Pol­i­tics no longer de­fined by left and right

Weekend Herald - - Viewpoints -

The new great di­vide ap­pears to lie be­tween the ‘rooted’ and the ‘mo­bile’, writes Me­gan McAr­dle

Ours is an un­easy age. So­cial mores are chang­ing so fast that peo­ple in their early 30s have started mut­ter­ing about “kids these days”. For­merly safe cor­ners of the econ­omy are be­ing swept bare, so that even peo­ple with good, steady jobs are anx­ious about how long they’ll keep them. In na­tion af­ter na­tion, pol­i­tics are in tur­moil.

The po­lit­i­cal up­heaval is gen­er­ally chalked up to those other changes. But they may all be symp­toms of one mega-change: the dra­matic al­ter­ation in com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy. The in­ter­net revo­lu­tion has tur­bocharged for­merly leisurely pro­cesses of eco­nomic and so­cial change, while al­low­ing in­sur­gent po­lit­i­cal move­ments to by­pass the gate­keep­ers of the old sys­tem.

There’s no telling how long it will take for the sys­tem to work it­self back to some sort of equi­lib­rium, or what the new nor­mal will look like. But the broad out­lines of an in­terim pol­i­tics are start­ing to emerge.

Start with where things stand now: Through­out the de­vel­oped world, left-wing par­ties are strug­gling as their old work­ing-class voters de­fect, not to other left-wing par­ties, but to right-wing up­starts that are less eco­nom­i­cally con­ser­va­tive than the es­tab­lish­ment right yet far more con­ser­va­tive on ques­tions of ter­ri­to­rial and cultural in­tegrity.

The left has made up some of those losses with in­creas­ingly nu­mer­ous (or at least group-iden­ti­fied) eth­nic and sex­ual mi­nori­ties, and ed­u­cated cen­tre-right voters dis­gusted by the new pop­ulism. That is a clue to where pol­i­tics is head­ing: away from the

20th-cen­tury ori­en­ta­tion around eco­nomic class and to­ward a 21stcen­tury fo­cus on iden­tity.

Just as the 15th-cen­tury in­ven­tion of the print­ing press re­ori­ented Euro­pean pol­i­tics to­ward re­li­gion in a way pre­vi­ously unimag­in­able, the in­ter­net seems to have smashed not merely the old in­sti­tu­tions but the very idea — in­her­ited from Karl Marx — that eco­nomic in­ter­ests were the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of pol­i­tics. In its place, we may get the Hun­dred Years’ Cul­ture War.

This is, of course, a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. Iden­tity pol­i­tics has been an im­por­tant strand of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics for as long as there has been an Amer­ica to have pol­i­tics, much as it has been else­where. But dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, dis­cus­sion about

A pol­i­tics of mo­bil­ity . . . is go­ing to tap into deep-seated tribal in­stincts.

iden­tity tended to fo­cus on ac­cess to eco­nomic re­sources — schools, so­cial pro­grammes and dis­crim­i­na­tion in hir­ing. Now, eco­nomic poli­cies are of­ten ex­plic­itly framed in terms of their ben­e­fits to this or that iden­tity group. Yet, po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary is too of­ten wed­ded to the old frame, try­ing to de­tect some un­der­ly­ing eco­nomic process at work. Thus, in the de­bate about is­sues such as im­mi­gra­tion, we hear about the “eco­nomic im­mis­er­a­tion” of the white work­ing class.

Why not just lis­ten to what the politi­cians and their voters are say­ing? The record turnout of Amer­i­can voters in Novem­ber’s midterm elec­tions can’t be ex­plained by re­course to any eco­nomic in­di­ca­tor. But the elec­tion can eas­ily be ex­plained as a Marx­ist class con­flict — only it oc­curred be­tween classes no longer or­gan­ised around their place in the in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion sys­tem.

In­stead, the di­vid­ing line ap­pears to lie be­tween the “rooted” and the “mo­bile”. On one side, mi­grants, and in some cases lo­cal eth­nic mi­nori­ties, ally with an ed­u­cated pro­fes­sional elite that is, thanks to the in­ter­net, look­ing in­creas­ingly like a sin­gle transna­tional com­mu­nity — with its own cultural val­ues and broad class in­ter­est. For them, un­der­stand­ably, cultural open­ness is the para­mount value, ex­cept, of course, open­ness to val­ues and ideas that might con­strain mo­bil­ity or cultural change.

On the other side are peo­ple whose per­sonal lives and for­tunes are rooted in a par­tic­u­lar com­mu­nity and its sin­gu­lar way of life: the eth­nic­ma­jor­ity ru­ral and in­dus­trial work­ers, the or­tho­dox reli­gious mi­nori­ties. For them, un­der­stand­ably, change and open­ness aren’t happy words, be­cause those qual­i­ties will of­ten erode their most im­por­tant as­set.

Ex­plor­ing the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of a po­lit­i­cal re­align­ment around mo­bil­ity rather than eco­nomics would re­quire more than the space of one col­umn. But here are a cou­ple of ob­ser­va­tions:

A pol­i­tics of mo­bil­ity is likely to be in many ways more in­tractable than a pol­i­tics of eco­nomics, be­cause it is go­ing to tap into deep-seated tribal in­stincts in a way that, say, na­tional health­care does not. And while nearly ev­ery­thing else seems to have glob­alised, pol­i­tics have re­mained largely or­gan­ised around par­tic­u­lar places, so when it comes to elec­tions, the rooted will have an edge over the mo­bile. Even where they don’t have a nu­mer­i­cal ma­jor­ity, the rooted will be able to make the mo­bile un­easy for years ahead.

John Roughan’s col­umn re­turns on ●

Jan­uary 26.

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