Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Heed the lesson of 2016: don't ignore the disempowered

Simon Cowan

19 January 2019 | The Sydney Morning Herald

This week saw British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal defeat, then confidence-vote victory, all in the space of 30 hours. In the United States, the government has been shut down for almost a month, while both President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponents remain defiant.

Despite the obvious differences, Brexit and the Trump presidency remain as inexorably linked, and important, as they were in 2016: signposts of the re-emergence of an overlooked and misunderstood force in Western politics.

Both were grassroots rebellions of those who saw themselves as defenders and champions of the losers of a globalised world. They saw a world run by elites who didn’t care for the so-called ordinary person, whose leaders (from both political parties) refused to even acknowledge what was being lost by the former manual worker, or their families and communities.

So they voted to “take back control” and “drain the swamp” – cheered on by great numbers of people in Australia and elsewhere.

But the volume of those cheers has faded.

A significant part of the problem is that effectively voting to blow up the system from within is an inherently messy undertaking. The idea that a country could withstand a significant political shift without any collateral damage is foolish, at best.

And it is not at all clear that everyone – or even most – who voted for Brexit or Trump genuinely believes the system is so bad it needs to be wiped clean and restarted.

No doubt some Trump voters, and some hardline Brexiteers, support genuine upheaval of the social order. For example, they know, or don’t care, that Trump’s tariffs hurt their country as a whole, but believe they will benefit their town, community and family. And that’s what matters.

Others, to be frank, naively expect they can impose their own vision on reality and make it happen. You see that most clearly in the calls for May to return to Brussels and, somehow, magically negotiate a far better deal.

There is no doubt the British have bungled the Brexit negotiations, but at this stage they have few cards left. They should have developed a far clearer idea what Brexit meant, and a realistic plan to achieve it, two years ago.

But a refusal to deal with reality is not limited to one side of these debates. Though there are some individual exceptions, it’s clear that neither the Democrats, nor the Remainers, have ever truly accepted the democratic legitimacy of the movements that defeated them.

The point is not that they should just throw up their hands and let May get away with a terrible Brexit deal, or sit idly by while Trump trashes the institutions of the United States. But without understanding why these votes happened – and acknowledging their own fault – they are doomed to repeat these lessons.

Far from learning the virtue of limited government, the Democrats seem to be doubling down on the imperial presidency. Instead of returning to the notion of winning hearts and minds at a grassroots level across the nation, they are seeking a king without feet of clay.

Democrat supporters in the media have called for the Supreme Court to be stacked and the Senate composition to be altered (in defiance of the US constitution) to make it easier for Democrats in California and New York to impose their will on the country.

And, of course, Remainers have been pushing for a second referendum on Brexit since five minutes after the final result was announced in 2016.

The refusal to accept the electorate’s decisions merely adds to the chaos. It does nothing to dissipate it.

The problem with trying to make sense of these events, and glean lessons for Australia, is that seemingly important developments are happening every day. If anything can be determined, it is that change – be it economic or social – should be approached with caution and deliberate planning. People need to be told, and convinced, of the need for change; not simply bullied into compliance.

For example, the idea that Australia should hold a series of referendums on small but fundamental changes to its political system (such as becoming a republic or enshrining an Indigenous representative body in the constitution) without definite plans as to how the new systems would operate, seems to be inviting similar chaos.

If these things are good ideas, the detail should be laid out beforehand, not figured out after.

Australia is fortunate that the significant discontent being grappled with in the US and Britain seems far less potent here. It would be a mistake to assume this is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

As we approach a number of important elections, it’s worth thinking about some of the lessons from 2016.

Simon Cowan is research director at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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