What happens in America tends to be repeated in other countries a few years later. The big socio-economic trends play out first in the United States, then drift across the Ocean and repeat themselves in a local form here. That’s the received wisdom.
If this is the case, might the future of Irish politics look less like Leo Varadkar and more like Conor Mc Gregor?
As The Notorious wrapped himself in the tricolor in Vegas the other night, this is a question worth considering.
Ten years ago America elected Obama. He was everything the liberal establishment wanted. Black but not too black, left wing but not too left wing, fresh but not too radical and above all, he was respected abroad by all the serious media outlets. The vision of America that Obama projected to the world was straight from the playlist of educated America. He was the ointment for a wounded and divided society.
Sophisticated Americans held up a mirror to themselves and they saw Obama. They loved what stared back at them. In the great American culture wars, they had won – or at least that’s how it seemed initially.
But just when they thought it was over, the electorate went and voted for Trump.
We know what happened in America. The white working class had only lent their votes to Obama. These votes were rented — not earned — based on a brilliant marketing campaign rather than a tested product. The white working class gave a conditional endorsement to cosmopolitanism.
Unfortunately, the American coastal elite mistook the transitory Obama electoral phenomenon as a permanent shift in American politics. From the vantage point of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the elites believed that this movement would be impervious to the underlying economic trends and so they engineered a recovery based on asset prices rising. This they assumed would make everyone feel better and then over time, the recovery would trickle down to the grateful masses below.
However rising asset prices only made those people with assets feel better off. And who do you think owns assets, rich people or poor people? Rich people of course, that’s why they are rich, because they own assets.
The marginalized white working class might not have had any assets, but they did have a vote. And they used it. When it came to the time, they voted for Trump.
It is crucial to note that they didn’t vote for the guy who said he was going to give them handouts — as liberals expected and encouraged. They voted for the guy who said precisely the opposite. He was the guy who was going to cut taxes for the rich.
One thing liberals don’t understand about the American working class is that while the working class hate professionals, they love the rich.
They spend their working lives taking orders and want to be the guy who gives orders; Trump gives orders. They want to be like him, rich enough to give everyone the two fingers. That’s the American Dream.
Now let’s look at Ireland ten years after Obama’s first Presidential campaign. Is there an Irish Dream? And, if so, who embodies it for whom?
In Ireland we also have our elite.
Whereas in the US they talk about the liberal coastal elite, here we have a professional/managerial elite.
These people work in both the public and private sector. They can be on the liberal Left or establishment Right. They are the people who go into hysterics over the annual CAO “points race” whipping themselves into a frenzy of familial achievement.
Such a reaction is not surprising because the annual points’ race is the entry point to the professional/managerial class. The stranglehold of the professional/managerial class on the Irish education system is asphyxiating and the grind system reinforces their position, giving their offspring maximum advantage, making their caste almost hereditary.
They are the aristocracy of Ireland’s Respectocracy, living a form of the Irish Dream — the Dream that is set out by the system. Being respectable is neurotically adhered to; it’s part of the deal.
Affection for the points race is mirrored by their almost visceral dislike of Conor Mc Gregor.
Has there ever been an elite Irish sportsman, in this sports-mad country, who so splits public opinion? The real dividing line in Dublin is not the River Liffey, but Conor McGregor.
Where you stand on Conor McGregor reveals a lot about the type of person you are, what class you belong to, what generation you were born into and how you see the future of the country.
Conor is a threat to the Respectocracy because he is a working class lad, taking his chances, genuflecting to no one. As a product of the Facebook generation, he understands the urgency of now. His west Dublin, trash-talking swagger embarrasses the Respectocracy — particularly when he’s abroad. To borrow from Hillary Clinton’s phrasebook, for them, he is the King of the Deplorables.
But he represents a forgotten class. His tribe also gets up early in the morning. They are working people — which the patronizing Respectocracy regularly confuse with poor people. They don’t feature often on radio or TV. They’re rarely editorial writers. They go to Spain on their holidays.
They compete with immigrants in the job, housing and health markets. Their kids are in class with immigrant kids. Their wages in manufacturing are stagnating due to competition from abroad. And Conor’s people get on with it.
They work for themselves. They too are ambitious and want their kids to do well. They want their children to have stuff they didn’t have. They just go about it in a different way. Maybe because they see a system rigged against them, they choose to go around it.
Like McGregor, they are not waiting for someone to give them permission to dream, work hard and get results. Theirs too is an Irish Dream.
In McGregor they see a hero, a man who has achieved extraordinary things, who doesn’t hide his ambition and understands that he is in it for the cash. They also understand his fragility.
Remember they too despise the professionals — because frankly, the professionals despise them. In contrast, they respect the rich — particularly the self-made man. That is what Conor is. The system wasn’t on his side and now he is on top through courage, hard work and more hard work.
But his isn’t the sort of achievement Respectable Ireland recognizes because of the accent, the bragging and the crudity. But what do you expect from a man who beats the shite out of people for a living?
McGregor is the nightmare knock on the door that every “respectable” establishment mother fears for her daughter.
As for Leo, he would be their perfect son in law.
When they see our fit, tanned, photogenic, educated, well spoken, intellectual, half-Indian, gay Taoiseach, who also happens to be a doctor, walking arm in arm with Justin Trudeau, speaking French at Montreal’s gay pride last week, they think that’s what their Ireland looks like.
Leo is gay but not too gay, he is Indian but not too Indian, he is socially Left, but economically Right — so he will follow their social agenda without threatening their wallets.
If he didn’t exist they’d have to invent him.
But both men represent an Irish Dream. Both men are Outsiders; both are emblematic of our country and its various tribes. As befits the blurring in modern Ireland, Leo is the Northsider who is refined and polished; Conor is the Southsider, who is rough and feral.
But both tribes vote.
The real challenge for Leo is to lead his tribe into a political union with Conor’s tribe. This is what Bill Clinton did in the US from the Left and what Margaret Thatcher did in the UK from the Right. Could Leo Varadkar appeal to everyone who gets up early in the morning? Could he do it from the centre? If he does this, he will be a real leader.
By the way, the odds on Leo prevailing are probably shorter than Conor’s were on Saturday night. But that would be cool too, wouldn’t it?