In so many ways the politics of the industrialised world has changed little from the 19th century. The big beasts of conservatism, liberalism and socialism still inform our understanding of social and cultural relations in most democracies and will continue to do so for some time. But like in previous centuries, ideologies and ideas have evolved and adapted to a changing world — new dimensions to politics that were once fringe have become central stage. The 20th century saw feminism, racial justice and green politics become mainstreamed in political discourse, we also saw longstanding and dominant ideologies such as nationalism and social democracy adapting to massive geopolitical shifts such as globalisation and the end of the Cold War. But what will the 21st century throw up? What kind of issues will shape the binding ideas and movements that urge political action? In other words, what can we expect to become the New Politics? Here I’ll outline a few plausible ideological currents that I expect to emerge or expand as the century progresses:
Generationism or a New Youth Politics
Large generational divisions in politics is nothing new. The last century saw widespread political organisation of baby boomers in the form of the late 60s and early 70s student movements in France and the United States particularly. Often publicising emerging issues, young people were (and will continue to be) the engines for new causes to flourish. The anti-war movement, nuclear disarmament, second wave feminism, civil rights and the emergence of environmentalism are all indebted to the activism of young people in the 20th century. With the exception of select achievements such as the lowering of the voting age and ending conscription, they rarely acted as a singular, collective with their own uniquely generational interests. Moreover, barring movements such as the Yippies and Students for a Democratic Society, these movements never propelled youth to the importance of gender or racial identity.
According to Russian-American scientist Peter Turchin, elite overproduction (the condition of a society which is producing too many potential elite-members relative to its ability to absorb them into the power structure) was a key factor in baby boomers driving the massive social changes of the 1960s and 70s in the West. The “echo” of that baby boom, creating the millennial bulge in the population pyramid (and the elite overproduction that follows) is already resulting in political movements that we can clearly witness as recently as last year.
2019 saw the rise of the “OK Boomer” meme — a dismissive retort and political rallying cry against out-of-touch older generations. Whether it’s social values or economic values, the generation gap between young and old is starker than ever to the point that in the December UK general election of that year age was a more consistent factor than race, gender or class in determining whether someone voted for the Conservative or Labour parties, the other most consistent factor was home ownership, which correlates very highly with age. Salient issues around both the housing crisis and climate change disproportionately affects the young and these causes have become synonymous with young people, resulting in epithets such as “Generation Rent”.
Anyone noticing the sheer size of the Baby Boomer generation would’ve predicted both the social movements of the 60s and 70s as well as the emergence of the elderly “Grey Vote” as they reached retirement (with some even manifesting into their own political parties). Naturally, a baby boom echo via their children is bound to have at least a similar impact in electoral politics. As already the single largest generation in the workforce, the millennial vote is nothing to scoff at. Maybe we won’t see a resurrection of the Yippies, but for all intents and purposes, the politics that pits the young against old is already brewing fiercely.
Green Redistributionism AKA the Carbon Dividend
From its humble roots in the 1960s and 70s, young people have been instrumental in the growing prescience and attention to green politics and the climate crisis. Despite the general mainstreaming of climate policy in global politics, more radical climate activism such as the Extinction Rebellion movement and the efforts of Greta Thunberg have made climate politics centre stage (in non-pandemic times at least). The growth of Green parties across Europe has been also been happening, with many such parties polling as the third or second largest parties in many countries.
An increase in green politics has fundamentally led to real policy changes and treaties, but none without greater legislative support than the imposition of carbon taxes across the world. With Canada, Japan, Switzerland and New Zealand being some key players in carbon taxation it seems like the most politically viable and easiest way to help address the climate crisis — but the economic ramifications for this cannot be understated.
In years gone by, those who profited in times of crisis soon faced the ire of the public and politicians: whether it’s the industrial-era robber barons being forced to pay their share towards building a welfare state, or New Labour’s ‘windfall tax’ on the privatised industries of the 1980s and 90s, the public has an urge for some form of reparations — the climate crisis is no different.
As more and and more tax collection comes from carbon sources, it would not surprise me to see it merge with the growing Universal Basic Income movement with a carbon dividend being a method to to fund it. As a more concrete example, we can look back at movements in prior centuries which called for “Agrarian justice” in the taxing of land rents, often to fund a kind of “citizen’s dividend”. Increasing calls for “climate justice” may well see a similar movement arise where the taxes from the big polluters and the energy companies would be seen as owed to the people, much like land rent, in the form of a “carbon dividend”.
City Statism and its reactions
One of the most fascinating changes in the late 2010s was the recent adoption of city-wide political identity. According to research from Queen Mary University of London, Londoners identified more with their city than any other national or European identity. Such attitudes from city dwellers isn’t new, but increasing urbanisation across the world (coupled with increasing political devolution towards city regions) is beginning to germinate a new kind of politics.
An urge to express and defend largely progressive and cosmopolitan values, which are almost uniform in cities but not the towns and countryside, has created in increasing agitation for political organisation among urban units, but also attempts to exert independence from cities. No more obvious is this split than in the United States where any maps from recent presidential elections clearly displays that voting for the liberal, urban and cosmopolitan Democrats or the conservative, rural and nationalist Republicans correlates extremely strongly with where you live. While the United States hasn’t seen significant movements from cities in favour of their autonomy — movements to split the highly urbanised states of California and New York into states where the voices of more conservative townsfolk and rural Americans are amplified has happened in reaction to the increasing power and influence of cities. These movements are eerily reminiscent of the kind of reactionary anti-urbanism and anti-cosmopolitanism that resulted in the expulsion of the city of Singapore from Malaysia — a kind of forced City Statism from the outside. Cities are achieving greater importance than ever before and while it could upset rural and townsfolk, it may also push urbanites for greater autonomy.
In the UK, a metropolitan appetite for greater autonomy has been creeping into the Overton window with polling on the issue of independence for London as well as a registered Londependence party. Moreover, recent clashes between metro-mayors in the North of England and the government in Westminster has accentuated and accelerated the politics that makes cities, over nations or international bodies, the most important geographical unit in modern politics — this is a trend that shows no signs of stopping.
So what do these changes show? Politics is becoming more divided by generation, by our climate, and where we live. The next few decades could witness a powerful millennial political lobby, massive financial transfers from polluters to the people and increasing autonomy and independence for cities across the world — or, very possibly, things may remain very similar to how they are now. However, in the coming decades we should not expect young people, climate activists or city-dwellers to give up without a fight.