First Brexit, then Trump, then Matteo Salvini, then Jair Bolsonaro and now Merkel is leaving after dismal results in German regional elections. Add in a Saudi assassination, a far-right Austrian, Hungarian and Polish axis in the EU and a constitutional change to make President Xi Jinping the new President for life…It has not been a good few years for the supposedly growing moderate majority of the world’s population, who apparently long for non-ideological, pragmatic and technocratic policymaking.
In Latin America, North America, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, populists are in vogue and established parties are reeling. The CDU and SPD in Germany are increasingly shadows of their former glory, but even they’ve fared better than the total annihilation of the French Republican and Socialist parties, not to mention Forsa Italia or the Socialist Party in Italy. Indeed, few social liberal democratic parties are doing well in any global context, nevermind a European one.
All of this poses a paradox. The world today is infinitely richer than at any previous point in history. There are no new ideological positions for developing a global economy, that have shown any evidence of gaining greater popularity than capitalism. Nor is there any sign that the world has become more violent or that global health has gotten worse. Indeed, to objective analysts the world seems to be doing really rather well. It is this analysis that is part of the problem.
Believers in centre ground politics believe that the majority of voters and citizens are rational. Given sufficient education, economic opportunity and information, political centrists maintain that the world will become less religious, less racist, less sexist, less LGBTQ-phobc and will prefer government policies set by highly educated panels of experts. Indeed the whole theory of modern liberal democracy and centrist movements like New Labour depends on these assumptions being true. But if they are true, why don’t we see people talking in favour of them, standing up for them and voting for these ideas, parties, movements and centrist leaders?
The answer, according to believers of centrist politics, is that the “silent majority” want centrist policies, ideas, parties and people, but they do not want to actively engage in the process. According to this theory, as soon as a candidate occupies the centre ground, where it has been abandoned, they will succeed. Indeed, the election of Emmanuel Macro and En Marche is held up as the perfect illustration of this phenomenon. The problem is that its wrong.
Politics is fundamentally a spectrum. There is no such defined place as “the left” and “the right”. What there is however, is a tendancy for society to cluster at points along the spectrum. Contrary to theories about centrist politics, they do not gather at the centre. Indeed, the reason why there exists a dominant political left party and political right party in every global democracy is because the number of people who truly seek out a “middle ground” is extremely small. Thus by focusing on the middle ground as a political tactic, parties actually alienate the majority of their constituency by chasing a small vote. This can work in an extremely tribal political system, where party loyalties is seen as a badge of identity and is often more important than the parties actual policies. But in the long run, parties that focus only on the centre lose touch with their base. This is the problem facing democracies today.
En Marche is the wrong lesson to learn. Electing a party consisting of a re-hash of Socialist and Republican candidates, run by a former socialist minister, who was ultimately pushed into power by a French public who were loath to support the National Front, is not an endorsement of technocracy and centrism. Indeed, the fact that Macron now has lower public opinion polling than his predecessor did (Macron now has the record for the most unfavorable reviews of any French President in the history of the French republic), shows that his political movement has little real support. Nor has the USA done any better. Rather than creating a fracture in the political right, the Republican party has embraced as its leader a dangerous egotist, whose attempts to sow division and hatred will leave scars across the national landscape that will outlast his own hotel chain.
There is a better way.
True democracies focus on addressing politics and how people feel. Worrying about trigger words, safe spaces, what is political acceptable to discuss and avoiding giving a “platform to hate” are terrible tactics that will end in misery and failure. What is actually needed is for centrist voters and politicians to hold their breath and dive into public discussions on anything and everything. Failing to engage with a problem is more dangerous than ignoring it. Nowhere is this guidance clearer than in the unmitigated disaster than is the European Union’s immigration policy and that of its individual member states (including the UK).
Governance is not meant to be easy. It is a service, not a stepping point for another career. The politics of the centre has believed that it is easier to talk about complex topics behind closed doors, amongst small groups of PHd armed individuals and then to return to the public eye with a flourish and say “we have studied and can empirically prove that this is the optimal way forward”. To anyone who has actually worked in business (and spoiler here, many centrists politicans and technocrats have not), the idea that you can make significant changes happen without buy-in and engagement with key stakeholders is laughable. If you do not explain the problem to people and talk about what the solutions are, then the idea will get nowhere.
Small steps could help moderate political forces take to move their agendas forward. Explaining a complex concept in an accessible way is among the most powerful. The impact of Blue Planet II on public and corporate attitudes to plastic has been phenomenal. Just as the original Al Gore film, an Inconvenient Truth, also helped transform the global climate debate. But real change cant be done by a film, documentary, art installation or music video. Certainly not on their own. Real change needs families, friends, co-workers and residents of communities to actually sit down and talk. Importantly, they need to get off their phone and do it in person.
In 2017 Heineken captured this idea with a wonderful video called Open Your World: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etIqln7vT4w but turning an ad campaign into reality would do more than help sell beers.
It may be the case that the world is full of a silent, moderate majority. But if they don’t talk to each other and the wider world, there is only one obvious outcome. Political parties and their voters will move away from centre ground politics.