Fear, pessimism and the “explosive” state of some European countries in the era of Brexit and Donald Trump were dominant themes in a discussion this week among academics that also drew parallels for the rest of the world, including Australia.
Moderating the discussion, Melbourne University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis acknowledged that the world in 2017 was “a really scary one”.
“2016 was an anus horribilis . . . if you’re concerned about populism and instability,” he said.
Constitutional law expert Prof Adrienne Stone agreed.
“I would describe myself as very worried,” she told an audience of about 400 people at the Parkville campus on Wednesday night. “I’m not yet in a blind panic, but I’m very worried.
“What was so striking to me about 2016 is that we saw a reversal of the great stories of the second half of the twentieth century, which had been the spread of constitutionalism in the post-World War II era, post-war reconstruction, [and] the fall of authoritarian regimes.”
Added European Union expert Prof Philomena Murray: “You have massive unemployment – up to 60 per cent youth unemployment in countries like Greece. Governments don’t seem to be satisfying the basic needs [of] society.
“Bring that together with the idea of scarce resources, and then you have over a million refugees coming into [countries such as] Germany.
“It’s just explosive.”
As for the rise of Donald Trump, media and communications researcher Dr Andrea Carson noted that, “fear usually trumps hope.”
The irony of a group of predominantly liberal elites discussing liberal elitism was not lost on the panel.
“Why are we so out of touch?” Prof Davis asked the speakers, to a murmur of laughter from the audience.
“This speaks to the fragmentation of society,” responded Dr Carson. “Look at wage stagflation in the US – most people’s wages haven’t gone up, but for top income earners [they’re] up nine per cent.
“Elites are the people benefitting from globalisation . . . We tend to socialise in our own bubbles, and social media facilitates that. We get the echo bubble going on around that. The media is so polarised and we’re not getting cross pollination.”
Prof Stone added that, as a lawyer, she was concerned that legal values were often painted as the technical worries of the elite, rather than issues affecting the whole of society.
“It’s really notable that I don’t think we’ve ever really had a moment like the civil rights movement [in Australia], where law was widely understood to be a mechanism for social change,” she said.
Symbolism was not particularly popular with Australians, who were instead guided by pragmatism. The onus was therefore on lawyers to demonstrate what the law could do in the service of people “who feel like they’re on the outside.”
“The founders of the United States saw Trump coming, in their wisdom,” Prof Stone added, noting that various established checks on Presidential power appeared to be holding Mr Trump to account.
“For the moment, the courts have held him to account, Congress has at least not blindly followed him down every pathway.
“Whether there is real political resistance over time remains to be seen. If he were to remain politically successful and popular, I would have grave doubts about that.
“[Constitutions] are only as strong as the political cultures in which they sit . . . if they’re subject to constant attack from political forces, they will give way.”
Statistics reveal that citizens increasingly are becoming disillusioned with democratic systems of government.
Dr Roberto Foa, a principal investigator with the global research project World Values Surveys, said that in the US, the proportion of the public who agreed that it would be a good thing to have the army rule the country had risen from one in 16, to one in six.
“Was 2016 an anomaly? I’d have to say I was shocked, but not surprised,” he said. “There’s been a rising tide over several decades of anti-establishment feeling.”
Prof Davis added that “young people, in particular, show enormous declining faith in democracy, down below 50 per cent now in most of the Western world, including Australia.”
Attempting to rescue the discussion from its overriding pessimism, an audience member asked where the panel had found practical antidotes to fear.
Prof Murray took heart from newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron’s ongoing attempts to turn France’s political narrative away from extremes and towards a sense of inclusion and belonging.
Dr Carson added that social media and digital technology weren’t entirely the domain of “fake news” and propaganda. She cited the previously unthinkable collaboration between journalists around the world on the Panama Papers tax investigation as a recent source of inspiration.
In response to a question about US senator and erstwhile presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders’ effect on American politics, she added that “young people were very optimistic, and very open to [his] message.
“I think that can give us all hope.”
With political cynicism not disappearing any time soon, outsider candidates could well be an ongoing phenomenon.
“People look at what’s happening in establishment politics and what they see is soundbite politics, machine politics, lobbying,” Dr Foa said.
“When you have enough people in society who feel hurt or marginalised, they’re prepared to take that risk [on an outsider].”