How do we explain the phenomenon of a Bernie Sanders, who almost certainly would have won the US presidency if he’d been the Democrat candidate running against Trump? How do we account for the astounding failure of, first, David Cameron and now Theresa May, to maintain the Conservative Party’s dominance of contemporary British politics? How is it that a political maverick like Jeremy Corbyn can drag a recalcitrant British Labour Party kicking and screaming to the brink of government in the UK? These questions point to the failure of old politics and the urgent need to imagine a new politics for progressing the West into the twenty-first century.
Old politics is the product of an entrenched political class most noteworthy for its intellectual mediocrity and ideological dogmatism. This lacklustre lot has been monopolizing all the systems of representative government in all the so-called “advanced economies” for many decades now. The men and women across the various dysfunctional parliaments in the West have mostly been recruited via party machines run by back-room apparatchiks and spin-doctors. Or they are serial opportunists manipulating electoral systems for their own cynical ends.
Principled politics and sound policies come a very distant last to the single-mindedness of the political class to get into parliament and stay there, greedily focused on the access to the outer limits of power where they are deluded into imagining they have influence. They are easily bought off by the generous entitlements with which they keep rewarding themselves, while mindlessly complying with the low-taxing, free marketeering demands of the commanders of a faltering global capitalism – big bank and multinational CEOs, media moguls, war mongers, and mining magnates.
This is old politics. Its negative consequences are blindingly obvious. Opinion polls show a large majority of voters have come to view our parliaments as alien and dispiriting bull pits. Politicians are now ranked among the most contemptible members of society. The same polls indicate that the ideals of democracy are now regarded with scepticism, even cynicism, especially among younger voters. There is a huge anger out there in voter land but the fools in parliaments across the world will not deign to see it.
Witness Theresa May’s opportunistic lunge for a huge majority in the House of Commons by bringing on an unnecessary early election – and in the process breaking a solemn promise to voters that she would not call them out early. Note the breathtaking arrogance of this move. She who must be obeyed by the voters who must give her the majority she was demanding from them.
Well, they didn’t obey. Instead they tossed out a host of wittering Tories and shunned all the UKIP crazies. (Beware Pauline!) In Scotland they voted down a gaggle of SNP MPs because of Nicola Sturgeon’s unprincipled and premature threat to revisit an independence referendum. London swung heavily against the Conservatives, wreaking vengeance on many of those who had advocated a Leave vote in the Brexit referendum. And working class Tories in the Midlands and the North are beginning to wake up to the fact that Conservative governments long ago lost the right to claim their hitherto craven loyalty.
However the most significant thing about May’s clumsy election ploy was the increased turn-out of younger voters. This was the single most remarkable thing about the whole election result. 18 to 35 year olds overwhelmingly voted, not for Labour but for Jeremy Corbyn. Why?
Like Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn is anything but a creature of old politics. Both of these interesting men despise the culture of counterfeit elitism in which the established political class wallows like pigs in mud. They espouse policies that appeal to the nascent idealism of the young: public investment in education, health, public transport, clean energy, social justice, progressive taxation, nationalizing strategic sectors of the economy, principled state regulation of the flagrant rent-seeking that has become the dominant feature of late-modern capitalism.
Sanders and Corbyn instinctively understand that old politics is a form of political death for those who are not its immediate beneficiaries – and that means most of us. It has run its course. They are alert to the fact that a new politics is needed if the West’s so-called democracies are going to survive and become part of a cosmopolitan and cooperative global community.
New politics will require political leaders who can bring the untamed beast of globalization under control. It will need to harness the miracles of modern technology to guarantee the wellbeing of everyone – not (to borrow Corbyn’s apposite slogan) “the few.”
Countering the doom saying and seductive pessimism that presently befogs so much progressive thinking, Wilkinson and Pickett have shown that we are capable of constructing “a more equal society in which people are less divided by status and hierarchy; a society in which we regain a sense of community, in which we overcome the threat of global warming, in which we own and control our work democratically as part of a community of colleagues, and share in the benefits of a growing non-monetized sector of the economy” (The Spirit Level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger).
This is where wise old fellows like Sanders and Corbyn – haltingly, courageously, honestly, innocently, with integrity, and at enormous personal cost – would have us go. This is what the new politics will look like. And as the latest electoral thunderclap in the UK has shown, it is coming, whether the existing political class is ready or not.
Dr Allan Patience is a principal fellow in political science in the University of Melbourne.