Once upon a time (around 12 years ago) I began studying politics at AS Level. This was in 2004 – a time where political discourse largely veered towards the centre. Tony Blair was about to win a third general election under the banner of ‘ New Labour ‘ and Michael Howard’s comments on curbing immigration were about as extreme as it got in those days. In the US President George W Bush, although enormously unpopular for the Iraq war, still comfortably beat his democrat counterpart, John Kerry, to win another term in office. It was still 4 years before the subprime mortgage sector would crash and the world would experience the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Things were, in a relative sense, stable. This sense of stability was reflected in the political narrative of the western world. Parties that would be traditionally seen as left or right all seemed to have moved into the centre.
One economic disaster later, the formation of ISIS and a general breakdown in confidence at so-called ‘career politicians’, we have a political landscape that is now completely different. The politics of fear have taken hold. The emergence of Donald Trump as an anti-politician is a case in point. He is the polar opposite of anything that could be conceived as centre ground. He espouses xenophobia, islamophobia and a disdain for the Washington establishment, in a way that perhaps no presidential candidate has ever done before. On this side of the pond, Brexit is being portrayed as a swipe at the perceived Westminster elite, often fuelled by (surprise surprise) immigration fears and general annoyance at political correctness.
The disenfranchised and disengaged electorate, who have felt that their interests and concerns have not been represented, have fought back through embracing extreme political stances. This is not just the case in the obvious examples I have just mentioned. Strong nationalist sentiment has been growing all over Europe. Look how at how far right parties such as Alternative for Deutschland in Germany and the National Front in France have started to attract huge waves of support in the last few years. Or, if you want to look even further afield, the Jobbik party in Hungary, who are openly anti-semitic, now find themselves as the second biggest party in the country.
Just as there has been an apparent reboot in the extreme politics of the right so too has it been the case on the other side of the spectrum. Imposed austerity measures in the aftermath of the 2008 crash have led to more parties emerging from the hard socialist left. Greece’s Syriza party and Podemos in Spain are prime examples of a popular repudiation of austerity/cuts. We are seeing the same pattern emerge in the UK; To counterbalance the right-wing Tory government driving Brexit, there is Labour, with their radical leader Jeremy Corbyn – who are very much a throwback to a bygone era. In the states, whilst Bernie Sanders did not get the democratic nomination to go up against Donald Trump, his stirring campaign was remarkable and could well pave the way for others like him to go one better and take the presidency in years to come.
In such an unstable time is there room for the centre ground to be what it was? Who knows, but in extreme times people naturally flock towards belief systems that best reflect their circumstances, and right now it appears that the centre has got a lot of catching up to do to get back into the public consciousness.