The sound and the fury signifying nothing: some observations on the new politics

By Nicholas Gruen

February 3, 2021

A sample of the potential challenges that lie ahead for Australian governments and policy makers in the light of IPCC 6.
A sample of the potential challenges that lie ahead for Australian governments and policy makers in the light of IPCC 6. (Leonid Andronov/Adobe)

Electoral politics has been transformed into non-stop campaigning. In the past few years the 24/7 campaigning has started to be done not so much in poetry as in fantasy, writes Nicholas Gruen.

Back in the day, (which is to say for most of the 20th century until things began changing in the 1980s), each of the major political parties had a few percentage points of the population as members. In addition to the intrinsic rewards of being part of one’s country’s social and political fabric, the ultimate point of membership was to influence your party’s political platform and, through that, to influence government policy.

Correspondingly, mass movements such as the civil rights movement would pare back their platforms to the specific issue they wished to highlight. It took Martin Luther King most of the 1960s to come out against America’s involvement in Vietnam because widening his movement’s platform was seen as compromising the size of the civil rights coalition.

Since then, politics has famously been hollowed out. The membership of mainstream political parties has plummeted, with those left tending to be careerists, the stooges they attract to stack branches, and occasional naïve blow-ins. Political parties still go through some of the motions of members determining policy, but senior party professionals understand themselves as a fighting force that will need to improvise its way through the news cycles through to the next election, and that makes member determined policy a potential liability.

And something similar has occurred in mass movements. Their campaigning is increasingly focused on people’s expressive side. Policies are increasingly seen through that lens. Thus, Black Lives Matter wants to defund the police — or says it does. This is a ridiculous slogan, but one treated with great toleration by our media and commentators. Brexit might mean Brexit, but ‘defund’ doesn’t really mean defund. It means … well something else – reallocating funds to community building and all that stuff. Likewise, the BLM platform plans the overthrowing of capitalism and all the rest of it. And it turns out that next-to-none of the coverage that BLM gets is about its policies. So its policies can be aimed at expression rather than the outcomes that those policies might produce.

I began writing a post on this back in the days of France’s Yellow Vests. They knew they were pissed off, and, for all I know they were right to be pissed off. They knew they didn’t like certain taxes which they felt targeted them. But what did they like? What policy changes were they after? That was less clear.

Now we have the apotheosis of this in the American Kayfabe insurrection, where a motley crew of Trump supporters turned up without a platform to take back ‘their house’. Looking at the videos, there was one thing more common than MAGA caps and flags for Trump and the US. Almost no step was taken by anyone without their smartphones pointed in outstretched arms to catch every last act of the mob and the unfolding selfie within it.

Here’s the description of the riot in a recent ProPublica piece, which used the thousands of videos posted to Parler before it went down.

Inside the Capitol, in a stately, high-ceilinged office suite, marauders mill around, grabbing things off the desks, knocking things over. “Don’t break stuff!” a young woman hollers at them. “Stop! That’s not why we’re here.”

But why are they there? The more videos one watches, the more overwhelmed one is by the variety of motivations and profiles. Seen one way, this is one of the most homogenous large crowds one could ever find in America 2021, so heavily white is it. Seen another way, it is a hodgepodge, a cross-section of America that includes hardcore white supremacists and people you might run into at a mall or a country club.

It is mostly men, but there are also many women. There are young women who look like they could have come straight from a college campus, in puffy jackets and pompom hats. One, watching the invaders scale the lower Capitol walls on the west side, tells her friends: “They are climbing the walls! I mean, I wish I could, but I didn’t bring the shoes for it.”

There are many middle-aged and older women, too. Some keep warm by wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes …. Others are draped in wool scarves and nice blankets, presenting a far more conventional and even upper-class vibe than the viral images of young men costumed with animal horns and pelts. Some of these women even enter the building.

There are so many older men. Some of them are walking with canes or in wheelchairs or scooters. And some of them are at the front lines. … There are men, older and younger, who slide gleefully into war-reenactor mode, tossing off battle lingo as if they are at Antietam or the Ardennes. … There are so many flags — mostly American, but also Confederate, Gadsden, Canadian, Israeli, Romanian. …

There are many … snatches of fellowship in the videos: strangers advising each other on how to get the pepper spray out of their eyes, or sharing news updates from the Electoral College proceedings inside the Senate, before the senators fled to safety. Watching these moments of cooperation and social warmth, the same thought crossed my mind as did in watching last year’s mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd: that these events were grounded in political anger but intensified by the social dislocation of a pandemic and its associated lockdowns, which had left so many hungering for human contact and stimulation more than they themselves probably even realized.

This disastrous situation provides us with yet another area in which the other way to represent the people – via sortition, or selection by lot rather than election – comes into its own. Elections as currently practiced prise people apart as politicians demonise each other and win elections by making promises they can’t keep.

This saves voters the burden of considering difficult trade-offs. They just pick a side and barrack and politics becomes increasingly like a sport. As this process has become optimised over the decades, politics has become fast-foodified. And it’s getting worse and worse. Between 1968 and 1988, the length of presidential sound bites on US network news went from 43 to 9 seconds. Now, turbocharged by social media, electoral politics is increasingly dominated by fantastic, post-truth claims. It’s not as bad here as it’s become in the US, but I still remember how Labor’s carbon tax was going to make a roast cost more than $100.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s hard to believe from what we’ve made of electoral politics, but human beings have a natural capacity to see each others’ point of view and to compromise. In fact, it was the only way we survived on the African savannah. By evolving into the ape that solves problems in groups.

Citizens’ assemblies could provide a counterweight to elections that plays to those inherent strengths. In a citizens’ assembly, people get the time to think and deliberate with their peers about the social trade-offs they want to make.

Former New York governor Mario Cuomo once said that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Since then, electoral politics has been transformed into non-stop campaigning. In the past few years the 24/7 campaigning has started to be done not so much in poetry as in fantasy.

Enough already.


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