One thing is certain: we have no idea
In the middle of December I packed a small bag and did something I do all too rarely—I left the office, bound for Adelaide.
My head was swimming with all the essays written in the abstract as commentators around the world attempted to interpret a year in global politics that was almost impossible to interpret. I knew I had no hope of breaking through the collective fog of magnificently written incomprehension at how the tectonic plates had shifted so rapidly and decisively, but as I drove too fast in the direction of the Canberra airport in the delicate early-morning shimmer of daylight I set myself the modest objective of walking in someone else’s shoes. My objective was to speak to people who were voting for Nick Xenophon rather than for one of the major parties, and play their voices back into the process.
My field survey would be far from definitive or scientific. It would be what these assignments are: a jumble of impressions, a bunch of compressed moments, overlaid by instinct and experience, followed by jaw-clenched coaxing of anecdotes into narrative. But it would be something, I thought. In its own modest way the road trip was illuminating; as we roamed around the city and the surrounding areas, I encountered a chorus of voices saying much the same thing. The people I spoke to just wanted to connect with their politicians, and they wanted politics to be a human business.
This was less radical a sentiment than a Brexit or a Trumpocalypse—an evolution, not a revolution. It was a craving for representative politics. Results weren’t as important as sincerity and striving. It took me some time to get my head around the modesty of the aspiration; it was an ambition a person would build on the compressed bedrock of low expectations. The animating impulse was as simple as I want someone to listen to me, to validate my concerns, and I want that politician to represent my interests.
Obviously the Xenophon cohort is just one subset of Australians who have parted ways with politics-as-usual. The tone would be different if I’d been in the field at the point when a hunk of Labor voters fell off to vote Green, different again in the regional areas of Australia where One Nation is polling strongly, different again in Tasmania, where a community has adopted Jacqui Lambie. There would be different ideological impulses in play, different values, and probably a spectrum of expression from polite to furious, everything from a gentle knock at the front door to a stone hurled through a window.
The political scientists at the Australian National University came later in December with their own polite knock at the door, appearing at Parliament House with the latest Australian Election Survey tucked under their arms. The survey of 2000-odd voters has taken the temperature of voters in every election season since 1987.
The field evidence for 2016 was clear according to the lead researcher, political science professor Ian McAllister. Dis-satis-faction with democracy, a lack of trust in politicians, was on the rise in Australia. The lack of satisfaction with democracy had now reached 40 per cent of the sample, and 19 per cent of people said they no longer identified with the major parties. Trust in government had fallen off a cliff, down from 43 per cent at the peak of Kevin07 to 26 per cent in 2016.
‘What it looks like to me is you are seeing the stirrings among the public of what has happened in the United States, or the likes of Trump, Brexit in Britain, in Italy and a variety of other European countries,’ McAllister told a bunch of assembled journalists.
‘Now it’s not a crisis of democracy, but what you are seeing the start of something which has happened overseas. It’s coming here, and I would have thought this is a wake-up call for the political class that they need to start addressing this, or it will continue.’
The corridors of the parliament had already emptied for Christmas by the time McAllister turned up with his spreadsheets, but major-party politicians didn’t need the Australian Election Survey to tell them the glorious vocation of politics had fallen on hard times. They had lived through the punishing election season in the midwinter, and not all of them returned to the capital for a new term.
The year 2016 was when Canberra woke in fright. The question is, what now?
Best to get this over with early in the essay—nobody knows the answer to the question, what now? The major parties are still trying to work out what you do when neither facts (globalisation and open economies have improved prosperity) nor carefully massaged and focus-grouped political platitudes (fairness is important) seem to cut it.
In the second half of 2016 we saw the poster child of the inner-city elite Malcolm Turnbull giving succour to populism, while warning periodically of the dangers of succumbing to populism, and Bill Shorten inserting ‘Australian’ liberally before invoking the word jobs or opportunity in any context.
Perhaps 2017 will answer the question that 2016 asked, but it seems unlikely, and right now our political leaders are floundering. Among the floundering, there is also modest flourishing. The South Australian former Liberal Cory Bernardi has been talking for months about the importance of establishing a grass roots movement for conservatism, a political insurgency, which has some prospect of engaging disaffected voters.
Before he resigned from the Liberal Party to pursue his conservative cause, Bernardi spent months in New York watching Donald Trump railroad a fusion in right-wing politics between authoritarianism and libertarianism. Trumpism as a philosophy resides somewhere between strong man and small government, and there is the potential for export for the right local entrepreneur. The positioning around Australian conservatives is inchoate, and potentially incoherent, but it’s interesting.
In Labor ranks, Wayne Swan has been having a terrific time. Swan is the Labor treasurer the country likes to underrate even though he played a decisive role in keeping Australia out of recession during the global financial crisis. Now out of the shadow ministry, Swan has turned his famously obsessive tendencies and boundless energy to remaking progressive politics, post GFC, post Brexit, post Trump.
Swan is writing prolifically, and penned a call to arms for the Australian centre-left towards the end of 2016. ‘Progressive parties cannot afford to indulge in head-scratching and soul-searching while a viable, vibrant alternative to far-right populism exists,’ he declared in a column published by Guardian Australia.
As I have written elsewhere, before the sound and fury of populism dies down, leaving a hollowed-out middle class, social democratic parties must seize the initiative and present a legitimate plan for policy change that works in the interest of the many, not just the few. For as long as the trickledown juggernaut rolls on, capitulation is not an option.
Debate has raged around the world about whether the primary trigger for the great political upheaval of 2016 is economic—a function of the squeeze on the middle class created by the global financial crisis—or cultural. Swan’s thinking has predominantly been in the economic space, and he argues the contemporary centre-left battle needs to be prosecuted there, rather than through expressions of the rights agenda.
Swan says it’s important to safeguard the things progressives have gained in civil rights struggles over the past century, and to keep pressing forward, but not be defined exclusively by identity issues. ‘The primary response to this needs to be economic. We need to make sure our economic agenda is heard,’ he says.
He may well be right. But it’s also easier for centre-left politicians to declare this is an economic phenomenon—to assert that the anti-globalisation tide is a function of rising inequality, and a narrowing of opportunity, and insist on economic policy as the theatre of battle. Economic problems have solutions that can be countenanced within the rubric of established progressive thought. The reboot is more or less obvious. To put it crudely, the centre-left can develop a coherent economic narrative post-GFC by dusting off redistribution.
If this is a cultural rather than an economic backlash, however, the centre left’s position is significantly more fraught. If the forces that led to Brexit and to the election of Donald Trump and the tremors felt here with the resurgence of Hansonism are a specific rejection of the progressivity of establishment centrist politics in Western democracies post Second World War—if 2016 is a backlash not against depressed economies and falling asset prices but against identity politics and civil rights and multiculturalism, and if the bifurcation between nationalists and globalists is fixed rather than transient or situational—then the progressive agenda has just collided with an immovable object.
In late December an intriguing study was published in the nature journal Scientific Reports. The new research found when people’s political beliefs are challenged, their brains become active in areas that govern personal identity and emotional responses to threats. The study suggested people dug in behind their political beliefs when they were given evidence that contradicted their views. On subjects outside politics the responses were more flexible.
Lead author on the study, Jonas Kaplan, said of his research: ‘Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong.’ Having to confront contradictory evidence was less abstract debating point than existential challenge. ‘To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself,’ Kaplan said.
American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests globalists have unwittingly invited a profound nationalist backlash by pressing normative threat buttons. Haidt writes in a piece published by the American Interest in July 2016 that ‘globalisation and rising prosperity have changed the values and behaviour of the urban elite, leading them to talk and act in ways that unwittingly activate authoritarian tendencies in a subset of the nationalists.’ It’s a polite way of saying progressives had it coming.
Haidt says the activation of an authoritarian response to social change is a more complex societal phenomenon than simple racism or reactive xenophobia—although he acknowledges that some people are racists and xenophobes.
He says immigration has become a central preoccupation in most right-wing populist movements because there is a ‘general human need to live in a stable and coherent moral order’. He notes that nationalists in Europe have been objecting to mass immigration for decades, ‘so the gigantic surge of asylum seekers in 2015 was bound to increase their anger and their support for right-wing nationalist parties’.
‘Globalists tend to explain these reactions as “racism, pure and simple”, or as the small-minded small-town selfishness of people who don’t want to lose either jobs or benefits to foreigners,’ Haidt says.
Racism is clearly evident in some of the things that some nationalists say in interviews, chant at soccer matches, or write on the Internet with the protection of anonymity.
But ‘racism’ is a shallow term when used as an explanation. It asserts that there are some people who just don’t like anyone different from themselves—particularly if they have darker skin. They have no valid reason for this dislike; they just dislike difference, and that’s all we need to know to understand their rage.
Haidt says the rebuff is about perceptions of cultural incompatibility rather than a crude rejection of physical difference:
People don’t hate others just because they have darker skin or differently shaped noses; they hate people whom they perceive as having values that are incompatible with their own, or who (they believe) engage in behaviours they find abhorrent, or whom they perceive to be a threat to something they hold dear.
These moral concerns may be out of touch with reality, and they are routinely amplified by demagogues. But if we want to understand the recent rise of right-wing populist movements, then ‘racism’ can’t be the stopping point; it must be the beginning of the inquiry.
One opinion poll in 2016 genuinely shocked a number of people in politics and public service, an Essential poll showing 49 per cent of Australians surveyed agreed with One Nation’s policy to ban Muslim immigration. The main reason for the objections nominated was a view the Islamic community doesn’t integrate into Australian society—41 per cent of the sample articulated that view—while 22 per cent of the sample agreed with the proposition ‘they don’t share our values’. One community had somehow become the embodiment of otherness in multicultural Australia.
‘The result floored me,’ said Essential Media’s Peter Lewis. ‘This is not a basket of deplorables who sit outside the confines of polite society, that is 49 per cent of the men and women who make up our nation.’
It was one poll, and it was out of step with other field evidence suggesting Australians support a non-discriminatory immigration policy, but racial issues threaded their way through Australian politics in 2016. The political right goaded the left with the debate over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act—a culture war redux from the Abbott era. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton suggested Malcolm Fraser had been wrong to allow Lebanese Muslim migrants to come to Australia in the 1970s. Labor hit back at that political firebomb, but carefully, tiptoeing through a tinderbox.
If Haidt is right and progressive globalists incite authoritarian responses with their support for high levels of immigration, and their disdain for nationalism and sovereignty, if displays of contemporary progressivism, as he puts it, ‘press the “normative threat” button in the minds of those who are predisposed to authoritarianism’—and more challengingly—‘drive status quo conservatives to join authoritarians in fighting back against the globalists and their universalistic projects’—then the progressive project is in some trouble.
Where does that fracture leave decades of civic progress, both in Australia and around the world?
Barack Obama was asked a variant of this question just after Donald Trump ascended the victory podium in November. David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, asked Obama how he would speak to his daughters about the rise of Donald Trump, and its fractious aftermath—how could this be explained to the innocent and the hopeful—the likely inheritors of the progressive project?
‘What I say to them is people are complicated,’ Obama told Remnick:
Societies and cultures are really complicated. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding.
And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside, and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop … You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about the apocalypse. You say, OK, where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.
Obama attempted to normalise the defeat. He said there had been many setbacks for the Democratic Party in American history. The setbacks had been followed by recoveries, including a recovery sufficient to allow a black man to be elected president of the United States. ‘So this notion somehow that these irreversible tides have been unleashed, I think, surrenders our agency.’
He said the Democrats had to reflect on the specifics of their campaign performance, and improve what went wrong. Beyond that, the demographics were in their favour. ‘Setting aside the results of this election, Democrats are well positioned to keep winning presidential elections just by appealing to the base, and each year the demographic improves.’ By this he meant the proportion of non-white Americans would increase.
The Democrats, he said, needed to have a broader conversation with voters and move people who right now aren’t voting for progressive parties and candidates. All this requires vigilance in protecting gains we’ve made, but a sense, yes, of equanimity, a sense of purposeful calm and optimism, and a sense of humour—sometimes gallows humour after results like the ones we just had.
That’s how the race is ultimately won.
Given Obama had prized equanimity and reason and dignity in presidential office, the ‘chill, dude’ response to Remnick was unsurprising. It was, also, in its passivity, profoundly unconvincing. The election of Trump was not a routine setback, it was in every respect extraordinary.
In Britain, Brendan Cox, who had suffered the unfathomable loss of his wife, the British Labour politician Jo Cox—murdered on the street in her constituency by an assailant who identified with Nazism and the far right, in the shadow of the Brexit vote—wasn’t so inclined to fatalism.
In an interview with the BBC, Brendan Cox said progressive political centrists needed to prosecute a cultural agenda with sufficient resonance to compete with the right. The right had shown a ‘willingness to weaponise’ patriotism, Cox said, so there could be no victory through vacancy. ‘There is something that is stirring that I think the political centre is too complacent about,’ he said.
Cox said rather than disdaining patriotism as the coarse habit of the uncouth, progressives needed to develop their own patriotic narrative based on principles of inclusion. ‘I think we’ve ceded that narrative to the extreme right,’ he said. ‘I think we need to regain that narrative and define Britain in an inclusive way that brings us together, rather than blaming the migrant, the refugee, or the Muslim for what is going on in our country.’
A young Australian student of philosophy, Tim Soutphommasane, was saying something very similar to Cox, but earlier, in 2009, when he was a doctoral researcher in political theory at Oxford University. Soutphommasane (now the race discrimination commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission) said it was dangerous to allow the right to define patriotism, and dangerous for progressives to view its expressions as nothing more than racist chauvinism or ‘crass nationalism’.
In his 2009 book Reclaiming Patriotism, Soutphommasane attempted to jolt his young progressive fellow travellers out of the comforts of their enlightened global citizenry, warning the party would eventu-ally come to an end. He pointed to an inevitable reckoning associated with globalisation—a looming challenge of solidarity,
Within the west questions of identity have gained in urgency amid unprecedented flux and social change. Global capitalism has disrupted local economies, accelerated deindustrialisation and triggered transformations in class and culture. Post Second World War liberalism has spawned a diversity of lifestyles and diluted social norms. Consumerism and narcissistic privatism have led to a decline in civic virtue.
Perhaps more profoundly, waves of mass immigration have created multi-cultural societies that challenge the foundation of the nation state—the assumption that citizens would share a collective identity based on a common ethnicity and culture. In the Australian case, the previous solidarity of a White Australia, buttressed by British race patriotism, has yet to be replaced by any equivalent unifying myth or bond.
Soutphommasane reasoned it was possible to be a liberal and a patriot, and not only possible, it was necessary, because an inclusive language of shared civic values was an instrument of progress:
The patriotism I defend is one in which loving one’s country is not reduced to ethnicity or race.
It is rather a patriotism that demands of citizens a commitment to a national tradition, comprised of civic values and moulded by historical experience.
Loving your country does not mean adhering to unquestioned myths or mindlessly repeating slogans, but being prepared to contribute to the improvement of your community and culture.
Soutphommasane’s invocation in 2009 was correct then, and it remains correct today. The centre left does need a renewed cultural agenda that’s not just defensive, and takes into account the anti-globalisation resonances. I think it’s entirely possible to reclaim and redefine patriotism if progressives can manage to stow the smug. It’s just a matter of defining the task, and working on it. Progressives can’t win fights by avoidance. Political movements have to prosecute battles. Success by default is a rarity. At least that’s what we all thought prior to the events of 2016.
Sounding just as shell-shocked as any centrist major-party politician, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times columnist, gave a lecture at the New York Public Library in mid December. Public life was a war against derp, Krugman said, and right at the moment, derp was winning. (He explained that the term ‘derp’ had emerged from the South Park cartoon series, a term signifying stupidity.)
Krugman asked his audience what could be done after an election year when appealing falsehoods had clearly triumphed, and there was no effective check that he could see in public discourse. In an act of public humility, Krugman asked his audience, what do we do, readers of the New York Times or the New York Review of Books, and writers at those esteemed publications, people who like to believe this enterprise, that sophisticated but readable, comprehensive discussion of things that matter, is a force that matters in the world—that this is not just a form of entertainment for the literati, but in fact, matters, is something that can make the world a better place—what do you do?
What are we even doing? Is this all irrelevant? What do we do now?
Earlier in 2016 I’d found myself on a panel at the National Museum of Australia with the British philosopher A.C. Grayling, who despite being a gracious and charming man, managed to irritate me profoundly with what, to my Australian ears, sounded like a sermon of patronising fury about the voters in Britain who had elected to leave the European Union, fools who had voted against their own economic interests.
No wonder they voted leave, I thought, mutinously, if this disdain from a prominent public intellectual was a frequent occurrence. I found myself cheering internally, perversely, for the Brexiters.
Krugman’s tone wasn’t petulant or pugnacious, it was austere and penitent as he recounted his experience of having a ringside seat, not only to demagoguery but also to public fatigue with facts and experts. There was a problem during the election cycle of gatekeepers not gatekeeping, he acknowledged—a failure of the popular media, but this was a phenomenon more profound than cable TV not giving enough airtime to policy.
The question Krugman posed during the lecture was, how does honest progressivism compete with the mesmerising power of nostalgia? He said 2016 had demonstrated that an emotionally compelling political narrative comprised of simple, strong and bad ideas triumphed over sophisticated policy arguments devoid of emotional resonance.
Appealing stories will play. If you tell the people who used to work in the coal industry or whose parents used to work in the coal industry, I can bring back the coal jobs, that’s a story they want to hear.
In fact, do a little homework and you find out it’s completely impossible. We didn’t lose coal jobs because of environ-mental policy or because or foreign competition. We lost them because we get our coal these days by strip mining and mountain top removal, which doesn’t really employ many people. But people don’t want to hear that.
Appealing falsehoods, it turns out there’s no effective check in our public discourse, at least there wasn’t this year. That’s been a really rude shock.
Over the course of the lecture Krugman was frank about not knowing how to respond to the challenges of trying to gatekeep in a world hostile to gatekeeping, but he warned against three responses: quietism (a retreat in his case, to academia, and the occasional restorative watching of cat videos on YouTube), appeasement (trying to normalise and contextualise what was not normal and could not be contextualised) and emulation (deploying dumber against dumb). Some of these reactions are tempting, but none of these responses will work, he says.
One thing he thought might work (apart from maintaining the core of the enterprise, which he defined as intellectual honesty) is telling stories about people.
I’ve been doing some soul-searching myself, and one thing that I think is important that I don’t do and it does not come naturally, so I’m going to have to learn how to do it and force myself, is individualising stories about people.
That is really not my style. It’s not my natural style. Certainly, I’m not the kind of person who flies to a country, meets somebody, a wise local person who sounds somehow exactly like me. But also, I’m not the kind of person who does pound the pavement reporting and finds a family who’s been afflicted.
But there’s a reason. It always used to annoy me, still does annoy me, when politicians give speeches and say: Let me tell you about the Garcia family. But they do that for a very good reason. That’s how most people relate.
You have to make it personal. So that’s something that even public intellectuals, even people where one part of their life is extremely rarefied work, need to find a way to do.
It was that impulse that took me to Adelaide in December to try to understand why people were turning their backs on the major parties in Australia, not to produce something scientific or profound, but to record some of the voices of disaffection, and play them back into the process they feel estranged from.
Political journalism after 2016 needs to be an exercise in adjusting the volume and fiddling with the hierarchy of voices. We are bombarded with the voices of politicians, the voices of journalists interviewing them and each other. Perhaps if the voices of voters can be heard, we will start to pick up some threads, hear the values and stories that bind us together, to balance out conflict and contention.
It’s a distance short of a miracle. But it’s a start.
‘It’s not about you, it’s about the world,’ Krugman said, by way of summation in the New York Public Library in December of 2016. ‘Just keep on plugging. Try to make it happen.’