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Don't fear the 'shrinking centre'

This was originally published on the 31st January, 2017, and was republished here on the 3rd January, 2022.

Photo: Andrew Meares/AFR

An article has appeared on the ABC website on the topic of social media and ‘toxic politics’. Within are interviews with two New South Wales state politicians, both lamenting the way social media has shaped the direction of politics.

The article is quite solid, pointing to the dearth of able-minded people willing to enter politics on account of the genuinely poisonous environment that it has become, and quite accurately makes the case that society is increasingly tribal. But one quote stood out to me, because it is a demonstration of the inability of those in power to grasp political (or, at least, ideological) reality.

Catherine Cusack, an MLC for the North Coast region, is quoted as saying that she “fear[s] that we have a shrinking middle in politics, and that extremes either on the left or the right are very active in these forums…so when I read these comments not only in social media, but also online in newspapers and on Facebook, I have to [remind myself] this isn’t what the world is like, this isn’t what most families are like, but it is having a profound effect on political discourse.”

Ms Cusack makes three errors here. The first is the assumption that social media does not reflect how ‘the world’ is like. I do not want to spend too long on this, but I would say that it actually reinforces the fact that online ‘discussion’ actually removes degrees of our humanity. It is much easier to be nasty to a screen than it is to a human face.

The second, which I will come back to in the future, is that social media is reflective of extremist politics. Both this and the first error are built on the back of the third error, which is that there is a centre ground in politics.

The idea of a political centre has been promoted for a long time, but especially so over the last few decades, and has become a key tenet of the way major parties define themselves in democracies the world over. Because almost all such democracies are two-party systems, it has meant that major parties within a country have become less distinguishable from one another, as they adjust their ideological positions to be increasingly like this ‘centre ground’.

Now, if it was the case that most people are in the ideological centre, you would think that social media would not have this effect on politics. After all, if major parties are becoming more ‘centrist’, then you would expect most people to approve and that they would say as much on social media.

What we have instead is that people — not merely on social media but at the ballot box as well — are increasingly dissatisfied with major parties, often opining that they are both the same and looking towards alternatives that define themselves by being different from this norm.

It’s hard to believe that all of this is because social media has in some way infected political discourse, as though dissenting political views are a disease that needs to be vaccinated against.

If, however, there is not a ‘centre ground’, but rather this ‘centre’ is simply one ideology amongst multiple, equally widely believed other ideologies, then the direction political discourse is taking makes sense. If major parties have chosen to promote one ideology as the norm for decades, but the public sees that ideology as failing them, then the inevitable response is going to be a desire to throw it away. The more the major parties stick to it anyway, the stronger the response will be.

In any case, nastiness in political discourse predates social media. The last few decades — coincidentally or not, the period of time in which this ideological convergence has occurred — has seen political language become increasingly personal and fraught. Gone are the days when members opposite the chamber from each other would have dinner together despite their political disagreements. Now, it seems most (though not all) see those from the other major party as the enemy, even as their ideologies have become more similar.

Why might this be? Might it be because major parties need voters to perceive major differences between each party, even when they are actually quite minor?

Think about the major parties in your country. Do they fundamentally disagree on foreign policy? On trade? On levels of immigration? On anything at all to do with globalisation?

Probably not. Oh, sure, there may be some dissenting voices within them, but they’ll be continually drowned out by the status quo.

That causes a problem for major parties, whose whole purpose was to represent opposing ideological views. It is not difficult to see why these parties would seek to make the differences between them appear larger than they actually are.

But this means that they cannot adequately represent the public, whose ideologies are still varied. By becoming ideologically incoherent and indistinguishable, major parties have failed to represent their constituents. By ignoring their constituents, while using increasingly personal language against their opponents within the political world, they have created a situation where the public, wanting to be heard, imitates this, and turns it back on their elected representatives.

If Ms Cusack wants political discourse to be kinder — which is by no means a bad thing to want — her party, along with other major parties, need to reflect the views of the public. Without that, there is no way it can happen.


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