What is going on?
Donald Trump is going to win the Republican nomination and might become the next President of the United States. Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian senator from nowhere is testing Hillary Clinton to the limit, and perhaps beyond and, in the process, garnering small armies of support from young and old. In the Philippines, an unpleasant and foul-mouthed bully who is tough on crime (and presumably not so worried about the causes of crime) has become President.
Leicester City wins the English Premier League, having started the season as 5000-1 outsider. Chelsea, from whom they have wrested the title, have become an expensive confusion of tangled mission and lapsed execution. (ok, that’s a bit of a distraction, but it’s a question worth pondering in its own right).
The inventory of disruption goes on. Jeremy Corbyn leads the British Labour Party, possibly to its terminal decline according to some, it’s true, but nonetheless with the support of a large number of party members who put him there but in the teeth of undisguised horror from the leadership class. Bill Shorten has gone from wooden plodder to election winning contender against Malcolm Turnbull’s surprising, and possibly temporary, fall from early electoral grace. The Economist describes Dilma Rouseff’s demise in Brazil as a revolt against incompetence and against “the whole political class”, including those likely to replace her who are freighted with many of the same burdens of incompetence and corruption, perhaps worse, than the President they seek to impeach.
What on earth is happening?
One answer is absolutely nothing. All of these examples can easily be dismissed as nothing more portentous than the expected unexpected, a blip that simply serves to reinforce the untroubled normalcy from which they represent a mild and meaningless deviation.
So yes, occasionally a maverick gets lucky and the universe conspires to throw up an unexpectedly successful underdog, but that’s part of the picture of elite control in largely untroubled patterns of power and structures of control and authority.
But maybe what is happening now is what happens at the “end of power” or, at the very least, when deep undercurrents of dismay and dissatisfaction from those for whom the untroubled patterns and structures of power and authority are precisely the problem can be contained no longer. Maybe this is what Yeats meant. The centre cannot hold, the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. An epitaph for our time.
Greg Sheridan’s recent speculations on these matters is one account of things falling apart, a report from the front line as the ceremony of innocence drowns in the blood-dimmed tide.
This was the week the world changed, Sheridan declares. “The giant waves of crude populism — the new unstoppable force in global politics — crashed through the flimsy defences of the political establishment everywhere, defences that once looked so unassailable.”
He surveys some familiar stories – Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Trump and Sanders in the US (a third of Sanders supporters, after one of the recent primaries, warned they would vote for Trump in a Clinton-Trump presidential contest), Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the mortal wounds to the Austrian centre, reeling from the success in the first round of the presidential election of the far right Freedom Party and the rising illiberal instincts of nationalist, or nativist leaders across Eastern Europe.
There is a common core, Sheridan argues, to the left wing and right wing varieties of the new populism. It’s a dispiriting list:
- A seething anger beyond proportion to any injustice or imperfection that really exists in the society.
- A determination to smash politics-as-usual, with all its messy compromises.
- A demand that government give more and perhaps endless transfer payments to the middle classes as well as to the poor.
- A hatred of international trade, which is really a hatred of foreigners, made palatable to the Left and newly attractive to the Right.
- A demonisation of any political competitor.
- A loss of any sense of balance, restraint, coherence or responsibility, and an absolute contempt for the proper processes of democracy.
You don’t have to accept the full Sheridan thesis of the causes and potential application of these phenomena in Australia to agree with him when he concludes “these turbulent currents threaten a kind of permanent crisis in governance across the democratic world.” Permanent or not, I think the general thesis is pretty right.
Mind you, it’s not a new sense of crisis. I suspect people have been foreshadowing the demise of democracy pretty much since it was invented. Turns out this is tricky – distributed power, a universal and fair franchise, a robust rule of law that subjects governors and governed alike to the same basic, open and accountable rules and accountability itself and the ability to negotiate trade-offs for tough choices for long term results. It’s a system whose persistence belies its fragility. And it’s a system with multiple points of potential failure, not the least being the values and habits of responsible and relatively open self-government on which it draws for its purpose and legitimacy.
In 1975, the Trilateral Commission (the US, Europe and Japan) wrote a report called, presciently enough, The Crisis of Democracy. The report, which itself harked back to earlier periods in the 1920s of similar “crisis of democracy” debate, is full of chapters with titles like “are European democracies becoming ungovernable?”, “the viability and governability of American democracy” and “consensus without purpose: the rise of anomic democracy.” (And in case you’re wondering, anomic is defined as “a state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values, as in the case of uprooted people.”
The report’s authors claim their work is fundamentally optimistic. Its underlying thesis is that “democracies can work provided their publics truly understand the nature of the democratic system, and particularly if they are sensitive to the subtle interrelationships between liberty and responsibility.” Contemporary leaders like Willy Brandt and Takeo Miki warned of “20 or 30 more years of democracy left in it” as the system risked sliding, inexorably, into disintegrating civil order and social discipline, the debility of leadership and the alienation of citizens.
So we’ve been here before.
There are three ideas that pervade this debate I think.
- First, in many respects (but not all), much of the way we currently “do” government and governance in the west at least, isn’t working any more. The way I have put it before is that on the stage, the actors are still saying their lines. but most of the audience have left the theatre. Another analogy – think of the scene at the end of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends pull back the curtain to reveal the “Wizard” as a humbug, nothing more than a middle aged man using a megaphone. We’ve all, more or less, glimpsed behind the curtain and don’t need to be fooled anymore. But too many “humbugs” insist on perpetrating the theatre, or the deception, depending on how you like to think of these things.
We are seeking answers to big questions about competence, trust and legitimacy in the business of governing– and their interaction in the pursuit of well-argued, sustained campaigns for long-term policy ambition and necessary change – and we are struggling to come up with convincing answers.
- Second, a precious competence to discern and prosecute a sense of public purpose about how we want to live the lives we lead in common, to engage in and treat the spaces where we decide how we want to get on together in some semblance of honesty, fairness and tolerance is eroding, or at least under severe threat. As Samuel Huntingdon and his colleagues reminded us in 1975, forging common purpose and shared values is a social muscle. We do this work – trading off for tough choices, being reasonably open and honest with each other, privileging an instinct to include and engage – together. Like other muscles, our capacity for public purpose presumably withers with disuse or even abuse.
- And third, there are some important ideas in the notion of “public”, including the importance of good government done well and an effective public sector, that sit somewhere at the heart of our ability live well and safely together.
That’s one of the reasons I am watching the election with more interest than usual.
The Labor Party especially in playing the “public” card.
The question is whether it is more than political marketing and short-term product differentiation fuelled by a back-to-the-future conception of a tax-and-spend bureaucratic centralism that its critics claim.
Or does it come armed with an ambition for some disciplined and creative rethinking about how we forge our sense of “public” in the life and work of our governing arrangements, including the need for some stringent redesign of some of the institutions and practices from which we have drawn in the past? And does it also come with commitments to dramatic reform that make the system more open and accountable, suitable especially in and a digital age addicted to speed, connectedness and transparency.
And in particular, is it a credible response to the arc of “insiderism” in government and politics – the rule of distant, disconnected and often deaf elites – to which all institutions bend in the end, and against whose excesses the increasingly intolerant and angry populism that Sheridan rightly decries is a legitimate complaint?