Unhealthy Tribalism

The marriage equality survey has re-enforced the tribal type divides that now seem increasingly endemic in our socially defined political differences. Like most Western democratic nations, we are finding that the traditional views about voters as predictable blocs of left and right or class based voting groups are becoming increasingly less relevant. The growth of factions and fraction are displacing the comfortable labelling of party loyalists or simple categories. To add to the confusion, categories such as radical and conservative have also become less useful to define what people are thinking.

Terms like working class and middle class, which were assumed to relate to voting behaviours, became less predictable some decades ago when group labels like “Howard’s Battlers” appeared to cover lower income voters that had previously voted for Labor  However, the current complex divides have been illustrated recently by the unexpected victory of Trump against perceived elites, and the hostility clearly illustrated by Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump supporters as “deplorables”. This example shows that political divides appear to have become more nasty as the opponents define the other as hostile and contemptibles.

While these divides are global , the local examples have very local aspects. The appearance and early success of Pauline Hanson in the nineties, and her subsequent failures, ignited the debate about populism based on racism/super-patriotism. Hanson’s recent successful reappearance and expected increases in representation offer easy targets for both those in the centre, and the more radically inclined. Voters and politicians can focus on her presumed sins, party problems and faux pas to avoid looking at why their representative groups are losing ground to her and a range of independents and minor parties.

She offers an easy path for those determined to prove they are on the side of the angels, as her focus on policies that play into quite common prejudices make her an easy target. Her views on many issues, including anti-immigration, tirades against Muslims and frequent votes for Coalition policies make her low hanging fruit   for the left leaners. However, many of her other policies tend more towards narrowly defined support for some more traditional Labor, anti-globalisation views, including being against the privatisation of ‘essential services’ e.g. utilities. There are tacky and nasty policies but most are broad generalisations that could be seen as anti-business and foreign controls, while being pro the needs of battlers and those who hold traditional values. Her conservative views in many cases echo the views of those who feel, or may be affected by,   globalisation.

Hanson’s views on many issues, including marriage equality, would put her into the same political zones as the many practising religious voters, including some Muslims, who voted No to marriage equality and presumably hold other ‘old fashioned’ views, as would some Nationals.  What is interesting in the policy statements is their defining their role as addressing ‘the problems that Liberal-Labor-National-Greens created politically and continue to make. We listen and we care enough to speak for the voiceless and the powerless. http://www.onenation.com.au/principles  The hyphens show perceived connections.

The problem we are now facing is that many commentators and activists are doing a Hillary Clinton by negatively judging as stupid all those who are seen as supporters of Hanson and One Nation, rather than addressing their real issues. Why did so many people vote for her and similar candidates  seen as outsiders? This failure to recognise that the growth of these voters is a symptom of a wider malaise  i.e. the limited concerns of the major parties. Those who are publicly demonising Hanson voters and her candidates, may be encouraging more of the anger and feelings of marginalisation that also came out in some the No voters in the marriage equality poll.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating support for her, but as a sociologist and remembering  from my own history the fall of the Weimar Republic, I want to look at the causes of her popularity. Assuming that all who voted for Hanson, like those voting for Trump, are prejudiced and stupid is overly simplistic as it ignores the likelihood of multiple causes for rejection, particularly mainstream, parties. We need to recognise the ample evidence of growing mistrust and distrust of those in power and their systemic issues.  The most recent Essential poll, reported in The Guardian, offers some interesting related data.

The question, how much trust does the Australian public have in the Federal  government to do what is right for Australia showed the following: no trust at all of the current government,  with 21% overall but 42% by other voters.  Similarly, but more clearly related to systemicdistrust, was a later question on whether they were satisfied with the way democracy is working in Australia, where it was found that only 35% overall were satisfied and 32% dissatisfied, but ther voters  showed only 22% satisfied and a high 54% dissatisfied.

The article states’ And as the above table demonstrates, the desire for change is driving voters away from our major parties, to the Greens on the left and the gaggle of unaligned independents and personality based parties on the right, summoning hell’s bells* for the major parties.Peter Lewis https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/commentisfree/2017/nov/21/voters-think-the-turnbull-government-is-on-its-own-highway-to-hell?CMP=share_btn_tw

The above data demonstrates clearly that a third of Opposition voters were dissatisfied with the system but their views were not strong enough to attract many voters away from minor parties. These people show solid distrust and are looking for major changes for their votes. Both major parties are linked, in many eyes, as being both elitist and far too similar in many areas and arguing only at the edges.

We need to look at the other issues that may drive people to minor parties:. that may have been widely examined and found wanting. Ian McCauley indicated in an earlier article, that there is increasing evidence that the overarching policymaking of the last few decades have failed to deliver.  http://www.ianmcauley.com/academic/othpubs/brexittrump.pdfour politicians presented “globalization” and its supposed accompanying measures – “small government”, privatization, deregulation, contracting out, unbridled competition – as inevitable and unquestionably desirable developments…….We may recall the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats”. However, as he spells out, this failed to eventuate.

My earlier article on the prevalence of trust deficits, that are raging in most countries, including here,  exploredthe damage that is being done by perceived changes to voter/policy relations. I summed this up as the market model changing relationships so citizens moved from an entitlement to public support to  becoming customers of what were once Government public services. This undermined political trust as good customers, who obey the rules of homo economicus’ self-interest, use distrust to search for the best offer, but then fail to become loyal voters.

The above perspectives on government voter relationships is  affirmed by multiple examples of lost jobs, disappearing public ownership and utilities and reduced security of jobs and public services. The globalising aspects of the changes, as well as apparent growth of non-national forms of identity make the rise of various forms of nationalism quite logical. Add to the mix, the rise in user pay systems, privatisation of services, and insecurity about meeting basic personal and social needs, and then balance that against the idea that tax cuts will fix any concerns, and the loss of trust and anger become palpable. As I write this, the PM is promising tax cuts as a distraction from cutting a week’s sitting of the reps, and trying to increase votes in two by-elections. This  isn’t showing signs of exciting voters,. rather it is being perceived as a questionable  bribe.

Rather than addressing questions of increased well being and positive options, most governments and those involved in international finance hope that fear and financial bribes will appease voters. So it is not surprising that many voters choose to support disruptive parties, those seen as not being part of the establishment that have been responsible for messing up the last decades.

While the ALP, in some areas, is offering different policies to the Coalition, there are too many areas where they have been, and still are, singing from the same song book, if sometimes another page. In many social areas, such as welfare and refugees, they are almost identical. Both have sold off public assets and privatised services. The Coalition is losing voters because of its internal divides between hardline social conservatives and real liberals. The rise of a Conservative party will also distract voters.

Differences in economic policies are limited, as both are committed to the market model, despite its increasingly obvious flaws. Neither have offered clear visions of options for more equitable futures, so it is no wonder they are not seen as electable by the discontented. If this trend persists, votes for Hanson and other minority parties are likely to increase.

If we are to address the future of the nation with any grace and competence, we need to recognise that those following Hanson and others are mostly looking for serious alternatives. What more progressive people need to do is stop protesting and abusing the discontented, and put some effort into developing better options that may restore their faith in good, fair democracies. We need policies that offer better balances between the social and economic that can restore voter trust in their representatives.  A more civil society?