Coming up Trumps


On occasion, this blog wanders from its raison d’être to discuss something other than the Middle East. This is one of those posts (though I’ll see if I can sneak the Middle East somewhere in here…)

Over the last few months, I have been predicting in conversation with friends and colleagues that Trump will win the US election on Tuesday. I’ll say at the outset that I hope I’m wrong. I think Clinton is the better choice. But I thought I’d put my thoughts on the record. If I prove to be wrong, good! If I prove correct, then, well, at least it’s here, on the record, before Tuesday’s vote.

The short answer as to why I think Trump will win is to point to the Brexit vote earlier this year. There, the experts confidently predicted that the no vote would prevail. The experts, the academics, the politicians, the establishment, and the world financial system, gravely warned British voters against voting no, predicting all manner of bad things, from societal schisms to economic disasters, should the no vote prevail. But it did. And nothing too much bad happened.

In so many places around the world (though particularly in the West), the people are rejecting the establishment. In recent weeks, the rejection of the establishment has been an increasing subject of commentary (Foreign Affairs has even dedicated the entire November/December 2016 edition to the subject). Populism is back, and people like Trump are very cleverly riding the wave. That, in essence, is why I think Trump will win. (There’s more to it than that, of course. It is human nature to be stubborn. All those well-meaning people that told the British that they’d be mad to vote no reinforced, in my mind, the British decision to vote no. The same thing is happening in the US. People all over the world and in the US, the intelligentsia, the celebrities, the this, the that – everyone is describing anyone who wants to vote Trump an idiot. All that’s going to do is convince a whole bunch of people to vote Trump in defiance.)

But what’s more interesting than the fact I think Trump is going to win (as a factor of the growing popularity of populism in the world) is why populism is so popular. 

It is, in large part, a function of what might be called the ‘Internetisation’ of our world. The choice, ease and sheer volume of information constantly competing for our attention—on the Internet, on the TV, on our phones—has had a major impact on our political culture. Not only do we have increasingly short attention spans, we decreasingly read long articles. Because there is so much available information, the time we have to absorb it is much more limited than it was in the past. We are therefore less willing to engage with material that doesn’t capture our attention in the first few seconds. Hence the power and popularity of Facebook videos of cute animals, and people doing dumb or inspiring things—they capture our attention in ways that words on a page never will. The irony of having more information is that our coping mechanism is not to become more efficient but to dumb ourselves down. 
More importantly, the Internetisation of our world gives us an increasing ability to select the sources of our information (think of how many choices our parents and grandparents had). And because human nature is what it is, we purposefully, if unconsciously, decrease our exposure to arguments that challenge our views. 

Self-selecting our news sources comes with political ramifications; because our views are constantly re-affirmed, they incrementally shift further and further away from the centre. Whether we are naturally inclined to move left or right, the end result is the increasing rejection of the mainstream and the establishment, and the increasing shrillness of commentary on both sides of the political divide.  

We have been moving away from political consensus since the 1960s, but the tsunami of technology and information over the past two decades has exponentially accelerated that movement. For centuries, the plebs have been happy to be ruled, provided the establishment did so with integrity or results. (To a large extent, the Arab Spring happened because of the failure of the establishment to rule with integrity or results.) But these days we are less willing to tolerate the absence of these qualities. A misdemeanour that a decade ago could be swept under the carpet today marks, if not the end of a career (O’Farrell), then a significant backward step (Sinodinos, Dastyari).  

To this we can add the effects of the global financial crisis. The problem is more than simply saying the rich are getting rich and the poor more disgruntled. If it was all just about rich and poor, we would expect to see a general shift to the left. But the establishment is being abandoned in both directions.  The problem is that the establishment got us into this problem, and doesn’t seem to know how to get us out of the financial doldrums. The world lacks a credible successor to the two great economic theories that ruled the globe post-WWII. The first was the period until the 1970s, governed by protectionist or highly-regulated economics that spiralled in the 1970s because they failed to allow for innovation and became too constrictive (The great oil shocks in the 1970s had the same effect as the global financial crisis). The second, until 2008, was market theory, which failed because economies were built on endless supplies of credit and the outsourcing of jobs to lower paid countries. At a certain point neither were able to sustain the creation of greater increases in prosperity for greater numbers of people. 

As of yet there’s no widely accepted economic theory to replace these two, which provides political space for the anti-establishment. ‘The establishment got us into this mess, and they don’t have the solution to get us out.’ Anti-establishment types with dangerous economic solutions start to look acceptable. 

The mainstream parties haven’t helped the situation—or themselves. The Liberals primarily defend businesses. Fuelled by the idea that the rising tide lifts all boats, the Libs have been focused on creating space for big business to make big money. But the tide has been out for some time. The average, aspirational Australian—Howard’s Battlers—decreasingly sees the Libs as representing their interests. 

The workers’ party has been more obtuse. Labor’s internal tension between its progressive and working class wings isn’t new, but as its leadership increasingly bangs on about marriage equality, environmental catastrophe and refugees (chasing the ever-moving-left progressive vote), they decreasingly speak for the Battlers. This is not to say that Australia’s working class are anti-gay, climate change-sceptics or anti-refugee. They aren’t, but neither are these issues their priority. Their priority is job security and affordable housing for themselves and their children. 

Both parties pay lip service to these ideas, of course. But if you look at their respective efforts in Parliament and elsewhere, it becomes clear that the priorities for most of the Australian public are not being addressed by those who claim to represent them. Ironically, as the establishment parties have chased votes right and left, they decreasingly represent the centre’s values, which allows for more rejection of the establishment, a self-perpetuating cycle. 

This is not a peculiarly Australian event. The same has happened in most Western countries.

Into the political vacuum has stepped the protest parties, known in Australia as the ‘cross benchers’. Each protest party speaks to the core concern of a handful of people. And since so many people have drifted from the mainstream, there are enough single-issue voters to elect a menagerie of parties.  

As everyone in the establishment knows, these parties are all heart and no consequence, which is easy when you’re in opposition. But from the Greens to One Nation, if they ever took power, these protest parties would drive our country into the ground. Unfortunately until our mainstream parties win back the hearts and minds of ordinary Australians, these protest parties will continue growing in influence. 

Unfortunately, the response by the establishment parties to the Internetisation of our culture is also one of populism. A symptom of our cultural drift from the political mainstream is absolute rejection of those with which we disagree. Eager to placate the drifting faithful, recent opposition policy in this country—instituted by Abbott and continued by Shorten—has been to block the passage of legislation for the sake of blocking. It’s a sure (or almost sure, Mr Shorten!) way to quickly bring down a government, but in doing so it prevents government stability. And stable government, be it of the left or right, is what is good for this country, even if the anti-establishment types don’t realise it. (And the childish, obstructionist tactics increase mainstream disgruntlement with the establishment—another self-perpetuating cycle.) 

(To consider again American politics, the reason that Clinton is a much better candidate that Trump is because she personifies the establishment. And even if she barely inspires, the fact is the establishment run the country. She will provide stable government.)

An additional facet of having so much information available to us, alongside the rejection of the establishment and a move away from the centre is the willingness and ability to uncover the misdemeanours of our political elite. We’ve always suspected, here in Australia, that our political elite take too much advantage of their ‘entitlements’. The difference between then and now, is that now we know that they take money from Chinese business interests, and now we know they have a Gold Coast holiday on the pretext of meeting someone up there, whereas before we only suspected. The public is more willing than ever to be annoyed at the establishment, and is more able than ever to find the cause of such annoyance.

The problem is, this situation can’t readily be fixed. How do we get the public to once again accept the establishment, given it was the technology-driven surplus of information that drove this rejection in the first place? Conversely, a party leader that refuses to drift from the political centre will be rejected by their party faithful even if they stay faithful to the aspirations of middle Australia.  

The shrillness of political debate has amplified the increased readiness to reject without compromise ideas that do not conform to our own. Is there some way to convince people to listen to and reason with ideas that aren’t their own? Is there some way to convince our politicians to be more receptive and more respecting of the other side? We could ask for ‘leadership’, but in this Internet-driven 24/7 news cycle, leaders aren’t electable anymore.

It’s sad, it’s annoying, and it’s probably going to get worse. 

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