Political gulf dividing anywheres and somewheres is going nowhere

Australian Conservatives Release

The recent election in Australia highlighted the yawning gap between the voting inclinations of the inner-city elite class and attitudes in the outer suburbs and regional Australia.

The Conservative Party called out this political chasm throughout the campaign.

The Australian’s Simon Benson has observed that in the Liberal Party a new generation is in control that has transferred power from the party’s inner-city elite to the outer suburbs and regions. And we have witnessed a Labor Party that totally underestimated the reaction in regional Australia to the basic contradiction between coal mining and climate change.

Bob Brown and the Greens caravan did untold damage to Labor’s cause in Queensland.

This is a trend that we have seen in the US and Britain, where there is a growing tendency to view democracy as being run by educated elites for their own benefit. Significant parts of the working class see representative democracy as unresponsive and remote.

This attitude is quickly turning into xenophobia in Europe and the US, with populist politicians exploiting the issue to their advantage. Advocating for a borderless world and the benefits of economic globalisation is now a political liability.

Adding to the gloom is a persuasive analysis by one of the most distinctive voices in British politics today, David Goodhart, who – in his book The Road to Somewhere – argues that since the turn of the century Western politics has had to make room for a new set of voices preoccupied with national borders and the pace of change, appealing to people who feel displaced by a more open, ethnically fluid, graduate-favouring economy and society designed by and for the new elites.

He categorises these two opposing groups as “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”. By this he means the Anywheres, who increasingly dominate Western culture and society, are university graduates and have a career in the professions based on educational and career success that makes them generally more comfortable and confident with new places and people and the pace of change.

The Somewheres, on the other hand, are based on group belonging and places, and often find rapid change more unsettling. They generally do not have a university degree. One core group of Somewheres has been called the “left behind” because they are mainly older white working-class men with little education. They have lost economically with the decline of well-paid jobs for people without qualifications and culturally, too, with the disappearance of a distinct working-class culture and the marginalisation of their views. Goodhart argues that one of the causes of rampant populism in the West has been Anywhere overreach.

We have seen this Anywhere-Somewhere categorisation demonstrated in the stark geographical polarisation between places such as California and New York in the US and depressed industrial areas such as Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

In Britain, those in favour of staying in the EU voted 80 per cent in Anywhere electorates of the privileged class such as the City of Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge . Those strongly in favour of getting out of the EU voted as high as 78 per cent in former coal mining and heavy industry towns in the north of England.

Most Anywheres see themselves as citizens of the world; theirs is a world view that places much lower value on group identity, tradition and issues such as faith, flag and family. Goodhart argues that where the interests of Anywheres are at stake – in everything from reform of higher education to gay marriage – things happen. Where they are not, the wheels grind more slowly, if at all. By contrast, the Somewheres feel uncomfortable about many aspects of cultural and economic change, such as mass immigration and the reduced status of non-graduate employment.

Until 30 or 40 years ago the Somewhere world views remained dominant in places such as the US, Britain and, in a different way, in Australia. In the space of two generations in the West the Anywhere elitist view of the world has risen to challenge and politically replace that of the Somewheres. The resulting political upheavals demonstrate what happens when Somewhere priorities are disregarded. What we are observing is a reaction against globalisation-related job loss and an assertion of working-class identity on the part of people who strongly feel that they have lost out. They live in a different world from the pampered Anywheres.

The failure to deliver the promised protection from globalisation has resulted in deep political disillusionment. The liberalism of the rich – with its focus on gender equality, environmentalism and climate change – is of little interest to the Somewheres.

We should not think that Australia is immune from such radically different economic, cultural and geographical upheavals. In the recent general election, there were brutally clear indications that the self-satisfied inner-city elite class (or Anywheres) has radically different views on issues such as climate change and coal mining from those who live in regional Australia.

And the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne increasingly are experiencing economic inequalities and job insecurity arising from globalisation and rapid technological advances. Could we be experiencing the global assertion of Somewhere interests in the outer suburbs and country towns in Australia?

And what of the global geopolitical implications of all this? The fact is that the preoccupations of the Anywheres-Somewheres divide are distorting political priorities in the West from where they should be focused: the threat from China and Russia. Both these countries, and especially China, are confident that time is on their side to expand their strategic space because the West is mired in deep domestic political introspection.

Paul Dibb is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.

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