Drift to the extremes has ended politics as we once knew it” was the headline in The Age on April 3, 2018, presenting data from the Australian Election Study (AES) that reveals both politicians and the populace have polarised in their perspectives on matters political. Between 1996 and 2016, the percentage of voters describing themselves as “centrists” dropped from 53.6 per cent to 41.6 per cent, with increases in those left aligning-19.5 per cent to 31.4 per cent and those right-26.9 per cent to 27 per cent. Interestingly, the latter increase is marginal compared to that of the left. The substantial decrease among centrists is depressingly disappointing. Furthermore, according to the study, one in three politicians, or 37 per cent, rated themselves as “moderate”-centre-left Liberal or centre-right Labor in 1996. In 2016, this changed dramatically to only one in 10 politicians. The exigence of this extremism as surveyed by the ANU’s School of Politics and International Relations for the AES is perceived as “one of the causes of Australia’s broken politics”, The Age writers postulate.

As a young woman, I was oft attracted to passionate people, believing them intensely committed to their beliefs with a strident strength that was undiminished despite discord and disapproval. Whether they were politically left or right was usually irrelevant as my more centrist stance was stimulated and challenged by arguing with their more extreme views. Particularly, my personal perspective was often as intransigent and intractable as theirs, but the ensuing conflicts only heightened our discussions which I mostly enjoyed. The discourse usually ended by agreeing to disagree, occasionally discovering common ground that encouraged a more enlightened exchange. Tolerance of difference was part of my tapestry of acceptance of these people, irrespective of believing they were often misguided, mistaken and misunderstanding of what I maintained was a more realistic and reasonable appraisal of not just politics, but many other issues too, including gender, race, religion and sex, among other things. In retrospect, many of these people, sometimes lovers, friends and just acquaintances, gender and sexuality irrelevant, were “extremists” in their beliefs, but nonetheless, I valued our conversations and the time we shared together. In those days, I loved a good argument, testing my own theories and thoughts against their own.

Over the years, my support of these so-called passionate people waned, understanding that their inability or disinterest in appreciating “shades of grey” was actually disturbing and distressing, their extremism glibly denouncing and dismissing views other than their own. Inflexible and rigid, they seemed unable to contemplate any other perspective, eschewing listening or trying to comprehend points of difference, facts deemed irrelevant. Now with a proliferation of propaganda masquerading as news, albeit often “fake”, what are the salient facts? Is information online and even in the printed press, rational and reliable these days? What I once embraced enthusiastically as passionate fervour increasingly became apparent as extremist, controlling dominance with an authoritarian and arrogant adherence to black and white scenarios that manifested as antipathetic to a sensible, sane and sanguine society. Changing one’s mind was consistently castigated as an anathema; abhorrent and unacceptable, representing a back down of weakness and contrition instead of celebrated as a negotiated compromise that could be positive and productive. No longer tolerating this extremism of difference as admirable and laudable, I became intolerant of people’s intolerance, realising their ideological beliefs were illogical and inhuman and contradictory to genuine democratic practices and laws. I began a process of “culling” these people from my life, a procedure I still do as I can and when I cannot, I shut up. These people aren’t worth arguing with or even involving in debate.

So are extremism and democracy mutually exclusive? Is being moderate a prerequisite and why should we, do we, expect politicians to be moderate when many public citizens are not? And what came first- people’s extremism or the politicians? How are they related and on what basis and why? If the centre is no longer the preferred pivot of political potency, what has actually replaced it and what are the ramifications of such abandonment? And is our system really broken? Furthermore, is passion now a euphemism for extremism?

The survey revealed voter dissatisfaction with democracy is apparently at record levels with a 15 per cent jump in 15 years from 25 per cent in 2001 to just over 40 per cent in 2016. Certainly, it is reassuring that more than half of the populace is seemingly satisfied with our democracy, but why is democracy per se being impugned? How much knowledge and understanding do people have about democracy and what it means? Is the shift to extremism engendered by naïve ignorance about democracy or misplaced acrimony towards an apparently incompetent political class, borne of envy, greed, injustice, inequality and the demise of the “fair go?” Was this country really ever fair or were we duped and deluded into this belief by smart politicians that are now few and far between? Maybe it’s not that political leadership is lacking but acumen and artistry in our political landscape. Perhaps people are smarter now and can see through the polemic of spin perpetrated by many of our politicians. I’m not sure.

The extremist phenomenon is not just an Australian fashion trend as across America, Britain and Europe similar shifts have occurred, with right extremists occupying government in Austria, precipitating crises in German politics and causing havoc in France, among other countries. Britain is in a political quandary with left extremist Labor leader, Jeremy Corbyn, tipped to win government in the forthcoming election. The presidential win of Trump was hailed by many pundits as a vote for extremism, albeit of the conservative right. Countries such as China, Russia and many Latin American countries as well as Africa seem inspired by extremes although one cannot call these nations democratic. The Israeli Government, that calls itself democratic, veers more and more towards ultra-right extremism, especially vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

If Australia is not then unique in this shift to extremism, what exactly is pertinent to understanding our situation? In my own life, I was but a very young girl when I first heard Hitler on TV in old newsreels addressing hundreds of thousands of people with powerful and passionate oratory that enflamed their spirits and won their hearts. Not understanding German, it was still frightening that such oratory could be so moving; similarly and of course far less alarmingly, was listening to the strong rhetoric of Menzies compared to Calwell in my teens in the 60s; the former a far more erudite, articulate and potent force than the working class hero who seemed decrepit and ailing in his less appealing apparel and appearance. Moreover, when Whitlam swept onto the scene in 1969, he could deliver such deliberate and decisive oratory he too moved millions to stand behind him. The power of oratory can be persuasive; irrespective of what is actually said and let alone believed by the orator. Furthermore, Gillard was oft denounced for her speech implying that her crass, even abrasive accent was less attractive than the apparently smoother sounding Rudd or Abbott. However, while oratory can overwhelm and overpower people politically, I’ve seen similar mass hysteria at the football and on TV with various others such as Martin Luther King, JFK, Reagan, Thatcher, and the likes of Putin.

Why are people seemingly so enamoured by these leaders? Is it like I once was that passionate orations are a mental aphrodisiac, exciting our minds and seeping into our hearts despite what they may encapsulate? Is it the intangible strength we believe implicit in the passion that casts our vote? Are we so bored, unmoved and unsatisfied by quiet, calm and less explosive encounters that we unconsciously seek inspiration from loud, vociferous and strong rhetoric even when it is full of vitriol, contempt, disrespect and hate for others? Of course, that’s not always the case, but many powerful orators who have ensnared people’s passions, dispense consciously contemptible diatribes against others. With my own experience as testimony, I am tempted to think people can be so unthinking that apparent strength of speech is applauded even when it is based on demeaning the weak and vulnerable; a sadistic superiority that masquerades as strength that too many people believe synonymous with leadership quality. Indeed, that seeming invisible strength can be mistaken for a passion that’s extreme but nonetheless a highly desirable elixir enticing voters’ support.

‘Smart’ politicians seeking power for its own sake, irrespective of policies or principles, can often play adroitly with people’s dissatisfaction with their lives. Their discontent may not be with democracy per se (do they even understand what it means?),  but rather that the system presents as an obvious, convenient and transparent target. In this 21st century, it seems increasingly more and more people “blame” others for their own unhappy and/or difficult lives, abrogating any responsibility for their choices and failing to acknowledge their own role in their work outcomes, financial situation or family experiences. Blaming politicians, even democracy, for the mess they’ve made of their own lives is an easy cop out. Consequently, they then think politicians can, and should, fix it all for them. Of course, the politicians-people nexus of extremes now may well be a chicken-egg conundrum and disinterring what comes first is practically impossible. If aspiring politicians want to win they need to “touch” people, and appreciating where people are at may imbue them to such an extent that initially more centrist and moderate policies and principles become superfluous to the main game. At the same time, there are politicians of extremes who genuinely reflect a similar boredom and animosity towards centre moderates,  cleverly exploiting people’s frustrations and unhappiness to their own advantage. Pauline Hanson is just one example.

But is our system broken? In The Age article, authors Lachlan Harris, founder and CEO of RevTech Media and Andrew Charlton, co-founder of the strategic advisory business AlphaBeta, contend that “The effects of polarisation can be seen in the rising support for increasingly ideological minor parties such as The Greens, One Nation and the Australian Conservatives.” Documenting the growth of minor party support, the AES data showed that “In 1990, less than all minor party voters said they “strongly support” the party they voted for. In the most recent election (I’m presuming 2015) this had shot-up to two-thirds.” I raise the point that a multi-party system, albeit with several minor parties, can be a really positive aspect of a truly democratic system offering voters more choice and liberty to vote for whom might best meet their own beliefs and principles rather than having to voting compulsory for someone they might not concur with. The authors imply this minor party trend is a negative, but I contest that many people may have previously voted consistently for the two major parties without “strongly supporting” them either. Certainly, I have done this more than once in my life. The system may not be as it was, but the growth of minor parties suggests far more representative candidates of the populace than ever before; be they more extreme or not.. Ironically, the minor parties collapsed in the recent South Australia election with the “political bubbles” of Nick Xenophon’s SA Best and Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives “burst”, according to Federal Minister for the Defence Industry, Christopher Pyne, scribed in The Age last month. He stated: “You can rely on the voters: they can spot self-interest and they don’t vote for it.” Perhaps, but sometimes there may be no other candidates and voting for one believed more altruistic than another is relative. Self-interest is not just about politicians, but voters just as much.

Politics may not be as we once knew it but are the developments and drift to extremes so antipathetic to democracy? In previous blogs, I have deplored that political education is so ad hoc across this country and not at least compulsory in the curriculum up to Year 10. Consequently I do believe people are ignorant about how politics operates and the complex relationship between our judiciary, legislative and executive levels of government. While some people might be able to mouth Lincoln’s definition of democracy as “for, by and of the people”, how this translates in practice is not that easy to analyse clearly and critically sometimes. People today increasingly seem to feel they are not listened to and that politicians are out of touch, and lost their sense of being honourable and honest, et al. But while this might be true of some, our democratic system is still to be admired and respected.

Australia, with all its faults, frailties and fallacies, is not a totalitarian dystopia where fear dominates our lives; mostly we can write and say what we believe and think with relative safety and security and without fear of imprisonment, or death. People may fear being unable to pay their high power bills, but one needs to ask and understand why they are in such impecunious circumstances? A fact of life is that prices rise in all aspects over time; rent, housing, transport, food and utilities and have done so for centuries. This is not new 21st century politics, but a reflection of change, development and growth. Having families, taking out a hefty mortgage, paying for private schools for children, eating out in expensive restaurants and buying every latest technological device costs lots of money, often invested without understanding that bills must be paid too. Somehow, too many people don’t know how to “budget” and/or don’t even think they need to. Let the government fix rising electricity and gas prices as it’s all its fault! How about people taking some responsibility for their own lifestyles?

At the same time, I’ve read wages haven’t grown relatively and this may well be so, but this reality only behoves people to budget more stringently and exercise caution before purchasing the latest iphone. I wonder whether many people, spoiled in the good old days so remembered, still expect to “have it all” and cannot, or will not, accept that times have changed. Moreover, they made choices and seem unable to live with them. Of course, we often can’t foresee the consequences of our choices as I certainly didn’t on occasion, but what I appreciated was I never regretted those choices, despite the negative consequences.  Furthermore, accepting responsibility for those choices,  I fortunately understood I could make new choices, institute new changes and create a new, albeit, different lifestyle. A changed lifestyle may even be more enriching than the one we previously enjoyed. Adapting to change is critical to ensuring one can live reasonably contentedly, despite greater economic demands and pressures. We cannot always get what we want or even think we deserve but we can live life to the full instead of continually lamenting our losses and drowning in our own self-pity as helpless victims.

Drifting to extremes as a recipe for socio-economic, political recovery may present as a more realistic and opportune alternative than following traditional and conventional political practices. Given that more than 50 per cent of Australians still believe in our democracy, this reality portends positively for a future of hope that our system will persist, however vulnerable to extremes. Currently, I welcome the presence of minor parties, irrespective of their extremism as their existence invokes greater choice and a better manifestation of democracy. The SA state election results seem symbolic of those parties failing to inspire voter support; nonetheless, the choice is there. Our system might be different, even less tolerant and centrist than it was, but it is unequivocally NOT broken. It may not be perfect and more prone to extremist views that are destructive, derogatory and discriminatory, but relatively in this world, we can still enjoy a reasonably safe and peaceful life without fear of retribution for our misdemeanours, providing we cause no harm to others. Democracy, however circumscribed by extremism, is still extant in Australia and I’m so glad and lucky to live in this country.

Ed Note:

One of the glaring omissions from the article, and I can only wonder if so too in the survey, was clarification of the definition and/or meaning of the words applied- right, left, centre and more significantly, extremism. People can interpret and understand political labels very differently and specifically and moreover, there can be variations within a spectrum of left and right. Personally, I could apply the word “right” to some of my attitudes and beliefs; likewise, other attitudes lean left. Furthermore, some may interpret my inclinations as “extreme” though I certainly do not; rather, I regard them as particular in some circumstances and situations that demand a “mixed” response of diverse political perspectives.

Also, the advent of several minor parties did not become really electorally important until the 2013 federal election from my reminiscences as I recall being intrigued to see how they fared and whether Abbott would secure an amenable Senate rather than a recalcitrant one. The latter prevailed which helped derail his leadership and undermine government stability, leading to Turnbull replacing him. In 1990, minor party votes were far less and of small significance. Maybe many people then adhered to some “right” and “left” views but were limited to express these on a ballot paper because the minor parties that did exist were not of their ilk. These people may have then identified as centre without a party to encapsulate their focus. The emergence of new minor parties in the early 2000s perhaps helped concentrate views which were latent but hitherto unable to be constructively expressed at election time.

Despite believing surveys can be “skewed” to achieve a desired outcome, however unconscious, it is certainly interesting to ponder the results of this one. And finally, just who were the people surveyed? And how many? What ages, socio-economic level, urban or regional, Australian born vs migrant and from what countries, education attained, work undertaken etc I would venture that the same survey with other people might just deliver different outcomes. I don’t know.  A vote for democracy is a vote that matters most!