About two decades ago, there was a highly popular television show called Game of Thrones. After about four or five seasons, they weirdly just stopped making new episodes, leaving it up to fans to discuss how they think the series would have ended.
In the first season, a major character explains the underlying philosophy of the plot: ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die–there is no middle ground.’ Over the remaining seasons, the audience never really got a chance to challenge this assertion. The show was infamously cynical about the nature of political power, subscribing entirely to the view that lawful authority was little more than the threat of greater violence.
Within a few years, we had a resurgence of political drama. House of Cards was adapted from an old UK series. We had a half dozen shows about fictional White House intrigue that made American democracy seem more like a soap opera than a system of government. We had historical drama set with contemporary political norms, such as The Crown, Reign, and the one about the Medicis that I kept meaning to watch but never bothered. We even had shows that adapted ‘political drama’ to other domains, such as the music industry (as in Empire) and media industry (as in Succession).
Sure, there is some variance in those shows, but overwhelmingly political power was presented in terms of personal drama. Cersei doesn’t have a political ideology to represent: she just wants power. Danaerys articulates a political ideology about emancipation… but ultimately just wants power.
And while that might be fine in the world of fiction, what happens in the real world when democratic processes become little more than a game of who can win elections every three or four years?
In the whole of 2020, was there a conservative political speech as good as that delivered today by Arnold Schwarzenegger on Twitter? Even half as good? For me, what made it good was its appeal primarily to conservative voters: following an election, the role of conservatives in a democracy is to support the peaceful transition of power, celebrating the political culture that allows for democracy to function.
Instead, we’ve seen the opposite from the rest of the conservative commentary. During the event, we had conservative parliamentarians running conspiracy theories about who was at fault. Following the event, we’ve had more condemnation of Twitter from mainstream conservative commentators than of the protestors.
There is a temptation here to follow the usual path of argument here and wag the finger sternly at the trolls who lurk in mainstream conservative commentary. The line is well-worn from use: ‘The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, must immediately condemn all those who say inflammatory things about this.’
Instead, I want to situate it within a different political problem: that so much of contemporary politics is this cynical game of power for the sake of power. Political leaders don’t criticise members from their own party for their views because that’s not playing the game correctly: the entire game is to upset the other side.
The ALP had Senators who held absolutely gross views about same-sex marriage and LGBT issues. Did Rudd or Gillard as Prime Minister call them out? Of course not. Jacinta Collins got promoted instead. But why would you criticise homophobes from your own team when there was mileage in calling Cory Bernardi a homophobe? It’s not how the game is played.
The Tasmanian Greens have been outspoken with views that are damaging to Chinese-Australians. Has Senator Nick McKim been asked to condemn those views? Of course not; his role is to criticise Senator Eric Abetz for making anti-Chinese comments.
When politics is reduced to this game where parliamentarians routinely and regularly dismiss higher principle in the name of winning adolescent sledging matches, it’s hard to see how political contest is a question of competing ideas and not merely popularity contests based on who got the best media coverage.
It’s this cynical abandonment of higher democratic principle that gets us to the view that electoral campaigning is all about destroying opponents at any cost. A junior unpaid volunteer writes something on Facebook that’s a bit clunky and inelegant? Opposing party machines just flatly destroy them for no other reason than that’s how the game is played. We don’t learn anything about the political ideas at play, or about the character of people who want to represent us in parliament… only that one side of politics was better at the other at destroying a 20-something’s reputation.
Taking the last week in isolation fails to consider how so many people across politics contribute to the environment where this sort of behaviour flourishes. MPs like George Christensen and Craig Kelly fire up wild conspiracy theories and push nonsense political opinions because they are rewarded for them. They get attention for how well they upset the ‘snowflakes’ on the other side of politics.
We need a political media and political culture that incentivises the outcomes that are constructive and productive. We don’t have that, and we need to invest time into finding out how to correct this problem before we see more of what happened in the US.