It was a stunning, arresting image: one the (soon-to-be) ex-resident of the White House might have called "a beautiful picture". A slightly-overweight, white, middle-aged man, wearing a baseball cap and checked lumberjack shirt, wandering through the halls of the Capitol, with a Confederate flag draped over his shoulder and a slightly befuddled look on his face.
It was as if he'd suddenly realised that although he'd managed to storm this symbol, the very heart of what he naively believed was government, he'd accomplished nothing. At the moment that should have represented the apogee of his triumph, he'd suddenly found that the real locus of power lay elsewhere.
All the smashing of windows and scattering of papers had proved nothing more, or less, than an empty image of helpless rage and disempowerment.
He'd accomplished nothing; nothing was going to change.
Examine what happened in Washington last week this way, and it's easy to dismiss as irrelevant: the last, futile gasp of an expiring era, the death-rattle of a (nearly) past-President's flagging supporters. Penetrate deeper, however, and it's a symbol of something far more important, a problem not just for the US but one that stretches across the English-speaking world and democracies world-wide. Citizens who feel their parliamentarians no longer represent them and that they're disenfranchised, no matter who's sitting on the soft leather benches of office.
We normally think of politics in terms of left and right, because that's the obvious divide that's identified our parties for ages. Labor/Coalition here in Australia; Labour/Conservative in the UK; Democrat/Republican in the US. The party of the unions and workers versus the politicians of bosses and business. But those categories no longer represent the line that's splitting society apart. Today there's another divide, and it's one that's far more elemental. It's the break between 'up' and 'down', 'in' and 'out'. It's a split that's tearing us apart and has left modern society with the dramatic problem that explains so much about what's wrong with government today.
The old political gospel was simple because it was based on materialism. There was work for (more or less) everyone and, with the exception of the very, very few plutocrats and aristocrats, most ordinary people felt (whether it was true or not) that they had opportunities, lived relatively well, and that their children had a chance to live better.
Ironically today, at a time that the world's never been richer and when we've never had more democracies governing us, those sentiments are no longer valid.
It's not validating the complaints of that demented mob that stormed their way into the Capitol to simply recognise they no longer believe democracy is working for them. As we look at the recent US election what should amaze us is not that Joe Biden won convincingly and swung the voters of the middling suburbs of mid-town America to support him. What should really amaze us is that soon to be ex-President Trump seized the disillusioned and disaffected, gaining more votes this time round than he did when he overwhelmed Hillary Clinton in those key swing states.
Somehow, and however improbably, he, Trump, the billionaire property owner and developer, the golfer and reality-TV star, seemed to stand for the little person; the outsider.
This is the massive intellectual problem the parties of the left need to overcome. It's the division between those who have won from the modern economy and those who are losers from change. The left urgently needs to find a new language of opportunity that deals with creating a worthwhile, positive environment in which we can all lead a 'good life', rather than focusing on the baubles of prosperity and material goods.
We need a country that works for everyone, not just unionised workers who have a job and those who are still adding to their SMSF schemes.
At one time Labor had a lock on the votes of the disadvantaged and alienated. The party spoke to the needs and concerns of those who were being bypassed by the speed of modern life. They no longer do. As individual prosperity has flatlined because of increasing concentration of wealth, the emptiness of statistics like GDP growth as a marker for life-satisfaction have evaporated.
Similarly, dismissing the disaffected by labelling them as losers who need to get with the changes that are transforming society isn't going to win their votes in future. The Trump supporters are like our One Nation voters - left behind, angry, and not knowing where to turn. They've grown disillusioned and detached and increasingly feel ignored by the political system that they feel doesn't speak for them. Is it any wonder they stormed the House with the same fury as felt by the marginalised left.
The only way these people can be brought back into the political conversation is by recognising their needs. What they did was beyond the pale, but as individuals they are citizens, not 'deplorables'. The left here in Australia needs to start speaking their language, recognising their concerns, addressing these and then steering them back into the fold.
It's time to understand the whole community - from left to right and top to bottom.
Otherwise, Labor should get comfortable sitting in opposition.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.