The new question at the heart of our political divide

1968 was one of them, and so was 1989. 2001 is seared into the memory, and now 2016 will join them. What made each of these years so powerful was not just that they were filled with dramatic events, but that those events upended our existing assumptions about the way the world worked.

It is easy to be an expert in hindsight, but each of those years mark the time when the tensions that had thus far been subterranean finally broke through the surface. Each of these dramatic events were not contrary to the narrative that came before, but were a graphic manifestation of it.

For 1968 it was the swirl of racial tension, military adventurism and state repression that motivated people to hit the streets. In 1989 the gradual crumbling of life behind the Iron Curtain became impossible to mask in country after country. Twelve years later the seething resentment in much of the Middle East at American supremacy manifested itself unambiguously in New York. And throughout this year the growing frustration of blue collar workers afraid for their future has delivered shocks in ballots across the Anglophone world.

Brexit in the UK, Trump in the US and Hanson and Xenophon in Australia serve as powerful demonstrations of an underlying tension, and it is that tension that will shape our politics and societies for years to come.

If it wasn’t already struggling as a useful organising principle, the distinction between Left and Right is now almost redundant. The fact that the shocks have been driven by candidates notionally from the Right demonstrate how redundant this traditional political divide has become.

In the 1990s it was the Left that fought so strongly against globalisation, protesting at meetings of the World Economic Forum, World Trade Organisation and any other international grouping that had the hide to gather in a major city. The Left had latched on to the idea that globalisation would create winners and losers, and desperately championed the cause of the latter. A decade later that concern again showed itself in the form of the "We are the 99%" protests in cities across the United States. 

But it was the Right – in the forms of Trump, UKIP and Hanson – that were able to successfully harness those suspicions of globalisation and use them for political advantage.

The fact that the notional Left and notional Right share a common objective in curbing globalisation shows why this year will cast a long historical shadow: the issue that defines political identity has changed.

In the Anglophone democracies dominated by two parties, affiliation has previously been built around a person’s (perceived) relationship to the economy; a social democratic party being the party of labour and a liberal democratic party being one of capital. Social agendas and questions of ethics were then grafted on to those core identities, leading to the party of labour embracing progressive positions and the party of capital embracing more conservative ones. The fit was often an awkward one but so long as the relationship to the economy was the defining question other matters were secondary.

There were plenty of attempts to breach the divide, some more successful than others. Ronald Reagan successfully courted many Democrats while Howard’s Battlers kept the Liberals in power for more than a decade. Tony Blair in the UK and Kevin Rudd in Australia rose to power in demonstrating that they were no threat to capital even as they championed the cause of labour. But in each of these cases the candidates were consciously reaching across the divide to woo voters away from the party considered their natural home by virtue of their relationship to the economy.

What we’re seeing now is different. This year the parties of the Right haven’t reached across the divide the woo working class voters away from their Democratic/Labour/Labor affiliations, but have instead posed a different question, one in which the answer groups them together.

The question I suspect will shape politics for years to come is “Do you identify primarily as a citizen of your nation or a citizen of the world?” The answer to this question cuts through the middle of established parties in a way that will fundamentally reshape political allegiances. People who stood side by side on social and economic matters will now find themselves split, while previous ideological enemies may now find themselves surprising soulmates. For political parties hoping to continue business as usual, the civil war that awaits will be painful.

It is through asking this question that the ascendant political forces this year have changed the game.
In Britain the forces for Brexit – primarily the UK Independence Party and parts of the Tory establishment – stoked fears about the free flow of refugees and the undermining of British sovereignty by a European elite. The result? The Remain vote attracted 60 per cent support in wealthy London, but fell as low as 41 per cent in the manufacturing-heavy Midlands.

In the United States Donald Trump positioned himself from the cap down – he wanted to Make America Great Again. This meant opposing the inflow of migrants, rejecting free trade agreements and abdicating a global leadership role on foreign policy. The result? Trump beat Hillary Clinton among voters without a college degree, Catholic voters and suburban voters, and ran close among voters earning under $50,000, all generally strong Democratic demographics.

In the Australian context this shift from an economic affiliation to a citizenship affiliation will upend previous assumptions.

The Labor Party is the traditional home to manufacturing and services industry workers, many of whom see migration as a threat to rising wages and view international competition as a race to the bottom. But it is also home to inner-city cosmopolitans who work in knowledge industries, and support the easy movement of people across borders and the breadth of consumer culture made available to them through the fall of trade barriers.

The Liberal and National parties have traditionally been the political home of small business operators, many of whom have a strong sense of national identity and fear being undercut by imports, as well as social conservatives who are suspicious of foreign cultural influences. But it is also home to corporate managers, who see great opportunities for growth through liberalised international trade and have embraced global value chains, in which goods are sourced from all parts of the world.

The Greens is the growing party of choice for creative workers who seek out global opportunities for work, leisure and consumption, but it is also the home of many down-to-earth localists who value a strong sense of community and yearn for high-quality human interactions.

Clichés they are, but they capture typical demographics. Pose the question about whether they primarily identify as citizens of Australia or citizens of the world, and the divide is sharp. I’ve had a go at charting the old and new paradigms:

On Team Nation State we find low- and medium-skill workers who feel threatened by global trade, as well as many people from outer suburban and regional areas who feel that they miss out on international opportunities. We also get suburban voters who feel threatened by an influx of migration, small business operators suspicious of multinational companies and community-oriented people who fear technology intruding on neighbourly bonds.

Then on Team Global we find knowledge workers who interact seamlessly with colleagues around the world as well as young people weaned on global culture and consumerism. Joining them are environmentalists who perceive global solutions as essential to resolving global problems, and business operators who seek to minimise trade barriers so they can source and sell their wares in a global marketplace.

On issue after issue – from trade, to migration, to climate change and defence – the nation state/global divide seems certain to manifest itself. It will therefore be increasingly difficult for a party to offer a coherent and internally-consistent platform unless it is willing to embrace one approach or the other.

In the fortnight since the Trump result there has been some early positioning by political leaders on this issue. Bill Shorten has moved Labor towards a nation-state orientation through seeking to crack down on skilled migration and cooling Australia’s defence ties to the United States, while Malcolm Turnbull has pushed the Coalition towards a globalised orientation by standing firm on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But it could just as easily go the other way, and may well do so in the months and years ahead.

It will be fascinating to watch how the established political parties deal with the new paradigm. Anyone who continues with the same old positions based on the same old assumptions will be left for dead. And when historians look back at this tectonic shift, they’ll be looking closely at the events of 2016


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