When some years ago a voter told then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown there was too much immigration into Britain, Brown was heard to mutter “Bigot!” as he retreated to the cocoon of his car.
Citizens’ long-standing annoyance at the deafness of officials to the public mood is now showing up at the ballot box, as recent unexpected results in polls in Britain and Colombia, and support for Donald Trump in the United States, attest. This change is the terminal result of some longer-term changes.
There has been a narrowing in the way we publicly speak to and about ourselves.
Two quotations from the 1970s reveal that this change has been apparent for some decades now:
“The more one reads the newspapers and the magazines of the recent past, the more one realises how little they know of the society which they affect to report, and how they understand even less. They seem to pass around each other’s information and intimations, until their voice becomes one, and they succeed in creating a wholly artificial national mood.” (Henry Fairlie, The Kennedy Promise, 1973)
“Most political correspondents [of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery] spend a lot of time in each other’s company. They work in the same small area of Parliament House, they have access to the same parliamentary bar, they mostly drink at the same hotel, and they often will spend a reasonable amount of their social time at weekends with other journalists.” (David Solomon, Australian Politics: A Third Reader, 1971)
Instead of going out into the highways and byways to report what’s happening among ordinary citizens, journalists increasingly talk to and about themselves on shows like The Drum. The resultant flood of self-feeding commentary gives a misleading impression of the national mood.
In Double Take (1996), Les Murray wrote of the creation in Australia of “an unelected para-government made up of the media, humanities faculties in the universities and a system of semi-governmental boards and authorities”.
This para-government, the public voice of the new establishment, is the conveyor of the current mindset to the wider public. It creates a misleading impression of what public opinion is by constructing a one-sided narrative on, for example, border protection, Muslim immigration, same-sex marriage, the republic, welfare recipients, educational policies and climate change; issues on which media grandstanders are often well out of sync with pub talk.
Some years ago when The New York Times was in trouble because one of its reporters was caught faking stories, it admitted that its reporters had been barracking for liberal causes rather than just reporting them, and appointed a correspondent to report on conservative attitudes that it admitted having neglected. The true role of public voices should be to listen as well as transmit, but they have ceased listening. As a result the state cannot hear its own citizens.
This societal deafness has been reinforced by a gradual structural change occurring in society. In his 1995 essay “Bowling Alone” and subsequent book, Robert Putnam documented the decline of voluntary organisations. The middle or intermediate realm of communal organisations in society was being hollowed out. Parents of schoolchildren used to organise school working bees; now they are more likely to argue the politics of education on school councils. If you need assistance it may be better to go to your local branch of Anglicare or the Salvos than to the opaque Centrelink, the kind of organisation that turns ordinary people off from finding a pathway into society.
Over recent decades the composition of the intermediate layer has become distorted: communal organisations have declined, to be replaced by large, government-funded top-down ones, for example, welfare agencies and semi-government tribunals. Governments now create mendicant organisations at the middle level. They infiltrate this level with their own supporters, and then listen to his master’s voice played back to them by interminable committees.
The result is a new type of unhelpful alliance between the government and intermediate areas. We used to elect governments to carry out our wishes – now they try to force their views on us.
Large, well-funded public institutions persuade ordinary people they are victims of social injustice, a form of grooming of prospective clients.
These people then become vexatious complainants, join the grievance queues and apply to these same bodies for financial compensation, a closed system. People are forced to remake themselves, for their own short-term benefit, as victims of the system, rather than living as citizens of society.
In a properly functioning society, the bodies at the middle level are the key ones, as they mediate between the individual and government, and cushion the citizenry against too harsh intrusion by Big Brother elites and the cold impersonal hand of the state.
The middle level now faces the wrong way, towards government rather than towards the people, whom it renders societally mute. It prevents a real national conversation. An elite-versus-ordinary-people gap develops.
It is this home-grown development, rather than vaguer changes like globalisation, that worries people.
Society, identified with the formalised middle level we deal with, presents itself as opaque and resistant, a barrier to be overcome rather than a public service. Ordinary people cannot relate fully to a society that they feel is run by an elite apart from themselves.
Remember how One Nation voters were rendered societally personae non gratae by the elites in the 1990s. They have now, after a period of socially enforced hibernation, had their revenge, garnering more votes than the Greens, in spite of the Greens having received decades of free publicity as the darlings of the opinion-forming classes.
The key groups to get involved in are not the organs of government, but the interlocking civil groups that give society its flavour – the government should not be the focus of all activity. Communal organisations give the undifferentiated masses a way into society.
By joining in, those who have previously felt left out by those in the know – like the Hansonites, Howard’s battlers, rural people, outer-suburbanites, tradies, the unemployed and underemployed, and so on – can get their piece of the action.
Not how we climb the ladder towards the opinion-forming apex, but lateral social mobility, is now a passport to a satisfying life available to all.