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Irish Politics Swims Left
What is the force that continually drags mainstream Irish politics to the cultural left; and why is it invisible in our public discussion of politics?
Due to ongoing electoral losses, Fianna Fáil recently employed a consultancy to carry out a study of their declining popularity. The report cited a number of issues including their close links with Fine Gael, but it was their failure to be more progressive that was the eye-catching element of the report.
It seems an extraordinary finding; the options for culturally left-wing voters are overflowing in Ireland, yet the political advice to existing older parties is to move to the part of the political compass already occupied by everyone else.
In part this strikes me as an attempt to impose an Anglo-American ideological model on Irish politics - it assumes that there’s a Conservative vs Progressive culture war, that people vote along those lines and that you have to link yourself to the ascendant side.
That’s never been how Irish politics has worked though; it’s historically been transactional, local and patronage-based. Someone once, I think accurately, said Irish politics comes down to “let me see if I can fix that for you”. That hasn’t really changed.
Fianna Fáil were the masters of this style and if they have failed it’s likely only because they have lost the ability to see their constituents practical problems, like housing, and fix them.
Sinn Fein are one step ahead of FF having already embraced an Anglo-American, PMC-and-social-media-friendly style of progressive politics. So let’s test the report’s thesis. Is this the element of SF’s platform that has made them the most popular party in the country?
In this fantastic recent thread from statistician and politics lecturer Kevin Cunningham, he highlighted the changing social and demographic trends that have led to SF’s rise, which has mostly been at FF’s expense. The thread concludes that voters have moved to the left, away from what Kevin terms “right wing” parties (i.e. FF/FG).
But left and right as used here are an almost entirely economic descriptor. Kevin notes that “SF benefit from populist opinion… perceptions of corruption are perhaps the strongest predictor of their support…”
“(But ) it’s not about social issues. SF voters don’t necessarily adopt a liberal perspective on issues such as immigration… instead it is left-wing populism that seems more rooted in economic disaffection” (last part is my emphasis).
So SF’s progressive politics - the Black Lives Matter stuff, the enthusiasm for childhood sex-changes - is the part of their stance that FF are trying to steal; yet it’s the least vital part of their platform.
The thread analysing Sinn Fein’s success is also interesting because it speaks to a kind of mind-blindness on the part of commentators in Ireland as to what “right-wing” actually means; the FF report also speaks to this.
The thread notes that support for “right wing parties”, has fallen as mass attendance has fallen, linking the idea in our minds that right wing means culturally right; it goes on to say that people identifying as “left wing” have no strong cultural impulses in that direction (the opposite, if anything); then continues to use the term “left-wing” even though it doesn’t relate at all to cultural matters, only economic ones.
(This isn’t a critique of the original poster, who to be fair, wasn’t focused on this issue. But it is indicative.)
There’s an idea abroad that Ireland has culturally right-wing mainstream parties (it absolutely does not), that the record of FF/FG on cultural matters in recent years is RW (ditto), and that to prosper in modern Irish politics, any party will need to move to the far cultural left. I think the nicest thing I can say about the latter claim is that it is untested.
The predicament can be summed up with a quote from Goethe’s Faust; “the mass of people streams and strives uphill/ one thinks one’s pushing, and one’s pushed against one’s will.” Are parties rushing to the cultural left, or being pushed there?
Once sufficient incentives and deterrents are in place, any social system will naturally self-reinforce and self-perpetuate, encouraged and policed by the people who operate it *whether they agree with it or not; whether they are aware of it or not*.
In our system the incentives of money, status, power and jobs are all on the side of a push to the cultural left; the deterrents of social opprobrium, legal troubles (hate speech laws etc), job losses, pursuit by NGOs and activists (or journalists- but I repeat myself) is entirely on the other.
The daily operation of the system will naturally encourage a drift to the cultural left, without any intervention or thought on the part of the people (or parties) in it.
But its important to say that none of this is actually linked to what an electorate think or want. I concede that there are plenty of issues on which Irish electorate really are culturally left, and maybe abortion is one of them - the referendum results seem to suggest so. There are plenty of other issues, like immigration, where the evidence points the other way.
So the point is that this is not about electability. It’s about Fianna Fáil (or their leaders) prospering within a system tangentially connected to electoral politics.
That in part explains the “mind-blindness” towards the drift; it’s happening constantly, at great speed, but you never really read or hear about this transformation. Journalists, activists, civil servants, politicians etc work in a system whose every function serves to facilitate the drift and so are often oblivious to it, “Plato’s cave”-style.
To the extent they are aware of it they are mostly ideologically committed to it, and don’t want it to end. They are aware that their views are in many cases are not popular, and that drawing attention to the pace of change can only hurt their cause.
There’s also the factor that, to admit that there is an unfilled gap in the political marketplace would be to concede that anyone filling that gap is legitimate. That explains why Irish politicians are eager to pre-emptively discredit any dissent from their more cherished plans as “far right” - because to suggest any level of dissent or criticism is legitimate would be to open up a whole part of the political compass they have successfully managed to cordon off.
(An example of this is Roderic O’Gorman’s public pronouncements in relation to own-door accommodation for those in the asylum system - which are constantly framed in terms of how a barely existent far-right might react to them.)
The truth about Fianna Fáil’s conundrum is that they want to continue to be the party of landlords, builders and big businesses against the interests of their constituents, but for “Irish Twitter” to not be mean to them. They will continue drifting left on culture because that’s how the system they are caught in works; they also think doing this will allow them to compete with the party that has eaten their electorate, without substantially changing.
Well, the great thing about politics is that elections are crucible in which everyone gets to see how popular their ideas actually are. And who knows? Maybe saying “we’re going to do nothing about housing, you can just be homeless, rent forever, we don’t give a shit” but sticking a rainbow emoji on the end of the message will do it for Fianna Fáil.
But I doubt it.