Friday, July 29, 2016

When supposed liberals turn out to be anything but

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 27.)

It’s been an extraordinarily turbulent few weeks in international politics.

Two patterns have emerged. The first, which has been much commented on, is that alienated voters are rebelling against the political elites which, for the past couple of decades, have been calling the shots.

People are looking for something new from politicians. For want of a better word, they seem to be looking for some type of authenticity – a sense that politicians actually stand for something, even if it’s not very well articulated.

In the US, this is obvious from the extraordinary groundswell of support for Donald Trump. Trump’s campaign has been based on simplistic slogans rather than clearly defined policies, but they strike a chord with American voters who feel they have been neglected for too long.

Over on the left we saw a similar phenomenon in the unexpected surge of support for the Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders.

In ordinary circumstances the tag “socialist” is the kiss of death to any American politician, but these are not ordinary times. The socialist Sanders was able to mobilise enough of a following to give his rival Hillary Clinton a hell of a fright on her way to the Democratic nomination.

In Britain, the political establishment got a bloodied nose when voters decided, by a margin of 52 to 48, that they wanted out of the European Union. This was another triumph for the “outsiders” in the form of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip.

Ukip capitalised on a mounting feeling, outside the prosperous bubble that is London, that Britons wanted to regain control of their own country.

Brexiteers were characterised by their opponents as racists who were concerned only about immigration, but there was much more to it than that. The Britons who voted to leave the EU resented being governed from Europe by bureaucrats over whom they had no control.    

The EU originated as an idealistic plan to avoid the risk of another European war, but it has grown to the point where it’s hopelessly out of touch with the people whose interests it supposedly represents. It’s also seen as undermining the autonomy of member countries and restricting their ability to act in their own best interests. 

Speaking of Britain, Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is further evidence of disenchantment with the political status quo. Corbyn’s a cloth-cap leftie who is not liked by his own MPs, but has the backing of the party grassroots.

He may be unelectable, but people know what he stands for. That counts for something.

Closer to home, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – a bland, middle-of-the-road pragmatist in the same mould as John Key and David Cameron – called an election in the expectation that he would be returned with a thumping majority and be rid of obstructive individuals who had been making life difficult for him in the Senate.

As it turned out, his coalition government barely squeaked back into power after a cliff-hanger election which saw the opposition Labor Party restored as a political force.

What’s more, Turnbull will have even more contrary mavericks to contend with in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

Turnbull ousted his predecessor Tony Abbott in an opportunist coup (many called it treacherous) last year, but ran a lacklustre campaign and must now be casting anxious glances over his shoulder.

Many commentators have been saying that for all Abbott’s failings, the former PM would have run a far more stirring campaign – one that would have connected with voters in the conservative heartland.

Abbott, like Sanders, Corbyn and Ukip’s Nigel Farage, is a conviction politician rather than one guided by focus groups and highly paid professional strategists. Trump has convinced Americans he’s a conviction politician too, though it’s hard to say.

Another is Pauline Hanson, one of the mavericks elected to the Australian Senate. Hanson is a conservative Queensland politician whose career has been built on her outsider status.

That brings us to the second pattern to emerge from the recent upheavals. It seems that in the eyes of some people, democracy is fine only as long as it delivers the results they want.

Both the EU referendum result and Hanson’s election in Australia triggered ugly, hysterical backlashes, mostly from people who probably think of themselves as liberal.

In Britain, four million bad losers signed a petition demanding that the referendum be held again. This is like the All Blacks losing a test match 48-52 and demanding a replay.

In New Zealand, a loudmouth radio host wrote a newspaper column arguing that people over 65 shouldn’t be entitled to vote (this, because older Brits voted to leave the EU while younger people, many of whom were too lazy to vote, wanted to stay in).

Similarly, the vicious media attacks on Hanson suggest the liberal elites would prefer it if the people who support politicians like Hanson were disenfranchised, presumably because they’re too thick and too redneck to be allowed anywhere near a polling both.

But Hanson’s supporters are as entitled as anyone to vote for whoever they think will best represent them. It’s called democracy.


Brendan McNeill said...


Inherent within democracy is the understanding that ‘we the people’ agree to cede some aspects of our personal autonomy and security to those whom we elect, on the basis that they agree to act in our overall best interests.

Unfortunately, this ‘contract’ is under pressure because we are entering an historical epoch where seventy years of peace and prosperity in the west has produced a political elite who are wholly unsuited to grappling with the security challenges we now face in the west.

For example, today German PM Angela Merkel announced that despite the four separate attacks that have taken place in Germany by immigrants, asylum seekers, or their children that have resulted in the death and serious injury of dozens of German citizens, she has no intention of changing her immigration policy.

This is an issue where the public are well ahead of their politicians in understanding the nature of the problem and what needs to happen to ensure their security into the future.

The disconnect between the citizens and the machinery of state is growing, and while politicians remain tone deaf to the concerns of ordinary people, they place the entire democratic project at risk.

Barry said...

Thanks for another good post. And thanks to Brendan for his good comment.

Jigsaw said...

Well written! This ties nicely back into your comments about the media who in most of these cases remained unconvinced that what they have been saying for some considerable time would not come to pass as they had said it would - as indeed they had wished it would. It's hardly surprising that so many people I speak to seem to have little idea of what is happening in the world.