Po­lit­i­cal di­vides

The new world or­der

The West Australian - - INSIDE COVER -

It used to be so easy. When the econ­omy did well, the in­cum­bent party won; when it did badly, it was the op­po­si­tion’s turn, with vot­ers switch­ing their al­le­giance with the ups and downs of the cy­cle.

Fis­cal at­ti­tudes were equally straight­for­ward: richer, mid­dle-class and as­pi­ra­tional peo­ple voted for tax cuts, and those trapped in poverty or de­pen­dent on the state voted for spend­ing in­creases.

“It’s the econ­omy, stupid,” as the strate­gist James Carville put it in 1992, and in those days he was largely right. There were ex­cep­tions: the Falk­lands War helped Mrs Thatcher tri­umph in 1983, de­spite a tough eco­nomic tran­si­tion, and in the US the rise of the re­li­gious Right in the 1980s be­gan to re­shape par­ties. Yet Carville’s dic­tum re­mained the clos­est thing to the golden rule of demo­cratic pol­i­tics.

Fast-for­ward 25 years and the land­scape has changed be­yond recog­ni­tion al­most ev­ery­where. The US econ­omy is do­ing re­mark­ably well, and yet the Repub­li­cans lost the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. True, the kick­ing that Don­ald Trump re­ceived was pretty nor­mal for a midterm elec­tion, and he won some sen­a­tors. But there was a strik­ing dis­con­nect be­tween the share of the pub­lic say­ing that the econ­omy is do­ing well, and the large swing to the Democrats.

Cru­cially, the bet­ter-off and highly ed­u­cated moved even more markedly to the Left, and the poor to the Right. Sub­urbs with lots of younger grad­u­ates em­braced the Democrats, as did most non-white Amer­i­cans, whereas blue-col­lar work­ers, the re­li­gious and ru­ral dwellers voted Repub­li­can. The peo­ple most likely to ben­e­fit from Trump’s tax cuts of­ten voted against them, whereas those who may have gained from the Democrats’ predilec­tion for re­dis­tri­bu­tion backed Trump. What is go­ing on?

Here are what I be­lieve to be the five most im­por­tant rules gov­ern­ing the new pol­i­tics, not just in Amer­ica but also in Bri­tain and across Eu­rope.

First, the class-based, eco­nom­i­cally de­ter­min­is­tic world of yore is be­ing su­per­seded by the rise of “iden­tity pol­i­tics” and the emer­gence of new, cul­tural and value cleav­ages.

Ide­ol­ogy is back, but in a man­ner that cuts across the old Left and Right: mil­lions vote in a cer­tain way ei­ther be­cause of their own per­sonal char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as their gen­der, race, re­li­gion or oc­cu­pa­tion, or be­cause they be­lieve in par­tic­u­lar non-eco­nomic val­ues.

Such vot­ers are in­creas­ingly in­flu­enced by their at­ti­tude to na­tion states and in­ter­na­tional tech­noc­ra­cies, their opin­ions on im­mi­gra­tion and eth­nic change, their views on fam­ily struc­tures and gen­der, and on whether they like the way the world is chang­ing.

Pol­i­tics has be­come a form of self-po­si­tion­ing, a fash­ion state­ment rather than a means to an end, even an in­di­ca­tor of sta­tus akin to a lux­ury good, tur­bocharged by so­cial me­dia.

It also feeds into a need for be­long­ing in an in­choate uni­verse: we want to vote for “peo­ple like us” and against “peo­ple like them”. Trib­al­ism is back, as is class war; but the groups pit­ted against each other are now very dif­fer­ent. Wel­come to cul­tural war­fare in a dig­i­tal age.

In the UK, Brexit has be­come a sig­nif­i­cant di­vid­ing line, though both par­ties’ lack of clar­ity is blunt­ing a full re­align­ment. In the US, many rich bankers, most tech work­ers, men­tal health work­ers and taxi driv­ers voted Demo­crat; most sur­geons, den­tists, fos­sil fuel work­ers and truck driv­ers voted Repub­li­can.

In­come no longer mat­ters as much: it’s about sub­cul­tures. The UK is for­tu­nate that its cul­tural wars haven’t cen­tred on race: some mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing Hin­dus, now vote Tory. In the US, most non-white vot­ers vote Demo­crat.

Sec­ond, cam­paigns are now more about fir­ing up sym­pa­thetic groups and mak­ing sure that they vote, rather than try­ing to change minds. Dra­matic shifts do take place: there is wide­spread sup­port for gay mar­riage. But shifts in opin­ion more com­monly fol­low changes of iden­tity: for ex­am­ple, as peo­ple start to feel less “British” and more “English”, they be­come far more likely to vote Tory. In the US, mar­ried women with chil­dren vote Repub­li­can, while un­mar­ried women with no chil­dren vote Demo­crat.

Third, par­ties are po­lar­is­ing in ex­treme ways, and the cen­tre is van­ish­ing. No­body seems to care about wa­ver­ing vot­ers any more. It’s not just Trump’s Repub­li­cans, the Democrats are em­brac­ing openly so­cial­ist poli­cies for the first time in their his­tory and sup­port al­most-open borders.

Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, the 29-year-old elected in New York, sym­bol­ises this rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion: she is the US’ an­swer to Cor­bynism.

In Ger­many, the old or­der is im­plod­ing: the cen­tre-Right CDU and the cen­tre-Left SPD are in ter­mi­nal cri­sis, re­placed by the neo-com­mu­nist Linke, the hard-Left Greens and the anti-im­mi­gra­tion AfD.

Em­manuel Macron isn’t a real cen­trist, and in any case his pop­u­lar­ity in France is in freefall, with ex­trem­ists on the rise. Jeremy Cor­byn’s Labour Party is the most ex­treme Left-wing op­po­si­tion in British his­tory: the Tories are the odd ones out here, with lit­tle dis­cernible ide­ol­ogy apart from on Brexit, where they stand dis­as­trously di­vided.

Fourth, pas­sion is back. Voter turnout surged in the US midterms, with both sides des­per­ate to stop the other.

In the UK, the Blair-Cameron in­ter­reg­num, and the idea that all politi­cians are the same, is long since for­got­ten. Pol­i­tics mat­ters again, and some ob­servers are be­gin­ning to feel nos­tal­gia for the ap­a­thy of the post-Cold War, pre-fi­nan­cial cri­sis in­ter­lude.

Last but not least, both sides in­creas­ingly hate the other. What was once ri­valry has turned into loathing and op­po­nents no longer be­lieve in the other side’s le­git­i­macy.

Al­most all of the changes trig­gered by the rise of iden­tity pol­i­tics are bad for lib­eral democ­racy; but the rise of the pol­i­tics of per­sonal de­struc­tion, the be­lief that those with whom we dis­agree must be evil, is un­doubt­edly the worst. It goes hand-in-hand with a re­jec­tion of the main­stream me­dia and of the idea that poli­cies should be judged on the ba­sis of facts, not merely ide­ol­ogy.

Given all of this, what is the fu­ture for the Tories, es­pe­cially if they be­tray Brexit vot­ers? Do they re­ally be­lieve they will es­cape pun­ish­ment, that their pro-estab­lish­ment fudge, when it comes, will be enough to hold out against the forces of iden­tity pol­i­tics? In­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics is in a state of flux.

Pic­ture: AP

Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages

A Ger­man sup­porter of tougher im­mi­gra­tion laws.

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