Thursday 27 October 2016

All this anger might bring something positive - but the omens aren't good

Published 12/05/2016 | 02:30

Protesters took to the streets of Dublin last year as public frustration was seen in the wave of water charge rallies throughout the country. Photo: Tony Gavin
Protesters took to the streets of Dublin last year as public frustration was seen in the wave of water charge rallies throughout the country. Photo: Tony Gavin

There is a lot of anger out there. It can be felt on social media and heard on TV and radio talk shows with public participation.

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It has been seen in the strength of feeling related to water charge protests, which were all the more phenomenal in a country known for its limited street demonstration tradition.

Anger and frustration at the powers that be is best illustrated by the extraordinary changes in politics.

Fianna Fáil won every general election over a 75-year period. In 24 consecutive elections, it was the best supported party, a record matched by only one other party in the democratic world. Despite no little cause for anger during periods of national trial - the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1980s, for instance - the party continued to win close to, and sometimes more than, half of all first preference votes.

All that changed very suddenly in 2011 when its vote collapsed. Though in this year's General Election its support recovered a little, it was not far off half of what it used to win, decade after decade.

The huge and unprecedented decline in Fianna Fáil support is not the only manifestation of disillusionment with what is sometimes called the establishment. The combined share of the vote going to the three parties which have so dominated post-independence politics fell to almost half in February's election. In elections since independence, they together often took 90pc or more of first preferences.

That the Fianna Fáil-led government was routed at the 2011 election and that the Fine Gael-Labour coalition failed to win re-election is in keeping with developments across Europe, where only a handful of governments have been returned to power since 2008. Just how widespread is the frustration and impatience with politics is well illustrated by the fact that most administrations across the continent's 40-odd democracies have been booted out of office by voters after just one term over the past decade.

And as has happened in Ireland with the rise of Independents and Sinn Féin, the loss of support for mainstream parties has, in part at least, gone to populists and extremists who voice the anger a growing number of people feel.

The extraordinary rise of Donald Trump, in a country where outsiders find it very difficult to break the two-party duopoly, is part of the same phenomenon. His angry rhetoric seems to reflect the feelings of many on the other side of the Atlantic.

Dissatisfaction with long-standing status quos is also to be seen across the Irish Sea. After 300 years of union with Britain, Scots' anger towards London seems to be propelling that nation towards a break-up of their shared state. Anger towards Brussels in England (and it is mostly England, rather than the other nations in the UK) could well result in Britain breaking away from the EU.

Explanations for what has happened in Irish politics and around the reaction to water charges tend to be focused on what has happened in Ireland. But the changes going on elsewhere point to something more. While we may be an island, how we think is very much influenced by the ideas and memes in the Western world of which we are a part - the geographer Jared Diamond describes our way of thinking as WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic.

Think, for instance, of the 1960s. Youth movements, women's movements and civil rights movements sprouted across the Western world at more or less the same time. People became less accepting of the constraints of old and more questioning of authority. Many factors triggered the huge social changes of that decade, but the point of relevance here is that they happened almost simultaneously - think of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.

How we form opinions and how we come to feel about issues is a complicated process that nobody fully understands. While it is influenced by personal experience, local events and the national zeitgeist, the role of a wider collective consciousness is also crucial.

There are many factors which might explain the growing anger in the WEIRD world. As is often the case, economic changes are a very plausible culprit.

Since the crash of 2008, almost every developed country has experienced the worst period of economic performance in living memory. That has surely eroded faith in existing structures of government and bred frustration.

Another phenomenon, which is also largely economic, is globalisation. The erosion of national borders with greater flows of trade and investment has lessened the power of governments to provide economic security. Although, in my view, this argument is exaggerated, the sense that control of one's destiny is being lost could well be contributing to rising anger and frustration across the WEIRD world.

Yet another factor which is also generating a sense of powerlessness is immigration. Even many people who are comfortable living in a multicultural society fear that immigration is or could be getting out of control. As a species, we evolved to fear others arriving in our territory to compete for limited resources. As such, it is unsurprising that increases in migration rates cause uncertainty and some trepidation.

Technology is yet another culprit. Finding evidence to support a prejudice has become much easier with the internet, as has finding like-minded prejudiced people. This may be closing, rather than opening minds, something often blamed for the growing polarisation of US politics. And now that everyone can have their say and communicate with the world via social media, the often aggressive and strident nature of keyboard conversations could be raising the collective blood pressure of we WEIRDos.

The social revolution of the 1960s led to greater personal freedom and tolerance of different ways of doing things, even if it was accompanied by sometimes painful upheavals. It could be that the current dissatisfaction also ends up bringing positive change and renewal.

But it could also bring something darker. The rise of cultural nationalism in the 19th century was as widespread and simultaneous as the social changes of the 1960s. It ended in the two catastrophic world wars.

Where the current shift in collective consciousness will lead, if indeed such a change is happening at all, is impossible to predict, but the omens so far are not good.

Irish Independent

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