Saturday, January 19, 2019

Saturday Morning Musings - can the centre hold?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats, 1865 - 1939

I have always loved this particular verse by W B Yeats. It captures a certain fear, one that seems particularly appropriate today.

In the United States, President Trump's proposed boarder wall has brought the US Government to a standstill. It will be no secret that I am not a Trump supporter. However, President Trump made the wall a centre piece of his campaign and has consistently argued for it. The wall may not make sense, but in Australian terms he has a mandate to seek to build it.

If you now look at the Democrat side, you find a win at all costs mentality. I have now listened to Democrat Nancy Pelosi  She strikes me as rigid and dogmatic as the President, if on the other side, also determined to win at all costs. The wall has become a symbolic issue. The economic costs of the shutdown already exceed the costs of the wall. Logic would dictate a concession that allows some construction, that allows political focus on other more important issues. But, no, symbolism dominates, the desire to win dominates.

Something similar is happening in Australia at the moment if on a much smaller scale over fish kills on the Lower Darling River. The similarity lies in the way that symbolism and sharp political divides have polarised the debate, It is hard to adopt a central position, to find out the facts, although information does emerge in the midst of the shouting and political posturing.

I do recognise that the concept of "the centre" in society or politics is actually a slippery one, especially in dealing with a single issue.

The standard English definition of centre - the point that is equally distant from every point on the circumference of a circle or sphere or, alternatively, the point from which an activity or process is directed, or on which it is focused - doesn't quite capture the social or political definition.

In conventional terms. the idea of the political or social centre is presented as a straight line from left to right, with the centre just the bit in the middles. This does not capture the way in which ideas and beliefs overlap and can vary from person to person, from value to value, from issue to issue, although it can be useful when you have diametrically opposed views, when the spot in the statistical middle is largely vacated as people crowd to the left and right.

I think the idea of using a circle, or a series of circles moving out from a central point, to plot attitudes and beliefs is better because it allows easier tracking and analysis across multiple issues. I recognise that definitional issues remain. For example, do you place the centre at the point where the dots are greatest or do you use another conventional measure and then plot views against that or a combination of the two?  However, I think that it is a useful technique.

As an aside, back in 2010 I reported (Mapping the Australian blogosphere) on attempt to measure linkages and clustering between political blogs. I haven't seen it done since and indeed the blogging world has changed enormously since, but the clustering remains interesting.

Returning to my main theme,  I think that if you mapped the United States I think that you would find two things. If we define the centre in terms of majority views, we would find a move to the left. If we define the centre in terms of the area of overlap of views, we would find that it has sharply narrowed with two quite distinct segments coming from that point, both of whom talk past each other.

I think something similar has happened in the UK where Brexit has highlighted divisions to the point that the very survival of the UK as a political entity is under some question. Brexit is an example of a wicked problem made more acute by the earlier failure to address what might be done if the there was a yes vote and then weaknesses in the consultation process. As in the US, divisions reflect geography and history as well as the usual economic and class divides. In both countries, ideology has become more important, hardening left/right divides.

The problem with the apparent collapse of the centre lies in the way that it reduces scope for common working, adds to the zero sum must win mentality even where such victories can only be short term pyrrhic gains. Despite the divides, there are political leaders in both the US and UK who still instinctively move to the centre in seeking common ground even at political cost to themselves.

I think that the Australian position is better, although some of the same trends are apparent here. I say this for several reasons.

I think the major parties still look, or are at least forced to look, for centre ground. Here I think that the cross-bench has played an interesting and quite productive role. I have also found, and this is just a personal comment, that even with the ideological warriors it is still possible to have a conversation on facts and issues despite their normal entrenched positions. I am not sure that this would be possible in the US.

Still, I do worry whether the Australian centre can hold in the face of the forces of disunion.


Winton Bates said...

Hi Jim
I agree that the major parties still look to the centre, but It looks to me as though Labor leaders spend a lot of time looking over their left shoulders towards the Greens and the Coaltion leaders spend a lot of time looking over their right shoulders worrying about the “base”. Could you please explain your view that the cross-bench has played a productive role. Who do you have in mind other than Tony Windsor?

Jim Belshaw said...

That was a nice turn of phrase in your first sentence, Winton. I will try to explain on the second.

The cross-bench in both houses is not a single entity, but sets of different views. I don't think that they have impeded normal Government business, rather they have acted as a balance where the main parties are (well more or less) centrally controlled.

Some of the specific examples I have in mind are same sex marriage and scrutiny on refugee and national security issues where Lib-Lab really are inclined to rush things. There is clear divergence within the cross-bench in terms of contribution. For example, Cathy McGowan or Andrew Wilkie are in a different class to Ms Hanson or Mr Anning.

Winton Bates said...

Jim, you make a stronger case than I thought possible.

My concern, as you will probably recall from similar exchanges, is that our system of voting in the Senate gives the people on the cross benches a veto on the economic policies of the elected government. The government cannot be held accountable for its policies if it can’t implement them.

It looks as though Bill Shorten and his team have put a lot of effort into policy development. I think much of their policy is misguided, but that is beside the point. The policies Labor will stand on at the next election count for nothing if Shorten wins government and his tax increases etc. can’t be implemented.

In my view it would be great for the future of democracy if Scott Morrison promises not to stand in the way of tax increases proposed by Labor if they win the election. That might actually help some voters to support the Coalition. But it ain’t likely to happen.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Winton's take on this; and I think this paean to "the centre" is wrong-headed. There have been many times in the past where the downwards negotiation of specific government policy has been more a form of "appeasement" than "accommodation" of divergent views.

Let Trump, for example, build his wall. The next duly elected President can tear it down if that is then his/her mandate. In the crazy world of economic measurement, both activities would be GDP-positive anyway - so what's the point? And besides, Trump's wall only differs from Australia's bi-partisan border protection by a matter of geography, not policy.

"The centre" is not a comfy, let's-please-as-many-people-as-we-can, approach; it is more an enemy of excellence - for either Right or Left in political terms:

There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist, who is willing to sit out the course of any battle, willing to cash in on the blood of the innocent or to crawl on his belly to the guilty, who dispenses justice by condemning both the robber and the robbed to jail, who solves conflicts by ordering the thinker and the fool to meet each other halfway.

- Ayn Rand


Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, I think that you may misunderstand me.

I spent some time discussing the meaning of centre. I am not saying that the views of the centre however defined a better than those on the right or left however defined. I am hardly going to argue that given my political philosophy! I do think however, that problems arise in any polity when there is no or little over-lap of views and.more importantly, values between sides. It either leads to a majoritarian winner takes all approach or to an unstable coalition of groups each representing incompatible positions joined together by compromises.

2 tanners said...

Given that Trump got many less votes than Clinton, I'm not sure that you can sensibly argue that he has a 'mandate' for anything.

The Commonality between the US and Australia is the increased partisanship. Britain is different as there are gaps between the agreement Brexiteers, the At Any Cost Brexiteers, the second referendum folks, the new election folks etc. None hold a majority.

I am at least comforted by the system of preferential voting we have, compared to the plurality wins all systems in the US and Britain. Sorry for the disconnected thoughts, the meds are winning.

Finally the cross bench is not "a" cross bench, it is a ragtag collection of variously inclined people who constitute numbers only in the calculus of the major parties.

Anonymous said...

Hi tanners and hny to you and yours!

1. if you exclude California (and who wouldn't wish to?) the 'popular vote' was won by Trump. But that is beside the point, as you well know: the electoral college decides who gets to run the country - unless you are also arguing that Tasmania, in our system, deserves less influence than it wields?

2. 'partisanship' can have many sides, not just two. The UK is presently just as partisan as the US - both more so, for the moment, than Oz.

3. agree with your analysis of the 'cross bench'. Basically they are a pointless rabble, is how I'd extend your comment.

Jim I didn't 'misunderstand you'. I simply chose to focus on another aspect of what is meant by the middle or 'centre' in political terms. Dueling definitions :)


Clipping Path said...

This is lovely. keep it up

Anonymous said...

""[T]he hallmark of fanatical centrism is the determination to see America’s left and right as equally extreme, no matter what they actually propose.""


"Yet the reality of American politics is asymmetric polarization: extremism on the right is a powerful political force, while extremism on the left isn’t."

So, Paul Krugman seems to disagree with you, Jim? He thinks being a 'centrist" is now being extremist :)

- by former Enron adviser, Paul Krugman

Winton Bates said...

Hi kvd,
Krugman’s portrayal of centrists in the US makes their economic policies seem a lot like those of Tony Abbott. Perhaps politics in the US is a few degrees to the right of politics in Australia.
Paul Kelly has an interesting analysis in the Oz yesterday (gated) about the former Liberal voters in some urban electorates of Australia who seem to be intent on voting for independents in the next election. He writes:
“The symbolism of the campaign against Abbott is stark. ..... This revolt is the antithesis of the forces that saw Abbott elected in 2013 ....
It’s values are climate change activism and social progressivism but the pervasive message runs deeper - this is the claim that Abbott’s brand of Liberalism has lost touch with the emerging trend of middle class morality”.
I have truncated that but, the essence of the argument is there.
I agree with Paul’s analysis, but he is more of a social conservative than I claim to be. I think the headline of the article captures his view: “Flawed morality of the middle class hurts Liberals”. If I had written the headline it might read: “Failure to reach consensus of climate change and energy policy hurts Liberals”.

Winton Bates said...

Yep, if I had written the lead line I would probably have failed to notice the typo in the last line. It should have read: “Failure to reach consensus on climate change and energy policy hurts Liberals”.

Anonymous said...

If by "energy policy" you guys mean "electricity policy" then I agree with both of you that it hurts Liberals BUT as it also hurts all of us, I'm inclined to be completely indifferent to any hurt felt by the Liberals at this point.

Anyway, I am probably an outrider regards both climate change and electricity generation in Australia, so best keep my views to myself.


Winton Bates said...

kvd: You are right, electricity policy is hurting all of us. The hurt doesn’t look like ending soon. It looks like invesors in electricity generation and storage will continue to be stuck with policy uncertainty whoever wins the next election.

I wish the main participants in the debates on climate change and electricity generation in the major parties had the humility to keep their views to themselves and set about trying to find a workable compromise.

Jim Belshaw said...

That piece by Krugman quite befuddled me! If those views as described are the views of the US centre then, as Winton implied, the US centre is clearly well to the Australian right. I think that the US problem is that it just doesn't have a centre in the way that I as opposed to kvd defined it.