The rise of extremism

| November 21, 2017

Support for extremes is increasing, as mainstream political views struggle to maintain their dominance, with trust in the political class at an all-time low. Western societies have begun to see globalisation as a threat, rather than regarding inter-connection as desirable objective and have become more concerned about the movement of people across borders, globalisation and ‘Islamification’.

Trump in particular, embodies the changed discourse and he has emboldened those who have harboured prejudice and hostility. But this is part of a wider trend in which the Brexit debate, along with the growing support for the Far Right and Populists in many other countries is evidence of greater divisions. So too, have religious extremists, prepared to expound – and act upon – the most intolerant and barbaric of views.

Civil society also seems to have become far less civil in both the real and virtual world adopting a less tolerant tone. And the discourse has been reinforced by a change in individual social interactions too, for example through internet ‘trolling’ and abuse via social media where people apparently feel able to express their prejudices whilst hiding behind the façade of anonymity – and some actually do not even bother to hide. All societies are finding it harder to cope with a new and almost unmediated form of communications, no longer in the form of state controlled or corporation drive top-down established press and media, but much more open, international and multi-layered.

Meanwhile in order that they no longer have to justify their wild views, extremists have helped to invent a world of fantasy, in which considered views or evidence, is neither valued, nor required. Even ‘mainstream’ politicians have been prepared to dispense with evidence – and it seems we ‘have had enough of experts’– their inconvenient views can just be replaced by ‘alternative facts’.

And perhaps the most surprising and worrying trend is that the political class is now seen as part of the problem, or at least no longer able to provide the solution. In order to gain support, would-be politicians either present themselves as insurgent anti-politicians who are against the political class – Trump for example, still does not want to be thought of as a politician – or, try to distinguish themselves by a level of ‘authenticity’ in which they try to present themselves as different.

Our political class is now marooned and distant, seemingly unable to offer a meaningful and trusted relationship. For example, in the UK, a staggering 72% of people believe that ‘our government does not prioritise the concerns of people like me’ and the same sentiment is expressed in 22 other countries, with on average 71% expressing the same view.

The political class, however, has also itself been responsible for deepening these divisions by attempting to gain power by relying on an appeal to their diminishing level of ‘core supporters’ at the expense of the wider community. Their reliance on a traditional ‘left-right’ political paradigm has also failed to reflect the new world in which we now live. It is not surprising that many people around the world have little or no confidence in their politicians – as many as 85% of Australians according to a World Values Survey.

More than that, they have failed to recognise the real impact of change in our communities, both in terms of identity and resources. Legitimate fears and concerns are generally dismissed as ‘racist’ and political parties and institutions have connived to prevent such views gaining ‘the oxygen of publicity’. It is of course the case, that racists and xenophobes use these legitimate concerns for their own agendas, but there has been little real attempt to identify the real and pressing concerns and to address them. Many countries have experienced a substantial and rapid increase in population which has not been matched by a commensurate increase in housing (especially affordable provision), schools, transport infrastructure, health, cultural and other facilities. The movement of population has often also resulted in increased segregation, exacerbating fears about a changing identity and the development of monocultural ‘echo chambers’ which reinforce separate values on either side of the divide.

The growing gap between rich and poor has been well documented and fuelled the sense of unfairness. In political terms, however, it has been presented as the problem of uncontrollable global elite who are beyond the reach of national political processes. But rather than seeking international co-operation to address the issue, politicians cling to the idea of a ‘return of powers’, seemingly unwilling to recognise the reality of a global economy.

We are now in one of the most difficult and dangerous political periods for fifty years. Looking back, we have enjoyed a period of relative political stability, across the Western world at least. The limited attempts to promote cohesion have been undervalued, partly because views that challenge diversity have been dismissed as ‘bigoted’ rather than recognised as an inevitable process of change. Similarly, the social democratic consensus, based on common understandings about the need for a stronger global connectedness and human rights has been undermined; and so peace and cohesion are now at risk.

The ideal of global connectedness has given way to doubts about the impact on nation states, their sovereignty and their economies – global forces are clearly beyond the capability of nation states to control and yet international agencies that might offer some regulation are themselves regarded with suspicion and seen as anti-democratic.

This uncertainty and turbulence does, however, give us an opportunity to re-think political processes and arrangements – indeed, it is essential that new ideas are put forward or change will happen by default as people feel less connected with mainstream politics and extremists continue to fill the vacuum.

But as we worry about these trends, we can take a little comfort from some new and remarkable developments, which may bring people together across cultures and give us cause for hope that people will reject the divisive and extremist narratives.

Across the globe, younger people in particular are demanding a new political agenda to tackle climate change, environmental degradation and to reduce conflict and insecurity. They are not frightened of global connectedness and their priorities are to replace vested interests with that of a ‘shared destiny’ and international co-operation. These trends, however, need to be nurtured and supported if they are to triumph over – or trump – the narrative of division and fear.

Professor Ted Cantle is currently in Sydney to speak at the Advancing Community Cohesion Conference hosted by Western Sydney University.