The right-wing blur

For many commentators, the political right is just a blur. The various labels – conservative, neoliberal, neoconservative, New Right, economic rationalist – are thrown around according to fashion as much as meaning. Six years ago (pdf) I wrote an article on how ‘New Right’ was largely squeezed out by ‘economic rationalism’, which in turn was being challenged by ‘neoliberalism’, now the favourite. Despite the irrelevance of ‘neoconservatism’ to Australian politics, it is frequently used here as if it had some descriptive power. In the blogosphere we debate posts on what classical liberalism and conservatism have in common, but journalists don’t even know that there is a difference.

I was reminded of this twice over the last few days, first in this George Megalogenis piece and again when I read Monday’s Crikey. According to the radical leftist Jeff Sparrow,

Remember Katherine Betts’ The Great Divide? Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians? Michael Thompson’s Labor Without Class? Mark Latham’s From the Suburbs? The decades worth of columns in The Australian; the reports churning out from the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies?

The narrative was always the same. A chasm separated ordinary, decent Howard-voting Australians from an arrogant tertiary-educated, intellectual elite: a clutch of sneering know-it-alls who wanted to overrun the country with immigrants, make everyone guilty about Aborigines and brainwash the youth with Parisian post-modernist mumbo-jumbo.

Certainly there is a populist conservative strain in right-of-centre Australia. But this is not universal. If you put ‘elite’ and its variants in the CIS search engine very little in support of the populist thesis comes up. Peter Saunders did put some numbers on how the public sector employed tertiary educated group holds views that are distant from those of the majority, but populist conservatism is not the CIS’s thing. One of the CIS’s most recent publications is called In Praise of Elitism, albeit not of the left-wing kind.

Think-tanks tend to be elite-oriented institutions. They don’t run mass campaigns like activist groups do, aimed at mobilising people around simple messages. They publish research reports and write articles for broadsheet newspapers, aimed at policymakers and opinion makers. Often, though not always, the views expressed will be contrary to public opinion.

To be noticed as a distinct part of the right, it is not enough to regularly disagree with other people on the right. You have to agree with the left. The smallest and least significant group on the right are the so-called Liberal ‘moderates’. But because their main cause was one that preoccupied the left, refugees, they are seen as the dissidents of the Howard era and have the clearest distinct identity for outsiders to the right – despite not being coherent enough to maintain a clear position through even one op-ed.

21 thoughts on “The right-wing blur

  1. The smallest and least significant group on the right are the so-called Liberal ‘moderates’.

    Out of curiosity, are classical liberals that significant a group?

    Also, Megalogenis suggests that:

    [Australia] has three established mainstreams: the traditional white male, the tertiary-educated woman and the Australia-born children of immigrants.

    Does anyone know where this is from, or have any comment on its validity?

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  2. “Out of curiosity, are classical liberals that significant a group?”

    As an electoral constituency, clearly not. But they have a profile out of all proportion to their popular base because they have institutional backing in think-tanks and appear regularly in the media.

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  3. Oh please

    the anti-elitist populist strain dominated the Australian right from the moment Howard succeeded Downer as opposition leader – first as political correctness, and then the ‘elites’. It became ludicrous – inner city journos/commentariarats on six figures claiming some hotline to the suburbs.

    If classical liberals, moderates etc were swamped by that blue tide, it’s because they were never willing to pick a fight with this populism , for political reasons.

    Given that most of Sparrow’s article is a critique of the liberal-left living up to the right’s charge of elitism in the construction of 2020, maybe you could take a leaf from his book and be a bit more firthright with your own side of the divide.

    oh that’s right: You’re going to 2020 aren’t you, to fight statism from the inside. deep inside.

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  4. Simon – I agree that it was the dominant strain; Prime Ministers tend to dominate (I traced some of the history of the anti-elitist language here). I was criticising Sparrow’s categorising all aspects of the right as the same. (I have amended the original post to make this clearer.)

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  5. What was much better than the likes of suburban-man John Howard railing against the elites was the sight of his elite supporters doing so. This reached its apogee with the publication by the court jester of the Howard regime, David Flint, of his book, The Twilight of the Elites. You couldn’t find anybody more deserving of the description ‘elite’ than Flint, Professor of Law, Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, etc. If you asked Flint to name one of Sydney’s western suburbs, he’s probably say Glebe. Yet here he was, leading the cheers for Howard’s anti-elitist populism.

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  6. Andrew, ‘neoliberalism’ has certainly been thrown around by some commentators with varying degrees of understanding. But are you also denying that it was a well articulated doctrine by some members of the Chicago School of Economics around the middle of last century? To the extent that those ideas are reflected in current policy, surely they have ‘some descriptive power’.

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  7. To the extent that those ideas are reflected in current policy, surely they have ’some descriptive power’.

    I’m not convinced that the Chicago school is reflected in current policy. The only policy I can think of is the PAYE taxation system developed by Milton Friedman.

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  8. dk.au – I said ‘neoconservatism’ had no descriptive power rather than ‘neoliberalism’. While it is often hard to trace direct lines between intellectuals and policies, I agree that U of C economists have contributed to an intellectual climate that made market reform possible.

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  9. Howard’s defeat did point to the estrangement of a particular constituency, less moderate Liberals than ‘moderate conservatives’. Some in the Nationals could claim to align with this constituency.

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  10. Andrew N. – Not hard enough! PAYE is a fundamental component of fiscal illusion. The man should have been horse-whipped. He did acyually apologise.

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  11. My mistake, Andrew. I certainly agree that ‘neoconservativism’ doesn’t hold much descriptive power, and that it is difficult to trace the intellectual lineage of policies — difficult, but important.

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  12. After years of the hypocrisy of Keating mewling in his Zegna suits from his Woollahra and Elizabeth Bay boltholes about “Tories,” “forelock tuggers,” “the big end of the town,” wishing he could “take the Paris option” to esacape the “ass end of the world” I think Howard was on solid ground when ripping into the Luvvie elites. 😉

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  13. Drive down the main drag there, Sacha. You’ll see three, three storey terraces on the left as you’re kinda heading to the harbor. In one of those.

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  14. The way labels seem to get hurled around in public discussions of politics, without regard for accuracy, is often frustrating — but should anyone really be surprised?

    The people who belong to any group — the “insiders” — generally know things about themselves and each other to which outsiders are not privy.

    In political movements, insiders generally do not go around publicizing their differences from each other, charting the exact factional fault lines or cataloging their complete agenda. Speech — especially public speech — is generally selective, tactical, focused not on disclosing one’s personal beliefs and full agenda but either (a) inducing others to co-operate or acquiesce in whatever part of one’s agenda one is pursing now, or (b) discrediting and/or dividing those who stand in one’s way.

    Given the lack of frankness with which insiders usually confront outsiders (including their opponents, the people they aim to persuade and detached observers), it seems inevitable that outsiders are often going to have a superficial, imprecise and unstable understanding of what the insiders are on about, and it is natural that this will be reflected in superficial, vague and easily interchanged labels.

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  15. Alan – I think that is true of the way debate is conducted in the mass media, and not just for tactical reasons on the part of participants in the debate, but because subtle distinctions will rarely be regarded as newsworthy by even the print media, let alone electronic media.

    On the other hand, there is enough public navel-gazing by political movements (including on blogs) that with effort distinctions could be understood by outsiders.

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  16. The populist instinct of AUS’s right wingers is sound, even if its articulation leaves something to be desired.

    AUS’s version of the Open Society is founded on a vast base of self-governing, responsible middle class households. Their success depends on the average member of the populace being able to get and keep their sh*t together.

    The Left-liberal cultural elitist prescription for social progress is a mish-mash of multicultural diversity and sub-cultural perversity. In themselves these frivolities are harmless fun or at worse just a nuisance for most people. However, down at the LHS of the Bell Curve they lead to anomie, alienation and anarchy. And one bad apple…

    Most normal household leaders know this instinctively. Which is why they tend to be patrons of a muted version of Right-wing populism, seen largely on commercial current affairs TV or talk-back radio.

    These are the people who the Right has courted and needs to court if it is to win office and govern successfully. They are more likely to found self-sufficient households and self-run businesses. This is the best foundation for the Open Society.

    In the long run that is the best guard against a sprawling bureaucratic form of serfdom.

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  17. Shorter Strocchi: cultural populism – what I call “corporalism” – is the best protection for the Open Society. This is because the AUS populace largely likes the idea of owning their own home and even running their own business, at least on the side.

    However one can only do this if the general culture is “boring” ie embodying conservative middle class bourgeois values that are necessary for long-term planning (to accumulate residential capital (mortgage amortisation) and intellectual capital (higher education) requires long term planning which requires social stability.

    It is no accident that boring old Menzies was the most conservative social policy promoter and the most successful Liberal political officer. Nor is it an accident that the unexciting NE Asians (exhibit A = Penny Wong) are the most successful immigrants (after Jews of course.)

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