Brussels, 19/09/2018. It was at the Byline Festival in August 2018 that I first became acquainted with the term PACs, or Political Action Groups, when American journalist Caroline Orr discussed the baleful influence of so-called SuperPACs on the American democratic process.
I had not heard the term before, though had noted the extremely aggressive behaviour of certain groups of people, usually right-wing, at political rallies during the last US election. They were frequently targeting an opposition candidate, in this case Hilary Clinton, but they also seemed to view journalists as enemies, which apart from being disturbing, to me seemed illogical.
But at a journalists’ meeting this week in Brussels we were discussing how the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (UK) is highly visible travelling to different parts of the country at the moment, putting the Labour Party’s view on a multitude of topics. Meanwhile the Leader of the Opposition and his friend and colleague, Jeremy Corbyn, seems to be keeping his head down.
Of course Mr Corbyn is being systematically targeted wherever he goes at the moment by right-wing activists, at present seemingly pumped up either by arguments on anti-semitism, or racism, or whatever new idea the right-wing media can be sensitized to.
And I was reminded of a conversation I had at Byline with a young Oxford student (who happened to be Jewish), who was seemingly convinced that Mr Corbyn was an anti-Semite. She totally rejected the possibility that the whole affair had been whipped up by right wingers in the Tory party.
Her naivety made me smile, but is probably excusable in one so young. She would have been a child during some of the most violent disruptions in Europe in recent history, when the break-up of Yugoslavia saw ancient hatreds between communities turn into persecution and murder.
The Bosnian wars were a lesson to the EU in how old hatreds, tensions between groups of neighbours even, if not addressed, can quickly escalate into murder and mayhem. The EU did not exactly cover itself in glory over dealing with the problem; it took a military campaign lead by the United States and Nato to end the fighting.
I mention Bosnia, and you could say the same in the UK about Northern Ireland’s recent history, to show how traditional enmities, be they political, religious or take some other form, can be stoked up by ignorant and irresponsible people to justify extreme and even criminal behaviour.
It is a trope in politics that extremism in all its forms is a danger to civilized society. Yet extremism in politics is brought about by groups of people who are dissatisfied with the political status-quo. Witness the rise of right-wing parties across Europe, especially in the old Eastern European countries, many of which run economies that are dangerously unstable.
The EU institutions mourn this rise of right-wing politics, but appear helpless to address its causes, which mostly revolve around dissatisfaction with the effects of migration into Europe and its consequent effects on local labour markets and the economy.
For voters who are dissatisfied with the direction of politics and politicians in their country, the idea of organising to influence the direction of that politics is as old as the Hellenistic Greeks. But such organisation is properly the business of the political party, and its ideas and methods subject to the disciplines of analysis and debate before they hit the mean streets.
Behind any such reputable organisation should lie a fundamental respect for democracy and the basic principles of honesty and accountability in politics. Because the alternatives represent extremism in all its red-clawed nakedness. Call it fascism, communism or fundamentalism, these ‘isms’ are to most civilized people unthinkable; they are associated with a shameful abuse of ideas that lead directly to the last world war.
For those who truly respect democracy, there should be no need for any new kind of political organisation. The political party has both the legitimacy of role and the organising power which is recognised by the constitution. It can stand for the status quo or campaign for change, in ways that are perfectly acceptable and also legal.
So I question the legitimacy of the so-called Political Action Groups, PACS or SuperPACs. Once you begin examining their organisation, and especially their funding, it becomes clear that these organisations are not founded on respect for democracy at all.
While their stated aims may be to influence the polis, the means of doing so, the political actions themselves, frequently seem to amount simply to targeting opposition politicians and so-called political ‘influencers’, who are regarded as legitimate targets for harassment or persecution simply because they may appear successful or influential.
When you consider these actions often amount to tracking the target individual through his or her daily life, and organising lowlife rentamobs (or naive young people posing as ‘journalists’ who have never written a thing in their lives) to harass him or her in public, there seems to me little difference between such activity and pure thuggery.
What you see is in effect a cheapened imitation of legitimate political debate, one that is busy recreating all the mistakes of history, and in particular the frenetic years leading up to the last world war. That war was brought about because the citizens of one or two countries became persuaded that the ideas of one party, one that appeared to be both nationalist and socialist, were worthy of support.
As we know now, they were not. And that mistake, which for many ordinary people was often no more than a tacit ignoring of the more thuggish actions of a popular political group, lead directly to war in Europe, one that would eventually draw in the whole world.
That war was my father’s, and my mother’s, conflict. It was more than a backdrop to their lives, it was the focus for their generation, and it consumed their youth. All that life, all that youthful promise, all that imagination, invention and creativity, it was all used up in righting a balance, in fighting the evils of a political extremism that should never have been born.
So I think that we cannot, we must not, ignore base thuggery in politics. The PACs and SuperPACs hide their aims, and they hide their means. They are a distortion of legitimate politics, and represent thuggery in its vilest form. That they even exist is a slur on the Fourth Estate, which should be exposing such organisations and the pathological liars who lead them.
In any society which likes to think itself civilized, the actions of organisations that are fundamentally undemocratic should not be tolerated. The lessons of history are clear; we condone the existence of such political cancers in our midst at our peril.
© Philip Hunt, 2018.