We are living in an era of seismic political earthquakes. The rise of Donald Trump in the US. The Brexit vote in the UK, followed by the rise and fall of Theresa May and arrival of Boris Johnson. The political success of Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, and the Five Star Movement in Italy. Australia even had its own shock moment with the re-election of Scott Morrison earlier this year.
To explain the unexpected, analysts have typically pointed to immediate causes – like the GFC, Russian ‘fake news’, and ‘inequality’ – and highlighted the importance of political figures who provide endless colour for newspaper columns. But the roots of what we are currently seeing are far deeper. What is motivating voters to unshackle themselves from expected behaviour and choose risky, often radically different, types of parties and leaders? This is not a story of the last three years or even the past decade. The new political fault lines at the heart of Western counties have been developing for decades. They reflect the emergence of a new identity, cultural and lifestyle divide.
In 1978 – just a year before the founding of Penthouse in Australia – Dr David Kemp argued that changes in occupations were “inexorably pushing the party structures and their electoral bases of support out of alignment”. Kemp identified a substantial decline in class, religion, region and urban-rural divides in Australian politics. In 1987, almost two-thirds of self-identifying working-class voters opted for the Labor Party. Today, a working-class voter is now more likely to vote for the Liberals and Nationals than they are for Labor. In historical retrospect, the close alignment between the ‘working class’ and parties of the left and the ‘middle class’ and parties of the right will look like a weird 20th century abrogation.
The realignment we are seeing has been driven by the rise of a new elite. I have called these Inners: inner-city progressive cosmopolitans who value change, diversity, and self-actualisation. They are a minority but dominate the upper echelons of Australian society, from the bureaucracy to the media and universities. The Inners came of age in the anti-Vietnam War protests, provided an impetus for Gough Whitlam and were necessary for Bob Hawke but were epitomised by Paul Keating. Inners are increasingly voting for parties of the left, like the Greens and Labor, though some still vote Liberal in the inner-city (see ‘Turnbull’s Liberals’). Inners have come to clash with Outers on issues from immigration, crime and gender and sexuality. Outers are instinctive traditionalists who value stability, safety and unity. They, Howard’s Battlers, Tony’s Tradies and ScoMo’s Quiet Australians, that are voting increasingly for parties of the right. The Outers’ rejection of Inner centric Labor explains why the Liberals experienced large swings towards them in the suburbs and regional areas.
The clash between Inners and Outers is the story of our era. It is a global story with an Australian face. Events have been more extreme overseas, particularly in Europe where the mainstream right is as Inner as the left – which has opened space for the rise of far-right parties. Both Inners and Outers have a legitimate worldview, but one that often clashes. Neither side can expect absolute power. On some issues – like women’s rights, racial equality and same-sex marriage – Outers have come to accept Inners instincts. On other issues, like immigration, they will continue to disagree. We will be stronger in the next 40 years if we can find a way to live together, not just clash.