This article is part of the Futures Forecasting series. We’ve asked experts to identify crucial trends – from a shortlist of categories – that will influence national security out to 2035 and how those trends might intersect in a future scenario.

In this article, which explores the future of governance, Ryan Young concludes that social and technology trends will ensure that political governance becomes more chaotic and dramatic, yet this need not result in poor governance worldwide.

Key trends

1Democracy: Traditional political parties and groupings are splintering in the majority of democracies worldwide

During the twentieth century, as democracy became a dominant form of government across the world, most democratic systems were dominated by two political parties or groupings – typically one centre-left and one centre-right. This added stability and reasonable predictability to the direction of decision-making.

The twenty-first century, however, has seen the disintegration of a dominant two-party model across much of the democratic world and, where it remains, the popularity of the two main parties is waning. Most dramatically, the dominant political party in the 2017 French Presidential and Assembly elections – La Republique En Marche – was only established in 2016. Across Europe, behind the many Green parties, there are a range of alternative parties that are attracting significant shares of the vote. Within Australia, despite the two-party system remaining dominant, the combined first preference votes for the Labour and Liberal parties at the 2019 dropped to about 70% from 86% in 1996.

The United States is currently the most prominent prima facie exception to this trend, likely due to a combination of specific features of the US system of government, including low voter turnout, widespread simultaneous elections of positions from local sheriffs up to the President, strong political control over electoral boundaries, and high political polarisation. Moreover, there is a strong case that the turmoil in other countries is happening within US political parties.

There are many likely reasons for these changes but, to boil a complicated phenomenon down to something simple, they are both a mirror of, and a reaction to, the way identities and societies are less fixed and more fluid. These processes seem to have been accelerated, and maybe partially caused, by digital technologies and globalisation. They are unlikely to switch direction any time soon.

2Technology: The emergence of a (near) real-time global information ecosystem

One of the more obvious consequences of digital technologies is that we can now, more or less instantly, access information from anywhere in the world. This means that we experience varied global information feedback loops at multiple levels – individuals to individuals, governments to groups, individuals to NGOs to governments to businesses – all in different countries.

This already has significant implications for government decision making. There are fairly clear consequences, like the way real time updates on the COVID-19 pandemic from hospitals in Italy were a motivating factor for public reactions and government decisions worldwide. But there are less obvious consequences, such as the way the Australian Federal Police found themselves on the front page of global newspapers after executing what they seemed to think was a regular warrant about leaking of highly classified government material.

Traditional approaches to governance and politics have relied on the limited spread of information. Leaders can say one thing to foreign counterparts and something rather different to their own people. Politicians can emphasise one message in one city and another in a country town. A government can prioritise one action when talking to one industry sector and a different action with a different group of people. These approaches are becoming increasingly difficult as information spreads quickly, although more authoritarian regimes with non-English speaking populations are more able to continue to speak with two voices. One immediate consequence is that as domestic and international information spheres are merging, international relationships and multi-national governance become more difficult. A good example is the way that, in early 2019, the Turkish President made comments as part of an internal election campaign, apparently responding to local social media sentiment, about the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand. What once would have remained internal to Turkey, quickly turned into a diplomatic incident and made headlines across the world.

Consequences

The ‘meme-ification’ of public communication

The dramatic changes to the global information flows have changed the dynamics of public communication. Within our memories, public communication was almost always curated and edited by professionals who adhered to norms around style and content. Now that technology has sidelined those gatekeepers, we have learnt that, for very many people worldwide, natural forms of expression are memes, jokes, rants and emotional empathising. This is unsurprising as it is just the style of communication that has always happened in the pub or backyard. However, now it is being projected globally, swamping the professional curated content and is shaping the way public discussion and communication occurs.

Politics is now a visible, live and unconstrained conversation

A second consequence of modern technology is that political communication is now far more of a live, two-way conversation. Historically, political (and other) leaders would address the nation or their constituents – either directly or via newspapers or other third party methods of translation. Where they had a conversation, it had to be local (constituents or town hall style) or regional (e.g. talkback radio) but past norms of public discourse held.

Only a few people would talk to a politician in these forums in the same way they would talk about them at the pub. Today, there are live, visible ‘pub-style’ conversations happening online about politics and decisions. While politicians only sometimes take part in these discussions, they shape the boundaries of public debate in a different way to the past. The norms of the public discussion worldwide now more closely reflect what happened in the pub than in a traditional public forum.

2035 future forecast

Social and technology trends will ensure that political governance becomes more chaotic and dramatic, yet this need not result in poor governance worldwide.

While it came as no real surprise given political trends across the globe for the last two decades, the 2035 Australian Federal election marked the first time in almost a century that neither the Government nor the Opposition are either Labor or Liberal. Instead, their places have been taken by Fair Go and by Our Lives Together, two parties that are, on average, 4 years old but have been bolstered by defections from the traditional parties.

As the old, stable political structures of the twentieth century are more of a historical curiosity than lived experience, it would take a bold commentator to predict these new parties will survive the next two decades, let alone be celebrating their 140th birthday – as the remnant of the Australian Labor Party did a few years ago. Both traditional parties look like hanging around for the foreseeable future though, surviving on the money they can make from decades of campaigning expertise, infrastructure and information databases. Serious discussions are under way too about rebranding into something more aspirational and catchier.

Generation X has begun retiring and there is a wave of nostalgia for the days when they were younger. Political speeches and government reports from the late 20th century are often shared with incredulity about how polite and serious everyone was back then. The idea too that leading politicians came from serious professional backgrounds and not mainly from the entertainment industry — usually comedians — also seems quaint.

The world is dominated by what previous generations used to call ‘digital natives’ and their ways of thinking and communicating that have been honed online. Careful language, polished ambiguity and earnest seriousness are all out in favour of absurd comparisons, semi-ironic rants and visual jokes. Meetings at the United Nations often resemble daytime TV comedy, but ironically began attracting higher streaming views once they opened up to live comments, polls and custom filters which viewers could pay to use. The revenue stream from users paying to watch the Secretary-General speak with pink bunny ears, horns, and other filters is the most stable form of income the United Nations has left.

Yet, to the ongoing surprise of many, this apparent chaos in democratic systems hasn’t provided any permanent advantage to authoritarian regimes. Memes, jokes and mockery are even funnier when they are officially banned. An alien who was introduced to world politics through the dominant online platforms would think that the most powerful dictators on Earth were Winnie the Pooh, Homer Simpson and the ‘Nyan Cat’.

A few authoritarian regimes, inspired by Vladimir Putin’s endless action man photos, actively embrace some of the communication norms of the online ‘meme-world’ to mixed effect. The rest, those authoritarian regimes who cannot make a joke end up being the butt of jokes, particularly in their own countries and exile diasporas. Periods of intense and violent internal repression are typically followed by country-wide street parties as protesters are increasingly able to organise digitally, and organise peacefully. Managing internal populations has distracted authoritarian regimes from global ambitions, although they have often provoked regional strife by picking on weaker neighbours. Despite the apparent chaos, some political leaders and countries are thriving. Other countries, however, are ruled as if by late night tweet-storms with public institutions hamstrung by the ever switching decisions. The successful countries have managed to distinguish between the ironic performance art necessary to connect with large sections of the public and the hard-headed analysis and work needed to make good decisions and stitch together coalitions. Professional and enduring public institutions and public trust are vital in these countries, but are permanently fragile – one humourless or thin‑skinned leader can endanger the working coalitions needed to make good governance viable.

What would this mean for Australia?

Australia is well-placed for success, if the trends continue and this scenario is accurate, as it has fairly strong public institutions and a track record of collaboration across sectors and organisations. But institutions will need to adapt to this new world. They will be tempted to try to stand above noisy political and public debates – maintaining their independence, but risking a perception that they are unaccountable and untrustworthy.

Intelligence, diplomatic and political analysis will also need to adjust to the different modes of communication as politics becomes ‘meme-ified’. Analysts will need to be fluent in the humour, irony, sarcasm and exaggeration that characterises online discussion today – and be able to more reliably pick out the serious statements and threats from the noise. This may happen naturally through inevitable generational change in the workforce, but is also likely to need different analytic frameworks and practices.

Along similar lines, diplomatic and international relationships will need to be less calibrated to the latest statements of international political figures and more focused on enduring links and relationships.

Policy and governance thinkers will need be consider what good decision making looks like and how we get there in this different environment, rather than trying to work out how to get back to what we used to have. It is likely that online communities, like forums and large multi-player games, are conducting natural experiments in different approaches today that are worth exploring.