Why all the populism? A fair take on the political currents of 2019

I was slightly stumped when recently asked by a close friend, who’s definitely not a conservative, why so many centre-right governments were winning elections across the Western world. Trump, Boris, ScoMo and even Trudeau’s razor-thin Canadian victory reveal that centre-left politics is, to say the least, failing to connect at the ballot box.

But surely, I thought, the reasons for this are obvious? Progressive politics, once the domain of the working class, is losing badly because of a commitment to identity politics, stifling correctness and a detachment from bread and butter issues like jobs, sound borders and economic growth. ‘Get woke’, as the saying goes, ‘go broke’.

I felt I owed my friend and others out there an intelligent explanation as to why these trends are occurring. No less because I largely agree with them but because these victories require some analysis beyond memes and lampooning that many of my fellow travellers on the right can indulge too heavily in. Conservative politics, after all, still requires an assessment of progressive disaffection to recruit more members into the fold. And there will be countless instances when centre-right governments will not only have to appreciate but govern effectively for all citizens.

To my friend I sketched three broad reasons as to why conservative politics have done well in 2019. First, centre-left political priorities are running counter to people’s aspirations. The reason Trump does well, as I heard one American radio announcer point out, was because Democrats appear more worried about what bathroom Americans can use, while Republicans are more worried if Americans actually have jobs.

While flippant, it’s clear that talking about identity politics, Parisian climate change agreements or labelling a fair complexion as ‘privilege’ to people that Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance notes live in parts “of the country slammed by the decline of manufacturing, joblessness, addiction, and broken homes” is a sure-fire way to fail to connect.

In Australia, Shorten and Labor seemed to do exactly what they could to repel voters at the 2019 election by their proposed changes to franking credits, superannuation and increased taxes on property. These commitments, by taking on ‘the big end of town’, seemed like an attempt to fleece a caricature rather than any serious assessment of the voting public. The effect was to undermine everyday people who had worked hard their entire lives, saved and aspired to do well. As one Australian voter noted:

“I actually took the ‘big end of town’ reference to property investors as a personal insult. I’m a truck driver, 63, work 6 and 7 days a week, I live in a 3 bedroom transportable house, save as much as I can and have 1 rental property. I don’t think I’m from the big end of town! I’m a blue collar hard working Australian. Labor insulted me for being that.”

The second reason why conservative politics have done well is to do with under-promising and over-delivering, or at least meeting people where they are rather than where we’d like them to be. In the UK, three years of political squabbling around Brexit is too obvious an example as to why conservatives won a thumping 364-seat victory. But amid a sea of destined-to-fail UK Labour policy commitments was the idea to re-nationalise the railways. While no doubt enticing to some voters the reality is that only 9 percent of UK commuters get to work by train, while almost 40 percent still use their car. And one suspects that not all of these are low-emission hybrids or Teslas but combustion engines that everyday people can afford.

The third reason for conservative ascendance is due to a commitment to strong borders, which is much more about the rate and type of immigration citizens actually want, and expect from their politicians, rather than erecting large walls and a descent into jingoism. It is difficult to see “an indefinite stop” to Australia’s immigration program – an ‘Australian Brexit’ – despite the zero-sum way that immigration policy is covered in current affairs commentary. Australians remain in a good place on immigration – unmanipulated, enthusiastic but also common sense.

Next year will commemorate Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit, launched with great fanfare to “help shape a long-term strategy for the nation’s future”. Far from a reminder of good times, however, I sense it’ll only remind Australians of Rudd’s damage not just to federal programs like home insulation and the National Broadband Network but the one area where we rely on the federal government to actually do its job – border protection. In the same year as the Summit, a slow trickle of boats and people – buoyed by the Kevin07 victory – grew into 20,000 by 2013. Eventually, there would be 50,000 illegal arrivals on over 800 boats, creating the need and cost for 17 new processing centres and inviting the grim opportunity for more deaths at sea.

Australia’s Medivac arrangements, a legacy of this policy disaster, resulted in a situation where less than 1 in 10 medivac transferees actually required hospital, and where a 30 year old man charged with domestic violence and having a relationship with a 13 year old could not be directed back into offshore processing because of limited federal Ministerial powers. Australians will accept immigration, as John Howard noted, but only when the government is firmly running the show.

In Europe, however, the ascendance of anti-immigration parties is because governments have certainly not been running the show. It has been less than surprising, for example, that Angela Merkel opening Germany’s refugee intake to a stunning 2 percent of the total population created more than a ripple of concern on issues around integration and social cohesion – it entirely changed German and European politics. For people to talk openly about these issues, notes Douglas Murray, requires more than vague commitments to John Lennon lyrics and using up easy political capital. “These are really ugly and difficult conversations to have,” he adds, “but it’s my belief that if we don’t have them then other people will have them, and very bad people will have them.”

In the background to these three issues, I noted to my friend, was the decline in social capital – we join less clubs, the Church pews are thinning out, we know less of our neighbours, our circumference of friends is narrowing and so on. Which I sense does help to explain why affinity – that simple idea of at least attempting to know why someone sees things the way they do – seems to be missing from shared civic cultures in the West and, downstream of that, our politics.

The core theme running through the issues I’ve identified here is that inner-city politics does not bode well the further you get out of the cities. And the unfortunate corollary of this is, at least for many who fail to assess these trends properly, to label people who voted in favour of centre-right parties as “xenophobic” and “backward-looking”. This not only misreads but actually offends people’s concerns around things that are important to their security and well-being – core tasks of government in a responsible democracy.

How many of us known anyone who smokes anymore? The American DC-based political scientist Charles Murray will often get out of town to play cards in rural Virginia. This, he says, exposes him to perspectives and ideas not represented in the Beltway but also different to his own (and yes – people who smoke). This might be something worth emulating in 2020 and is actually the subject of an older but good book by Labor MP Andrew Leigh.

Would things be better if we could do our bit like Murray? Perhaps. But as long as progressive politics takes people for granted – their aspirations, how much they save, and even how they get to work – then not only will these attempts fall flat but it’ll only make centre-left politics more irrelevant in 2020.

Picture source: Independent Australia/Dan Jensen

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