The formerly cherished and hallowed centre ground of politics seems to have lost its sheen. That special space in our political spectrum that every political leader since Holyoake has sought to capture and occupy suddenly seems barren and forlorn. The rise of post-truth politics, personified by, although not limited to, the Trump phenomenon, has seen reason and common sense, which used to provide the backbone of Western liberal democracies, abandoned in favour of the simplistic solution, the half-truth and the alternative fact. The centre ground of politics suddenly seems to have become everyone’s new favourite non-cause.
The centre ground has traditionally been closely linked to common sense. Common sense politics have usually been the preserve of centrist politicians, able to bring balance and perspective to difficult situations, to set things on an even keel once more. But even those days may be behind us – not just overseas, but in New Zealand too. Only last week, for example, the Leader of the Opposition told a television interviewer that politicians who promoted common sense, what some have called the shared values of a community, were really just demonstrating their own irrelevance!
How has this happened? How has the pursuit of common sense and reason in politics become so unfashionable? A simple answer might be because of the failure of political ideology. The high water of the ideological divide in modern politics was probably the 1980s, with the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions riding high on the capitalist side of the ledger, and Marxism-Leninism still dominant in the Eastern bloc. Economic pressures meant both were in decline from the 1990s, and were finally relegated to the pages of history after the Global Financial Crisis of the early 2000s, but their scars have remained. Whatever the issue, the common response was that the politicians and the political system they operated were to blame. Their emphasis on modernisation and best practice had become ends in themselves, and had ruined many people’s lives, costing jobs and destroying communities in the process. So more of the same and its inherent moderation, were seen as contributing to, not resolving the problem. It was time to break the mould, although what it was to be replaced with was far less clear.
One thing that was clear was that business as usual, common sense and pragmatism, were no longer the part of the solution they had always been. So Brexit, so Trump, so the rise of neo-nationalism and the push-back on globalism, and the headlong outward rush from the centre. Maybe William Butler Yeats’ prophetic words in 1919 in the wake of World War I are coming to pass at last: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
In these swirling international tides, as New Zealand approaches its General Election, political parties here apparently fear being stranded in the centre ground they previously craved. Labour has long since abandoned any pretence of centrism, seemingly preferring a return to an oxymoronic modern form of the 1930s when the government knew best and did everything. The Greens and ACT have never even pretended to embrace the centre, and the Maori Party realises it can win the ultimate prize of being a permanent party of government just by doing its own knitting and ignoring everyone else. New Zealand First will go where it thinks the votes are, regardless of consistency; while post-Key National looks increasingly keen to loosen the centrist shackles he imposed on it. Only UnitedFuture still stands unashamedly in the centre – therefore completely irrelevant to some, or too full of passionate intensity to others.
A similar scenario is about to be played out in Britain with its snap election. Little wonder then that all the parties here will be watching how that, and the French presidential elections which begin this weekend will play out. The rational view cries out for a resurgence of common sense and the appeal of centrism. But with all the current international uncertainties, that reliance on reason may no longer be enough for voters staunch the headlong rush from the centre. There could yet be an eerie chill to the onset of our winter, before the warmth of the sun comes again.