Australian Election: A Retribalizing Electorate

Australian Election: A Retribalizing Electorate. By Paul Kelly.

Morrison and Albanese seek 51 per cent support in a democracy where it is no longer possible for a Liberal or Labor leader to make an orthodox appeal reflecting their party’s values and expect to win a voting majority.

That age is gone. The cultural glue and class-based economics that held the big parties together with their mass-based appeal is now eroded.

The political system is failing to respond [to problems] with boldness because it is harder than before to assemble majority support for resolute action. And representative democracy works by majority. …

American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who probes the culture ahead of the politics, warns that progressives and conservatives in the US are now akin to “different cultures” and says any nation seeking to save its liberal democracy must work “very hard to turn down tribal identities and inter-group conflicts”.

We forget the transforming progress of the earlier age when democracy and industrialisation grew together. Economist Deirdre McCloskey said liberal capitalism had raised the real income per person of the poorest since 1800 not by 10 per cent, not by 100 per cent, but by 3000 per cent. That’s progress.

The rise of liberal democracy was based on the decisive transition from tribes to communities that no longer defined themselves merely by race, ethnicity, faith or monoculture. And that’s progress.

The great delusion, therefore, is to think our democracy is some naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s not. A proper functioning democracy evolved only because of a remarkable set of historical forces. It is not inevitable. …

As Francis Fukuyama wrote: “All human beings gravitate towards the favouring of kin and friends with whom they have exchanged favours.” That’s tribalism. Tribal societies from China to India to Greece were once the natural order. As Haidt argues, the creation of the American Constitution with its ability to contain tribal emotions is best understood as a “miracle”.

As any glance around the world reveals, the democratic state is not the natural order. President Vladimir Putin says Ukraine belongs to his tribe. The people who invaded the Capitol in 2021 belonged to the Trump tribe. Tribalism is driven by emotion, feeling, fear and distrust — the belief you cannot tolerate the opposing tribe.

Now history is taking a new twist — we are returning to being tribal. We don’t understand how easy it is and in our sophistication we don’t understand that the fracturing of our societies is not new, it’s old. We are reverting to the past. And it’s comfortable. In the new media we can eliminate our dislikes and reinforce our likes. Confirmation bias is best achieved by not mixing with people who don’t share our beliefs and politics. …

And who is eroding the community spirit by encouraging (demanding!) identity politics, and importing communities of people quite different from those currently here? The modern left.

The new tribes smash the foundations of Liberal and Labor loyalty — we have the climate change tribe, the Greens tribe, the Hanson tribe, the teal independents tribe, maybe even the “pox on both parties” tribe, while in the realm of culture the rise of identity politics sees people demanding recognition on the basis of their separateness — their race, gender and sexual identity.

Most people remain outside the new tribes yet are unsettled by how shared understandings are being dismantled. In an article in The Atlantic, Haidt quotes former CIA analyst Martin Gurri pointing to the single “mass audience” of the pre-digital era that consumed the same content – in contrast to the current era where “the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically hostile”. …

Morrison and Albanese are reflections of what we have become. As Australia becomes more internally different, as living standards become more static, as notions of truth become more contested, new tribes gather in combat against each other.

Once tribalized again, it’s very hard to go back to voting on policy as a community, as we once did. Tribalized people vote for their tribe, to gain goodies for their tribe, rather than for policies they think are good for the community as a whole.