What does the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote mean for democracy?
This was the overarching theme of an insightful and entertaining lecture by Matthew Barzun, the US ambassador to the UK, at Alliance MBS.
In a nod to British understatement, Barzun began his address by joking that the last six months had “not been overly dull” on both sides of the Atlantic. But he said, more seriously, that he had been subsequently thinking through what this unusual time meant for both countries.
“What I am concerned about is the democracies we demonstrate to one another, to ourselves and to the world which is watching both our countries. On both sides of the Atlantic we see a lot of people talking at each other, talking past each other and a real distrust of big business, big government and big academia. What might each of us individually do about it?”
By contrast Barzun said he did not lose any sleep over the enduring strength of the US/UK relationship. “Look at what we have done together over the last 70 years. Think about the government to government relationship, the aid we have administered, the businesses we have built, the culture we have created, the wars we have waged, the peace we have promoted, the mistakes we have made, the lessons we have learnt. There is a lot of ballast in the ship.”
Before becoming a diplomat Barzun, who has been ambassador to the UK since 2013, worked on President Obama’s 2008 campaign trail and asked whether there were lessons to be learnt today in the approach that Obama’s team took back then.
Barzun remembered during that election how he would spend much time listening to voter concerns, often among tiny groups of around a dozen people in remote US communities. He said the two million people who subsequently attended Obama’s inauguration on Capital Hill in 2009 were “just lots of groups of 12 people”.
He said part of the appeal of US politicians such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders was that they claimed to provide solutions to voter concerns. “The analogy I use is of an airline trying to get a passenger home in a snow storm. Sanders and Trump are the airline saying to that passenger ‘we have got to get you home’. They are not saying ‘sorry, there is no flight for you but we are working on it’.”
Barzun is also a successful businessman in his own right and was a pioneer in the early days of the internet working for CNET Networks. During his lecture he analysed why a company such as Wikipedia had been so successful and what lessons could be learnt for politics and society as a whole today.
*The lecture was facilitated by Dr Damian O’Doherty, Senior Lecturer of Organization Analysis at Alliance MBS and part of the Manchester Ethnography Network, a working group of academic scholars and practitioners of ethnography.