Five lessons from 2021 we should take into 2022

| January 6, 2022

As I wrote my series of Christmas cards wishing people, ‘all the best for the festive season’, I found myself signing off with the words, ‘and let’s all hope for a boring 2022.’

If we reflect on the optimism in which 2021 began driven by Covid19 vaccines and falling hospitalizations, the year ended with a sense of exhaustion: From the 6 January Capital Riots to the spread of Omicron, the so-called ‘freedom protests’ across Australia to a sense that autocratic governments were overtaking the world’s liberal democracies, it was not a great year for optimists.

Frustration at the lack of reform, petty political squabbling, and a sense that many of our political leaders are out of touch with daily struggles has added to the sense that our political institutions are failing us. To stop this trend, here are five lessons that we must take forward from the previous year.

Democracy must deliver

Over the last century, democracy has become the dominant system because it has managed to deliver benefits. That is. liberal democracies have succeeded because they are built on universal suffrage, but because of improvement in quality of life.

As Fulbright Scholar, Misha Zelinsky recently outlined, people have embraced liberal democracies not because they preferred the writings of Adam Smith over Karl Marx, but because they have experienced material improvements across multiple generations.

As we see partisanship prioritized over reform and compromise, the stalemates that follow may be great for winning support from a small ideological base but do nothing for the nation.

Be it responding to the displacement of Indigenous peoples, action on climate change, energy policy, jobs creation or healthcare, there is a need for reform, compromise, and bipartisanship. It is only by working across the political divide that brave reforms – such as a carbon trading system, universal basic income or citizen juries – can be trialed and implemented. Otherwise, we will continue to stumble in the face of great challenges.

We cannot leave communities behind

My research in the USA during my own Fulbright Fellowship was focused on the future of the Republican Party and the Trump phenomenon. While there is no single cause of anti-democratic populism, it is driven by two factors: the first is that the populist convinces ‘the people’ that their interests are aligned and they can be their best representative; and secondly, the populist takes advantage of discontent and anger directed at the failings of contemporary political systems.

In the USA, populist leaders from both the left and the right drove this message home to large sections of the population which feel that they have been forgotten, and even sacrificed. It was for this reason that many Bernie Sanders supporters voted for Trump in 2016: they both promised to tear the system down.

There is not only the economic vulnerability that is palpable in the USA and is becoming increasingly obvious here, but a sense of being sneered at for not keeping up with changing social and economic norms. Democracies cannot be successful if large sections of the population feel like they are being left behind.

We need to find the right balance between nationalism and internationalism

One way to describe the economic policies of the 1980s and ‘90s is ‘peak neoliberalism’ framed by optimism towards economic globalization. The ideas where simple: interlink economies, encourage specialization, let inefficient local industries die and in the long term, economic prosperity and peace would follow.

Little consideration was given to the planet’s limited resources, nor the fact that the death of those industries would lead to massive social displacement.

International connectivity has been a success story – economically, socially, and politically – and global forums have never been more important.

We need to remember, however, that the nation state remains the best administrative tool to manage many of the challenges we face – from our health and education systems, to housing and competition policy. The crisis in global supply chains shows the important of healthy and functioning domestic infrastructure.

There seems to be a false dichotomy between the national and international priorities with political parties picking and choosing what best suits their ideological position. The equation is simple: without global cooperation we have no chance, and without a vibrant national infrastructure, we have no chance.

Finding the balance is, however, much harder and requires a course set through bipartisanship.

Social media must be held to account

One thing that Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen made clear was the need for urgent external regulation of the social media giants. Haugen explained how Facebook’s internal culture prioritised profitability over its impact on the wider world. Be it misinformation, the spreading of hate speech or the simplicity in which fake accounts allow for bullying, social media has sowed seeds of discontent and now is the time for accountability.

There are many ways in which social media conglomerates can be held to account without threatening them as vehicles for ‘free speech,’ including greater transparency and privacy – what seems to be missing is political will.

Social media has the potential to be a vehicle for bringing people together and opening up opportunities for dialogue. The priority of profits through the outrage algorithm is having the opposite effect.

Communication must be honest, trustworthy, and based on well-communicated science

The number of confusing messages from state and federal governments about Covid that seemed more based on political expediency and point-scoring contributed to a perplexed and frustrated public. As different state and federal leaders contradicted each other, not only did the public grow uncertain, but the credible information vacuum became fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

The growth of mistrust in expert systems was temporary arrested by the initial cooperation around the pandemic, but this dissipated as the public squabbling began.

The public needs to be treated like adults with honesty and clear scientific facts. This means that our leaders need to be honest about uncertainty. Without such an approach, trust in our politicians and political system will continue to decline and governing will become untenable.

This pandemic will not be the final global crisis we face – and unless lessons are learnt, 2021 may be a year we look back on with nostalgia. For our politicians, they need to learn that finding a way to solve these challenges is more important than winning at all