27 May 2016
by Waleed Aly

Three weeks in, it's still an election about nothing in particular

There are flashpoints – negative gearing, maybe some health funding, possibly even boats – but there's no central, definitive theme.

When was the last time anyone voted for anyone? Barack Obama in 2008. Maybe Kevin 07? Other than that, examples are thin on the ground. Australians didn't vote for anyone at all in 2010, voted against Labor (and certainly not for Abbott) in 2013, and have now very quickly fallen out of love with Malcolm Turnbull almost as thoroughly as we dropped Rudd. This year Americans will either vote against Donald Trump and put Hillary Clinton in the White House, or they'll vote against politics altogether and put Trump there. An average of national polls this week put Trump slightly ahead. Yes.

Meanwhile, Austria came within a whisker of electing a far-right president. It's largely a ceremonial role, but it's hardly a token result. Norbert Hofer is the kind of character who has now become an utterly familiar part of the political landscape: he has obvious counterparts in Slovakia, in Hungary, in Poland, in Switzerland, in Greece, in Sweden, in the Netherlands, even in France and Britain in the forms of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. Now note the ubiquitous description of these figures: anti-immigrant, anti-EU. It's a surging movement defined overwhelmingly by what it's against.

But here's the kicker: Hofer didn't even lose to a usual suspect. He lost to a fellow outlier: a former Green running as an independent, who'd be considered radical by the standards of conventional politics. But that's just it. Convention has been obliterated. Austria's two major parties, even with their votes combined, would have come third in this race. They didn't even get to the second-round runoff election. If the politics of the 20th century was a battle between liberalism and socialism, it's becoming something else entirely in the 21st. The problem is that's all it's becoming: something else.

Liberalism and socialism were competing, well-formed social visions. They identified grand aims, and proposed means of achieving them. They ground out theories about the role of government and the rights of the citizen. In short, they asked us to buy something positive, even if they were quite negative about each other. And in turns, they earned the approval of voting majorities.

Where exactly is that majority now? Liberalism – once a defining characteristic of the right – is now crashing on the shores of right-wing populism. From Trump to Hofer, this movement is economically protectionist in a way that makes serious liberals shudder. And socialism commenced falling apart once the Cold War ended, before comprehensively doing so in the wake of the financial crisis. It depends on a shared sense of solidarity amongst its citizenry, and yet this is precisely what democracies no longer have. That's why socialism's natural supporters have abandoned it: this week a staggering 86 per cent of Austria's manual workers voted for Hofer.

The truth is there are no majorities anymore. Not in any positive sense. Since the financial crisis, elites are under populist assault. But the underclass now includes everyone from white nationalist blue-collar workers to well-educated but unemployed young people, immigrants and refugees. And that's before you factor in the splintering of public debate into a million online forums, and as many completely different publics. That's not to say people cannot win elections. Clearly they must. But it is to say that the terms on which those elections can be won have narrowed drastically.

Democratic politics has become so debased, so mistrusted, so fractured, that the only genuine form of currency now seems to be opposition. Much has been said about the idea that politics has now become post-ideological; that it has become about nothing much. But the truth is worse than that. We're in an age where the only way to cobble together a majority is to run against something.

We're in the age of dissent. And in an age like this, power can only be grasped via some manufactured coalition of anger. That, of course, is utterly unsustainable because no sooner does that coalition succeed than it becomes the very target of the next wave of protest. It rages its way to power only to be raged out of it at the next available opportunity. That's why Abbott existed. It's why even Turnbull is now running a campaign as though he's an opposition leader. And more broadly, it's why we're now able to shed prime ministers with such effortless speed in this country.

But perhaps nothing illustrates this quite so perfectly as Austria. Hofer's alarming success was the clear product of a protest vote. But ultimately, so was his failure. The eventual victor, Alexander Van der Bellen, might be the first Green in the world to be elected head of state, but he was an extremely reluctant choice. Hofer soundly beat him in the first round, and the result was only reversed once both major parties unenthusiastically backed Van der Bellen in the runoff as a lesser evil. Indeed, Van der Bellen himself argued that same case, pleading for the votes of people "who don't like me but perhaps like Hofer even less". And after all that, he won by just 31,000 votes.

This week our own interminable election campaign has shrunk to something of remarkable smallness. We've seen all manner of ping pong over costings and black holes, and funding announcements about things like localised mobile phone dead spots. We're three weeks into this campaign and the preponderance of jobs-and-growth-style slogans aside, it's still impossible to identify what this election is really about. There are flashpoints – negative gearing, maybe some health funding, possibly even boats – but there's no central, definitive theme. This philosophical vacuum will naturally be filled by negative politicking, which is why Labor's so relentless on Turnbull's elitism and the Coalition wants to whack Shorten as weak on asylum seekers. But what if this isn't a story of uninspired campaigning? What if this is just democracy now? Maybe it's time to stop expecting anything more because in the age of dissent, we'll only punish anyone who offers it.