Vacuous politics breeds vacuous politicians


The standard explanation for the rise and rise of 'outsider' figures like Donald Drumpf in the US (and Clive Palmer in Australia) is that there is disillusion in democratic countries with 'politics as usual'.

Illustration by Chris Johnston, workers fill hollowed out Donald Tump with bags of moneyThere is a perception — with a fair basis in reality — that politics, especially the two-party version prevalent in the US, Australia or the UK has failed, leading to a situation where the governing party and opposition agree on most major issues: whether that be free trade, participation in the latest overseas war, legislation restricting civil liberties or the ill-treatment of asylum seekers.

This is not to say that all of these views are out of step with those of a majority of the population at large. Nevertheless, sufficient numbers of people are so fed up with the status quo that they are willing to try something different.

What that 'something different' is may range wildly within each country from more traditional socialist ideas (such as those of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK or Bernie Sanders in the US) to more right-wing forms of populism (such as the nativist rhetoric of a Nigel Farage, Jackie Lambie or Donald Drumpf) to even overtly Nazi views (such as those of groups like Golden Dawn in Greece or Right Sector in the Ukraine).

Neal Gabler has blamed the media for turning politics into celebrity theatre by refusing to ask the hard policy questions of such protest candidates and thereby allowing insurgent characters with absolutely no substance behind them to flourish.

While he has pinpointed the symptom, I suggest that he has it exactly the wrong way around. It is precisely because politics has already been hollowed out to be a slanging match of personalities rather than a contest of ideas (or at least ideologies) that vacuous celebrities can flourish and even triumph.

What has caused this hollowing out? It results from the fact that the ideologies of both parties are practically identical. This is because, as the old adage says, the one who pays the piper calls the tune.

In the US, at least, this position is official. The Supreme Court there has held, in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, that it would violate the First Amendment of the US Constitution to regulate political expenditure by a corporation.

This built on an earlier case, Buckley v Valeo, which said that spending money is the same thing as free speech (because it is the only way in which a corporation gets to make its voice heard).

The result is that whoever can raise the most money has the most voice at election time — and those with money have been contributing fulsomely to both political parties. The effect of the Supreme Court decision has been to put new bite into the old joke that the US has the best democracy money can buy.

No wonder politics is disconnected from the average punter or that two respected professors have concluded that the US should better be regarded as an oligarchy (or as they put it, a model of 'economic elite domination') than a democracy.

As many commentators have noted, it does not take much to see why a crisis of confidence in democratic institutions is dangerous. Worse yet, surely, is the fact that those institutions may well have ceased to be democratic.

Australia has no grounds for complacency. Unlike the US, Australia does not even have laws restricting direct donations to candidates or parties (except in New South Wales). There are state and federal disclosure regimes, but these are similarly relaxed. Donations by a single donor of under $111,600 (spread across the nation and all candidates) need not even be disclosed.

In addition, associated entities like John Curtin House Limited or the Free Enterprise Forum have allowed political parties to bypass even the weak regulatory regime which does exist.

It is therefore unsurprising that politicians do what they are paid to or that those who can afford to pay one party can usually afford to pay the other as well. In these circumstances, convergence of policies between the parties is almost inevitable.

Distrust of voters on the ground is unlikely to be lessened by the fact that the regulation of use of taxpayers' money is no better.

While most politicians purport to be horrified by reports of helicopter rides at taxpayers' expense, the truth is, as the Supreme Court of the ACT pointed out in its acquittal of Peter Slipper that whether funds are being spent on 'parliamentary business' is largely a matter for the person spending them to decide.

If the fox is the duly appointed guardian of the chicken coop, the results are not difficult to predict.

Those fretting about the decline of Western democracies should therefore look first at the health of the structures within (and especially the money which flows in their arteries). Otherwise their complaints will increasingly resemble that lampooned in Berthold Brecht's The Solution:

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writer's Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?


Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Clive Palmer, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton



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Existing comments

Russian strongman Nikita Khrushchev said "If ten or twelve Hungarian writers had been shot at the right moment, there would have been no revolution." So, underestimating writers and poets can be dangerous for politicians. A robust, and highly principled, media can shine a light. Artists can paint pictures. Society has to take responsibility.

Pam | 11 March 2016  

It is not only politics that have been hollowed out, but society. Courts are increasingly the playthings of “progressive” judges who override the will of the people by “discovering” new “rights” when it comes to abortion, same-sex marriage, and implied rights to freedom of political communication. Universities are becoming intolerant in terms of what kind of ideas are acceptable and debatable on campuses. European Union leaders let in millions of immigrants and yesterday’s headlines show growing public unrest amid a wave of reports of sexual assaults since the Cologne attacks. In Britain, the rape and abuse of 1400 girls, many underage, by immigrants was covered up by the authorities and media for 15 years. Writing in The Guardian, Thomas Frank, who has “been disgusted by Trump for 20 years” analysed hours of Trump’s speeches. He found Trump frequently spoke about legitimate issues such as trade, destructive free-trade agreements, deindustrialization, and was critical of the drug industry, bank bailouts, and the military-industrial complex. A survey by Working America found that people were fed up and distressed because “their kids don’t have a future”. It’s the “let them eat cake” attitude of Western “leaders” that is causing the turmoil.

Ross Howard | 12 March 2016  

Spot on.

Noel Kapernick | 14 March 2016  

Thanks Justin for a thoughtful piece. I thoroughly agree with what you say. But there is such a sad side to your piece. For those of us without a corporation or millions what can we do? As a result of the picture you paint it is not surprising that people feel impotent then depressed and then give up. So there is no countervailing force. I will be watching and supporting Tony Windsor in his contest against yet another Jesuit old boy.

Michael D. Breen | 14 March 2016  

A disturbing article which pinpoints the political crisis we face not just here but all over the world. Always enjoy Justin's insights. Thank you.

Jo | 14 March 2016  

Thank you for your thoughtful article Justin. As I mentioned to you at the Refugee rally in Melbourne earlier today ... Chomsky comes to mind for me. His commentary in the film "Requiem for the American Dream" (in the recent Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne) is worth noting too. the essence of Chomsky's perspective is available online at

Mary Tehan | 20 March 2016  

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