When an unexpected political upheaval occurs, commentators and journalists desperately rush to make the first formal diagnosis of why it happened, usually followed by an attempt to construct some kind of grandiose narrative in which they predict what the dramatic long-term implications of this event might be.
2016 was the year that this kind of political commentary dominated the headlines, but 2017 is the year in which most of those predictions are being shown for what they really were: naïve and myopic.
After the triumph of Trump and Brexit ruptured the fabric of western political consensus, 2016 was diagnosed as the year in which right-wing populism had triumphed.
In the wake of the initial shock, all kinds of hysterical predictions were made about where this supposed menace was going to strike next: ‘Is Marie Le Pen going to become President of France?’, ‘Is fascism returning to Europe?’, ‘Is Social Democracy dead?’.
Contrary to expectations, as 2017 has unfolded, the volatility that defined the politics of 2016 has continued, but the supposed unstoppable rise of the populist right has not.
No better has this been exemplified than in the recent UK general election, which was universally perceived as Theresa May’s opportunity to scoop the cream off the top of the populist surge of Brexit, and galvanise her authority at the top of the most right-wing British government since Thatcher.
But the interpretation that Brexit was a shift of public opinion to the right, in which people displayed an appetite for May’s breed of dusty isolationism, was a fatally naïve assumption on the Conservative Party’s part.
Corbyn, the socialist underdog, the joke, the loser, ‘the terrorist sympathiser’, harnessed the new political dynamism of 2016, shifted it to the left, and inflicted an unexpected blow to Theresa May.
But what is this new ‘dynamism’ that Corbyn managed to harness, to which I am referring?
The rise of ‘me and politics’
2016 was not the year in which right-wing populism triumphed, 2016 was the year in which 21st century politics was born and attained a distinct new character of its own.
The triumph of Trump, Brexit, and the populist leftism of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, were all symptomatic of the same drastic shift in the ideological landscape of western politics. This shift has been at least twenty years in the making.
Since the 1990s, politics has become drastically more culturalised.
As the centrist ‘third-way movement’ rose to dominate the left in the mid-1990s (Tony Blair and Bill Clinton being the two first significant examples), the focus of the left turned away from the economic project of socialism, focusing instead to the politics of identity and corresponding social policies as its primary ideological doctrine.
As these so called ‘third-way politicians’ gained electoral success across the west, the prominence of identity politics in mainstream discourse increased dramatically. Discussions of race, multiculturalism, gender and sexuality, were injected into everyday life in the form of new legislation, education programmes, and the media all corresponding to these issues.
Whereas the early 20th century was largely defined by struggles between the contrasting economic dogmas of the left and right, by the beginning of the 21st century, these old economic struggles were largely put to bed. Consequently, cultural values corresponding to the politics of identity rose to dominate political debate.
Because identity politics is the politics of ‘who you are’, its rise has created a synthesis between culture and politics of an intensity never seen before. Politics has become a part of self-expression.
This can be clearly observed in modern popular culture. Public figures, politicians, films, works of art and even businesses commonly make references to the politics of identity as a key component of their persona or as the foundation of their appeal or meaning.
The construction of political opinion is increasingly based upon a ‘me and politics’ basis, rather than stubbornly sticking to a rigid dogma of ‘left’ or ‘right’ that often runs down through the generations, often attached increasingly old-fashioned social forces such as class or geographical location.
This has created a much more volatile ideological landscape, in which there is a far greater appetite among the electorate for political risk taking. This means that the political compass may lurch unexpectedly to the left or the right.
The rise of cultural/political hyper-realism
Coinciding with this shift towards cultural self-expression has been the meteoric rise of the internet as the dominant medium of social and political discourse.
The internet, particularly since the mainstream advent of social media, has penetrated culture deeper and more aggressively into our lives than anything before it, creating a society in which we are all continually engaged in the process of cultural production and observation.
This has created a cultural hyper-realism, in which we are continually engaged in the stream of collective cultural consciousness. As politics has become increasingly synthesised with popular culture, we are continually engaged in a stream of political consciousness, prompting us to engage in the culture of ‘me and politics’.
This has massively politicised the general population. People are now drawn in to participate in this new political culture of self-expression: to have an opinion; to share an article on Facebook; to participate in a debate on twitter; to vote; to join a political party; to attend a protest.
This has become increasingly evident in the way in which young people, the most highly exposed demographic to this online culture, are markedly more politically engaged than any youth generation in recent history.
Something to fear or a triumph for democracy?
This Molotov cocktail of ‘me and politics’ and the hyper-realism of collective political consciousness has created an entirely new paradigm of politics, in which populism and anti-establishment ideas are flourishing.
While many of the outcomes of this new ideological furnace may be frightening or dangerous, the health of democracy, particularly the health of democratic debate, has undoubtedly been enriched.
The late 1990s and the 2000s was a horrifically dull period in the history of western politics. Essentially just right-wing neoliberal economics disguised with the friendly face of left-wing social policies, the third way movement that dominated western politics in this period neutralised the struggle between left and right that gave 20th century politics it’s poignancy.
In the UK for example, after the rise of New Labour, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party were more or less the same. John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron all offered extremely similar economic programmes. All utilised the same bland, emotionally remote public persona, that in many ways has become the most loathed aspect of this era of politics.
When Theresa May tried to repeat this tried and tested formula in the recent UK general election, she seemed hopelessly old-fashioned compared to the vibrant idealism of Corbyn.
Despite this, we should not let our guard down to the dark forces that may also be unleashed in this new paradigm. Populist or ‘aesthetic politics’ can lead to dangerous places, in which our irrational emotional relationship to our political opinions can be prioritised over reason or basic decency.
I am hesitant to make any presumptuous long-term predictions as to where western politics is destined. Neverthelless, it is likely that as we become more accustomed to the new dynamic character that western politics is assuming, the political landscape will begin to stabilise. More refined ideological programmes will arise, replacing the fanaticism that defines many of the recent populist movements.
One thing is clear: the hangover of the 20th century is over. We have entered into a distinct, new era of western politics - an era that is both worrying and exciting.