Journalists and commentators tend to make politics a lot more complicated than it needs to be. What happened to politics in Australia in 2019 (and after last week’s United Kingdom election, in Britain too) is quite easily explained. All you need to do is to look at what is the “2019 Word of the Year”, according to the leading publishers of dictionaries in Australia and Britain.
In this country, a committee assembled by the Macquarie Dictionary voted its word of the year to be “cancel culture” (although pedants might argue that’s a term made up of two words).
According to the dictionary, the word captured “an important aspect of the past year’s Zeitgeist … an attitude which is so pervasive that it now has a name, society’s cancel culture has become, for better or for worse, a powerful force”.
“Cancel culture” describes the “phenomenon whereby people call for a boycott of a public figure and their careers, products or businesses” in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment by that figure. Synonyms for “cancel culture” include “call-out culture” or “outrage culture”.
In Britain, the word of the year from the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary is “climate emergency”. Runners-up are “climate action”, “climate crisis”, “climate denial” and “eco-anxiety”. “Climate emergency” is defined as “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it”.
By way of comparison, in America the 2019 word of the year according to Merriam-Webster is “they”. Not “they” as in a group of people, but as a pronoun to refer to an individual whose gender identity is non-binary that is used in place of “he” or “she”.
If ever you wanted to know the difference in the preoccupations between people who use dictionaries and those who don’t, there’s no clearer demonstration.
If you live in a town in regional Queensland or a city in the north of England the chances are you’re more worried about your job, the family finances and your children’s education than you are about gender pronouns or climate emergencies/crises/disasters, or what should happen to comedians who make rude or offensive jokes.
In 2020, “realignment” could well be in the running for word of the year – at least as it applies to politics and was revealed in the 2019 national elections. In 2019, politics was realigned as conservative political parties gathered increasing support from “the working class” and those with less education, while left-wing parties won support from the wealthier and better-educated voters.
The role of culture is another feature of what happened to politics in 2019.
There’s significant evidence that in Australia, when Bill Shorten, the then opposition leader, said a plebiscite on same-sex marriage would “give haters the chance to come out from under the rock”, the Labor Party lost votes.
Similarly, in Britain, when Jeremy Corbyn as opposition leader didn’t sing the national anthem at the commemorative service at St Paul’s Cathedral to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the British Labour Party most likely lost votes too.
Religion, in the form of freedom to talk about your religion, played a role in the 2019 federal election in Australia. The Coalition’s attempts to pass legislation enshrining a measure of freedom of religion in this country could be one of its major parliamentary battles in 2020.
Likewise, in the British election, patriotism and the idea political leaders should be loyal to the country they lead had an influence on the outcome.
The consequences for public policy of these developments are yet to be fully revealed. However, one outcome that can already be witnessed in this country is the Coalition’s reaction to the shift in its electoral base by imposing higher regulation and more taxes on particular industries – most notably on the banking and finance industries – and generally by being more willing to use government power to intervene in the market.
For political parties in the English-speaking world one of their major challenges in 2020 and beyond will be to manage the electoral and policy consequences of the political and cultural realignments we witnessed in 2019.