Oh, how time flies in the wake of political trauma.
Nine years ago this month, Lehmann Brothers – an unsecure and risk-loving investment bank – collapsed. And in its wake, so did the global financial system. As economic stability crumbled in all corners of the world, a new breed of political consciousness rose. The 99% Movement – a protest group that took over major cities in the wake of financial collapse to demonstrate against rife inequality – sowed the seeds for a new wave of activism that went beyond traditional protests. We began to pose higher-level questions about corporate accountability, policy failure, economic integration and globalisation.
I need not explain how injustice and grievance can be aired quicker, how news can be published faster (with implications for its credibility another matter in itself), or how information can be dissipated at lightning speed in this day in age. Add three parts social media echo chambers, one part inaptitude to debate, and remove any semblance of an ability to learn from past mistakes, and you have yourself the highest rate of political polarisation across Western democracies in modern history.
It’s not that there is any problem with this; polar-opposite political forces are largely the platform on which two-party democratic systems are meant to operate. What is concerning is that the effective splintering of the traditional two-party structure and the rise of ‘political reactionism’ has led to a new breed of politics that Brussels, Washington and Westminister did little to foresee: the fringe minor party.
In Europe, far-right parties that used to pop up akin to a game of a whack-a-mole now maintain genuine political clout. In Australia, increasingly established far-right (see: One Nation, et al) and far-left parties wield an underestimated amount of covert power in the Senate. In the US, Trump effectively ran a minor party, anti-establishment campaign off the back of Republican ticket resources because of the vacuum left in absence of a viable establishment candidate. Complacency can be a dangerous game.
One needs to look no further than the subtext of Mark Twain’s enduring relevance to sum up the state of fringe party traction in 2017: “History does not repeat itself; it rhymes.”
It’s not like we’ve never seen a minor party before. In many ways, Western democracy has a rich history of minor parties becoming quite successful, legitimate, political forces. A lot of Nordic countries depend on minor parties to form governments, and there’s been a number of reforms in electoral systems that give effect to the multi-party system, such as in Germany and New Zealand. What is different about the minor party model in 2017 is that the parties are fringe players, unidentifiable on a traditional political plane of left and right. In fact, you’d probably need a 3D printer and a Schmidt-like knowledge of physics to know where to place Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party on a political quadrant. A mutual advocation for banning the Burqa and lifting the aged pension age to 70 isn’t exactly linear.
This model of gaining traction on the back of patchwork, populist, and premature policy promises is problematic for four reasons.
The first is that the legitimatisation of fringe parties means that we are giving licence to establishment parties to institutionalise negotiations with radical parties as part of the policy-making processes. In a bicameral system, the natural resting place of an elected minor party is on the cross-bench. And this means that the governing party has to bow to their interests in order to pass legislation. In these terse times where political margins are thin, pandering to the cross-bench is part of the routine. Add to that a party elected on the platform of special interests or convoluted and manipulatable preference whispering, and legislation comes out of Parliament as if it went down the Daley Road rumour mill. Democracy schmocracy.
The second is that the crumbling of traditional right and left party lines have bought to the fore certain issues but have seemingly abandoned others. One searing example obvious to me is that minor parties in Australia seem to be placing women’s issues quite low down on their political agendas in light of the opportunity to make a name for themselves on back of short-term issues. Major parties have the means and resources to delegate certain initiatives amongst the party, allowing a party with significant institutional leverage to build momentum on progressive policies. Minor parties, especially those with a ‘disrupter’ agenda, do not, and need not, hold the same view when there are political points to be scored in the immediate term.
The third is that institutional memory in politics dissipates in cycles. Only last month, Germany elected a number of politicians from the Alternative for Deutschland party, who ran on a strong nationalistic, anti-immigration platform, vowing to protect its borders. Similarly, the Golden Dawn party, who vow on take on the “rotten establishment” in rallying against liberal migration policies, is now Greece’s third largest and fastest growing political party – with an eye to international expansion.
Two generations on from Europe’s tumultuous modern history, the horrors of war and political instability fade. One needs to look no further than the subtext of Mark Twain’s enduring relevance to sum up the state of fringe party traction in 2017: “History does not repeat itself; it rhymes.” Far right, anti-establishment parties hold great appeal in the wake of mass unemployment and financial strife, ripening the vine for minor parties to pick from, riding on populist sentiment in order agitate at the edges without the responsibility of actually governing.
The fourth is that no matter what happens at the next US presidential election, it’s safe to say we haven’t seen the end of the ‘celebrity candidate’. To capture the masses, politicians need a platform – and the louder the better. No one is going to retweet a post about a politician’s sensible approach to energy policy; the public is much more interested in a rumoured love child and winter weight gain. The old ‘politics is just Hollywood for ugly people’ has seemingly cannibalised itself – with consequences in the highest of political offices. To some, a minor party platform is simply just another stage.
The major parties must now seriously look at their bases – strategising on how to unify long-term stability with short-term agility. Minor parties can be effective in holding the major parties to account, but complacency and notoriety built around the Teflon role of the agitator is a not sustainable recipe for a healthy democracy.