Progressive politics is about building consensus, not beating the opposition
I believe in the politics of the possible. We have proven in recent times in Ireland that the politics of the progressive centre can lead to mass democratic social reform.
Two referendums were passed unanimously, led by civil society movements with campaigns giving a voice to the centre. At the time elements of both the hard left and right vilified the tactics of appealing to the middle ground. The strategy was proven to be the correct approach with two overwhelming majority votes for progressive liberal social change. This showed us that leadership which opens up space in the centre to share facts and human experiences leads to a more inclusive, respectful form of exchange with one another. It leads to democratic decision-making rooted in consensus-building and is more than the end result of rights vindicated. The process and nature of the debate itself – inclusion within a safe space in the centre, means those changes will endure. The politics of our progressive centre is not shock and awe, railroading through reform from a self-perceived higher moral ground. It’s collaborative, thoughtful, listening. It embraces difference of opinion, no matter how frustrating, and values empathy.
By contrast, fascists are eager for polarisation of opinion; they can then claim to be on the right side of ordinary people, and not the “liberal” elites. Nigel Farage has made no secret of the fact that polarisation is exactly what he wants to strengthen his pro-Brexit and extreme-right base. This deliberate fostering of disaffection, fear and suspicion is a plain attempt to shut down debate, to derail consensus-building and to drive a wedge between citizens and their state. It is nothing less than voter suppression.
This is not a new political tactic and attempting to box politics into tired old ideological straitjackets will never change anything. It needs to be exposed and rejected by those of us who value and stand for democratic principles.
Now more than ever, I believe we must shed the jaded stereotypes and do politics differently. People wear coats of many colours, we are not homogenous and most of us have thoughts and feelings which apparently contradict yet sit comfortably together. And that is what makes political discourse so interesting.
Some in the political extremes think Fine Gael has to be right-wing so they can be left-wing. Thankfully, politics in Ireland is more complex, nuanced and bipartisan than in many countries today. This is at the heart of the global leadership we have to offer in a time of conflict and mob politics.
Our democracy is not owned by the ideological extremes any more. Good ideas do not belong to any particular party. Active politics means working towards the world you wish for in your lifetime and leaving a legacy that can be built upon. Like many human rights lawyers of my era, Mary Robinson was an admired trailblazer. I grew up as witness to Garret Fitzgerald’s vision for a more inclusive more pluralist Ireland. We are closer now to that vision than ever but with a lot more to do.
Irish politics has traditionally operated along the lines of tribes and prescriptive ideologies. But more recently, we have seen the beginnings of a new co-operation towards shared social objectives. In 2019, the new generations are leaving civil war politics behind us. We care about issues such as the climate emergency, housing, child poverty. We want effective government that protects and enables equal, enterprising and integrated communities. Shouting down other voices and claiming moral ownership around issues will alienate and divide. A progressive politics is not about beating the opposition, but one that focuses on building consensus to solve problems.
So, I will call out what I see as a move to an extremist right-wing position by an influential younger leader. I would also call out the hard left because extremes divide and take our focus away from the issues that matter. We have seen the damage that can be done to representative democracy by those whose only way of winning is to drive the public away from debate, discussion and voting.
Recent debates by the US democratic party show a wide range of political hues in the same party. And they are all against extremism. Those members of the Republican and Democrats who call out Donald Trump are applauded. Often the Republicans who do it receive the louder applause, because they are in a particular position of influence.
If we are to overcome the challenges that matter, rather than political posturing and point-scoring, it has never been more important for us to stand up for progressive, democratic values. And the public should demand to find them at the centre of mainstream politics.