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Politics is never boring, but some eras are more dynamic and significant than others. Looking back at global politics over the past 50 years, it’s very apparent there have been landmark years in which major events have sparked a shift in the way politics is practised and taught. Here are the four major turning points, including one that appears to be beginning now.
1967: The birth of radical anti-establishment politics. This was the year the University of Otago’s department of politics was created, and it was also a major turning point in the West. Anti-establishment politics developed everywhere, not just with the anti-war movement and the hippies in the United States, but also with a globally resurgent trade union movement, a revitalised socialist movement, and a new interest in fighting against oppression along gender and racial lines. Protests, revolt and challenge started occurring in a major way — most famously in the "May 68" student protests in France — and for the following decade many elements of politics were turned on their head. In the academy, the subject of "political philosophy" became an important part of the discipline — students wanted to study the big questions about the state, ethics, liberty, justice and authority.
1989: The victory of liberal democratic capitalism. This was the next key global turning point, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the Eastern European communist regimes. Scholars declared "the end of history", as liberal democratic capitalism had now won, and it was felt that we were shifting into a post-ideological era. In many ways we were — for much of the period that followed, politics was boring and technocratic. The study of "comparative politics" became more important for understanding differences in nations and ways of doing politics.
2001: Terrorism and the "war on terror" escalates. The attack on the Twin Towers opened up a new period in politics — particularly one in which terrorism and the "war on terror" heavily impacted upon the world, especially with Western military interventions in the Middle East. And as a result of all of this, student interest in the political sub-topic of "international relations" skyrocketed.
2016: The revival of an anti-establishment mood. Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, there has been a re-emerging radicalism in politics, which reached a crescendo last year. The previously dominant economic ideology of neoliberalism quickly became discredited. The consensus politics that had mostly characterised Western countries began melting away. And over time, a re-emergent radicalism has taken hold among a public that is angrier and more disillusioned with authorities. This was reflected in rising concern about economic inequality from about 2010. Hence the ideology of socialism began resonating more — indeed according to one online dictionary, it was the most searched word of 2015. And politicians calling themselves "socialist" became popular again — witness the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party, and the surprising success of Bernie Sanders in the US Democratic Party.
Other types of radicalism have also been on the rise. Concerns about other forms of inequality and oppression have been dominating political activity — especially in terms of gender and ethnicity. The re-emergence of feminism has been particularly notable, along with the rise of ethnic-orientated struggles such as Black Lives Matter in the US. Much of this radicalism has been channelled into anti-establishment and populist politicians and parties. Some of these are very left-wing — especially in many European democracies, such as Greece and Spain — but elsewhere it’s taken a more reactionary tone. And sometimes it’s a mix of both left and right.
It was in 2016 that rising radicalism really impacted on the global consciousness — first with the Brexit referendum result, and then with the election of Donald Trump. These two events stunned elites everywhere. Both these results signalled a rising disillusionment with the status quo, and especially with elites and austerity economics. Within the study of politics, it’s the field of "public policy" and the study of electoral phenomena that now seem to be ascendant. Students are particularly interested in looking at the age-old question about power in politics — that of "Who gets what, when, and how?"
It’s not clear yet where this anti-establishment revolt is taking the world. But it should be obvious that we’re now in a new political era, and it’s one in which there’s an increased public interest in politics — as well as a disillusionment with the old ways of doing things. Public participation in politics is starting to return, and there’s a revived concern to understand what is going on. The academic study of politics will hopefully aid this for another 50 years at the University of Otago.
- Lecturer Dr Bryce Edwards has taught at the University of Otago department of politics for the past 10 years.