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Tuesday 25 October 2016

Interesting times as politics polarises

Boredom seems to be fuelling the quest for new and more exciting - even eccentric -people, parties and policies, writes Eoin O'Malley

Eoin O'Malley

Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

May you live in interesting times." The apparently ancient Chinese curse implies that it might be better to live with boredom than the upheaval that goes with interesting times. Politics has rarely seemed more interesting. The British vote to leave the EU has caused upheaval in the markets, the fall of their currency and their prime minister to announce his resignation. And that's just in the short term. In the longer term, it might see the break-up of the union as Scotland votes for independence within the EU and a destabilised Northern Ireland as it struggles with its identity. People will soon be wishing for less interesting lives.

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The new prime minister is likely to shift the UK's political centre of gravity to the right. The Labour party's had already moved to the left. What we are seeing is the polarisation of politics. The attraction of Trump and Sanders in the US, the far-right in northern Europe and far-left parties in southern Europe suggests this is happening everywhere. In Ireland we see growing support for the Alphabet Soup Alliance, Sinn Fein and ever more eccentric independents. Our politics appears to be polarising.

Newly-published research by Eric Igou at the University of Limerick suggests that boredom might be causing this political polarisation. It might happen because if we're bored we pursue other outlets to make life more interesting. If we have a boring job, radical politics might relieve the drudgery.

The research is based on an experiment with a tiny number of students, and the shifts aren't that big. It may not play out like this in the real world. Much of psychological research has been discredited because it frequently doesn't work when you try it again using large samples.

The supposedly ancient Chinese proverb isn't ancient or Chinese, and much of peer-reviewed research in psychology is about as reliable.

For much of the late 20th century, Ireland and other places had pretty dull politics. There was a consensus. We fought about the face on the poster, but in truth a change in government changed little else. The rise of parties from left and right who wish to overthrow the system points to a departure from consensus. Did we suddenly become bored? It's unlikely.

Germany in the 1920s or the UK in the 1970s and 1980s saw increased polarisation, but no one could accuse those of being boring times. They were times of rampant inflation, unemployment and industrial strife.

In the current period of polarisation, the economic crisis led to dissatisfaction with political elites, whose insipid responses have made it easy for alternative politicians' promises of brighter futures more attractive to many.

In fact, people haven't even polarised. If we look at where people place themselves on a left-right scale it has hardly changed in the past 10 years. The same is true in other countries. The elites have polarised and we follow them into more polarised parties.

It is the times being interesting that leads to polarisation. Inflation and unemployment create new classes of interests; the old elite lost control, the poor lost jobs. They assert their new interests, sometimes rationally, but often emotionally as they look for the causes of their predicament. It could be the Jews, or migrants, the banks or the EU.

Usually what happens is that the challenger politicians get to power and they fail to deliver on their promise, either because it does not work or because they compromise. Consensus is often restored. We had the post-war consensus across Europe, and Blair's Third Way reflected a tacit consensus between left and right in the UK. It's what we can see happening in Greece today.

The upheaval that's likely in the UK as a result of Brexit means that it will take time to come to a consensus. Different groups have different interests. Brexit was a coalition of different groups with very different visions. Boris Johnston's interests are unlikely to coincide with those of the working class in Sunderland. As different sides assert their interests, this might give rise to more polarisation in the near term.

Old big tent parties that used to be able to accommodate a broad spectrum of views are breaking down. The party used to be able to rein in the more radical ideas of some members or even leaders. The parties aren't as good at that any more.

Fianna Fail pursued dangerous polices for years. Where in the past the backbenchers would have acted as the voice of the people to temper those policies in parliamentary party meetings, in the 2000s the backbenchers largely stayed quiet.

The party members' control of the party has been weakened. The whip is breaking down. Party loyalty, which kept systems together, has become a dirty word. Now individuals are able to get ahead by being more radical and more 'independent'. Being independently-minded means yielding to ever more extreme views.

Media gives attention to these views, ostensibly to facilitate debate but really to chase ratings. Boris Johnston didn't get to where he is by keeping his head down and his hand steady.

With the Irish Government barely in control of policy direction, 'new politics' will pose real challenges.

One of the problems in Ireland is that so many of the more radical parties have no interest in governing, and certainly not sharing power. This is deliberate. They know that compromise now means failure of their bigger project, whether it is to overthrow the capitalist system or achieve a united Ireland.

The uncertainty thrown up by Brexit will require a firm government response, but those parties' interest is in chaos and weak government response. Weak responses breed frustration and chaos is fertile ground for extremism. Polarisation is likely to continue.

Interesting times. They could get more interesting.

Sunday Independent

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