationalist mood. At the same time, the cultural elite is still drunk on the sangria of multiculturalism. There are no safe choices other than keeping a low profile and letting the greater fool theory play itself out.
That’s what makes David Cameron’s move to hold a referendum on the EU so bizarre. His own past election should have been a clue that he is living in very uncertain times. No one predicted he would win a majority and that the other main parties would implode. Unexpected results, even when welcome, should always be cautionary. If you don’t know why you won, you can’t know if you will win the next time.
The betting markets show volatility, which tracks with the polling. The “deal” Cameron negotiated with the EU has been laughed off as worthless so the vote is between the status quo and exit. That would seem to favor Cameron as people tend to like change in the abstract but hate it in practice. You could argue that Cameron is looking at the polling and figuring the fix is in so he can afford to look like a risk taker.
That brings us back to why this is happening in the first place. The nationalist waves roiling Britain forced Cameron and the Tories to promise this referendum in order to stave off the challenge of UKIP. The stunning result of the election was due to the public rallying to the two parties most identified with national identity. The Scots went for SNP and the English went for the Tories.
That dynamic should scare the hell out of Cameron. Every day his voters see pictures of migrants clustered on the other side of the channel, trying to get a ride to England. Rotterdam could very well be the Lindisfarne of the Muslim Age. There’s nothing more patriotic than defending your women and children from foreign barbarians. Voting for Brexit is the sort of thing people under threat will naturally do, no matter the promised cost.
The polling at the moment suggests most people are open to both sides of the debate. It’s tempting for a normal person to think this bodes well for Cameron, but the old lawyer line about never asking a question unless you already know the answer applies here. A wide open public, in a time of great uncertainty, where the conventional wisdom is routinely proved wrong is prone to vote on emotion, rather than logic. Donald Trump says hello.
One of the striking things about the ongoing crisis in the West is just how many unforced errors the political class is making on a regular basis. Merkel inviting the young men of Islam to pour into Europe is an obvious example of something that was easily avoided. All across the West the politicians seem to have lost their footing and this gambit by Cameron feels like another blunder, assuming Cameron wants Britain to remain in Europe.
It’s hard to know if this string of unforced errors is just randomness, ineptitude or an indication of a systemic failure. Republicans running on amnesty after 2012 can be written off to stupidity, given their history, but what about Merkel? She was making sensible noises about multiculturalism in 2010. Did she lose her marbles in the interim? Is there some disconnect in the normal feedback loop between politicians and the public?
This brings us back to a familiar theme around here. The feedback loop used to have the media trying to sell news to the public. Those market signals led them to pressure the political elite correspondingly. This was an indirect market signal to the polls. It may not have been perfect and the liberal media often scrambled the signal, but the pols could at least feel the heat of an angry electorate before they saw the flames.
Today, the press is just a megaphone for the political class. The feedback loop is broken. David Cameron is surrounded by people who read the Economist. Everyone they know in the media thinks Brexit is just a sop to the UKIP types. Consequently, he really has no idea what the people are thinking and that means he has no idea how to pitch his plan to them. Brexit could easily end up being yet another unforced error.