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19 February 2016

The centre of politics across major democracies is being hollowed out by a combination of anger, impatience and fatigue, writes Mathew Davies.

Hillary Clinton’s 0.3 per cent victory over Bernie Sanders in Iowa might have constituted a win, but it was hardly an endorsement.

Polls in mid-2015 often gave Clinton a 40-point lead over the then unknown Senator from Vermont. In New Hampshire the result has been even more worrying for Clinton –a lead that was once over 30 points turned into a Sanders victory with a 22 per cent margin come polling day.

While the more populous, less liberal and less white states remain, where Clinton is thought to retain significant leads in the polls and, the evaporation of her support on the left of the party is remarkable in speed and scale. Sanders was not formally a member of the Democratic Party until 2015, and only joined to contest the primaries. The previously independent senator describes himself as a democratic socialist in a country where the ‘s-word’ has become one of the favourite political invectives to be hurled about in a divided Congress.

On the right the insurgency led by Donald Trump, but also seen in the success of Ted Cruz, promises the same but in reverse – with voters clamoring to the extreme right of the party and leaving their mainstream competitors, notably the likes of Jeb Bush, to trail far in their wake.

Across the Atlantic similar stories can be found. Jeremy Corbyn went from backbencher who had to scramble to even receive enough backing to stand in the UK Labour party’s leadership contest to leader of that party, in the process vanquishing the assumed heir presumptive, Andy Burnham. Burnham himself had moved away from his previous Blairite sympathies to a more leftist position, but was still outflanked by Corbyn. The Conservative party of David Cameron may be in power, but they are troubled by the UK Independence Party who have proven even more adept than the Tories at selling an atavistic vision of England’s green and pleasant hills to the (English) public. In Scotland, the SNP has completely dissolved the grasp of established British parties on electoral success and may yet dissolve the Union itself. The centrist Liberal Democratic Party, after its brief sojourn in coalition, has been reduced to a small and fractious rump.

More on this: Turnbull and Corbyn: the rise of anti-politicians? Charlie Shandil

Across Europe the story is the same – either established parties being pulled away from the centre by internal changes or harried from their exposed flanks on the right and left by those willing and able to step outside of the mainstream in pursuit of votes. The rise of the right in Germany, once unthinkable, is now out in the open. In Greece, the radical left assumed power, although this has done little to defuse the widespread anger of the Greek people as Syrizia has proven no more able to escape the demands of international creditors than their more moderate predecessors. The ongoing economic woes and the never ending migrant crisis act as multipliers in a system already under considerable stress.

The centre of politics across the democracies is being hollowed out by a combination of anger, impatience and fatigue.

For those on the left, the change promised by the election of Tony Blair in 1997, and Barack Obama in 2008, has not eventuated. Those on the right feel that there has been far too much change on climate change and social issues and nowhere near enough change on national security. Both are united in the belief that the traditional centrist guises of political parties have failed them – their rhetoric might have changed, but the reality of the policies implemented have not kept pace.

The sense of being failed by the establishment is exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness in a system where mainstream parties, big business and the media are perceived to have coalesced around a particular vision of corporatized capitalism bending politics to their own interests. This is a world where Hillary Clinton can receive US$600,000 for speeches at Goldman Sachs and where Rebekah Brooks can pop around to David Cameron’s house for a chat and a cup of tea. Regardless of the legality and propriety of these activities, and the endlessly growing list of similar events that fill the press, the perception of them has eroded public faith to record lows in elected officials and often the parties and institutions they work in.

The result of this growing anger has been the sense on both sides of politics that we need more change, faster. Yet the directions of the change that these dispossessed seek are irreconcilable, and so the vitriol, animosity and negativity of politics increases as disagreements become chasms, and reasoned disagreement, always something in scare supply, invective.

Australia has not been immune to these stresses, although they have played out in softer tones so far. Tony Abbott might not be popular with a majority of the people, but he remains massively popular with a narrow slice of the electorate. The tensions in the Labor party, and between Labor and the Greens, over refugees and climate change display similar tendencies.

The result of this is not only greater domestic political contestation and the gradual emaciation of centrist politics, but will likely also lead to far greater variability in foreign policies.

The web of institutions, practices and expectations that bind the international system were not just the product of small political elites in certain states but reflected the convergence of political expectations within those countries in a much broader way. Adherence to the well-worn paths of political and social tradition within states created the permissive space for the expansion of a particular kind of international architecture between them.

This space is now being challenged by both politicians from the edges and the escalating series of world events that powers their rhetoric.

In one of those strange convergences, both Trump and Sanders are openly critical of the current liberalized free trade regime. Trump has called NAFTA a disaster and Sanders voted against it, while both of them have rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Ted Cruz wants to carpet bomb ISIS while Jeremy Corbyn would unilaterally disarm Britain’s nuclear deterrent if his party would let him and wants to radically curtail the exercise of British military power overseas. UKIP is gleeful at abandoning the EU. Trump’s wall is the physical manifestation of his rejection of globalisation, free trade, labour mobility and the political interests that foster these trends.

The diminution of the appeal of the centre, and the establishment political sensibilities that for so long have represented it, in leading democracies is therefore not just a story about domestic politics but one with profound consequences for the relationships between countries.

The anger and alienation of voters is not narrowly focused against particular politicians and particular parties – it is directed against the creations of the political system that has shaped the globe for good and for ill for the last 50 years.

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Davies, M. (2016). No more middle ground in our democracies - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: