Will the crisis in American ‘conservatism’ spread to Australia?

A reader suggests that there may be some post fodder in the Richard Posner’s recent comments about the decline of the American ‘conservative’ movement. These are the key passages:

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

…And then came the financial crash last September and the ensuing depression. These unanticipated and shocking events have exposed significant analytical weaknesses in core beliefs of conservative economists concerning the business cycle and the macroeconomy generally.

I’ll leave detailed discussion of the American scene to others who follow it more closely than I do, though Posner’s list seems broadly right to me. What struck me most when I read it was (again) the large differences between the political right (I’ll use this is as a less confusing catch-all term than Posner’s ‘conservatism’) in America and Australia.

The one item that would clearly appear on the list of problems with both the Australian and American right is climate change, because on both sides of the Pacific they are identified by the media and broader public with the losing side in the debate over whether it is happening and its causes, and because they are internally highly divided on the issue.

On all the other issues Posner raises, there are different ideological views or circumstances that have saved Australian right-wingers from the troubles of their American cousins.

Because Australia is a much less religious country than America, abortion does not raise the same passions. Institutional differences in the way we have handled it – parliamentary conscience votes here, undemocratic judicial fiat there – have also helped defuse the issue here.

Australia’s better political-constitutional system has also saved us from poor appointments to public office outside the ministry itself.

Nor has any of the nonsense from the American Right about budget deficits ever caught on here – for all its faults the Howard government ran large budget surpluses at the same time as the Bush administration ran huge deficits, and while there was and is (like the US) a tax cut constituency in the broader right here, it does not support deficits as a means of financing those cuts.

While the Howard government did involve Australia in an unusually large number of military operations during its term, this never had the ideological element it acquired in some parts of the American right. The Iraq and Afghanistan operations had their origins in pragmatic alliance politics and, while a Labor government would have made a different call on Iraq than Howard did, both parties operate within the same alliance framework that is highly controversial only on the lunar left. The more significant local East Timor and Pacific operations were similarly pragmatic operations to meet needs in our immediate region. The Howard government was also lucky, with very low military death tolls overall.

The politics of the GFC – desite the efforts of Kevin Rudd – are also likely to play out differently in the two countries. In Australia, the economic reform movement has not failed on its own terms. Indeed, though I am not going to dissent from the consensus view that things here will get worse before they get better, what is striking yet again about Australia is how robust the economy has been in the face of externally-generated downturns.

I don’t want to be complacent here, but the main problems of the Australian right are almost all things that long predate the meltdown of US ‘conservatism’ and which are largely unaffected by it. Though it briefly flared again through WorkChoices after the surprise Coalition Senate majority after 2004, in hindsight the ‘economic rationalist’ movement fizzled out after 1996, long before the 2008 GFC. This was partly because it was running out of major reforms, partly because Labor became a largely anti-reformist party after Keating left, and partly because Howard was a pragamatic politician first, and an economic reformer second.

On social policy issues, at best modest progress has ever been made, and in the political debates liberals and conservatives are almost always outnumbered dozens if not hundreds to one by interest group representatives and academics.

While I expect a period of disorientation on the American right, on the Australian right we may be headed for a period of renewed focus – though not political success for some years at least. After looking like dull managerialists for most of the their first year in office, Fraseresque in frenetic activity but little actual movemement, team Rudd are now looking like reckless Whitlamites. There will be plenty to get fired up about, even if (as last time) the effect in the end is mainly to save social democracy from itself (to turn around the Rudd analysis).

23 thoughts on “Will the crisis in American ‘conservatism’ spread to Australia?

  1. Exactly right – conservatism, in its current western form, has no intellectual groundings and in its essence is extremely anti-intellectual


  2. I think your analysis reflects your politics more than reality.

    The first step is to find an intellectual basis for the right, it isn’t going to come form the US, it very interested in an article that details what you believe it to be, in any country, Australia included.


  3. I think this is the most telling sentence in Posner’s post:

    By the end of the Clinton administration, I was content to celebrate the triumph of conservatism as I understood it, and had no desire for other than incremental changes in the economic and social structure of the United States.

    The U.S. right is quite radical in the main, with plenty of token issues and nutty shibboleths. I doubt many Americans on the right would share Posner’s contentment with the Clinton consensus, and might even have reservations about the Reagan years.

    On the other hand, I’m sure many Australian conservatives would have similar sentiments to Posner’s about the end of Howard’s term (perhaps pre-WorkChoices).


  4. Charles – While I am interested in the ‘intellectual basis’ of things, this is not necessarily the right first step in a political analysis. Successful political movements often involve people with different intellectual backgrounds agreeing on some broad policy agenda. They also ofen require not just the policy suggestions being right, but the times being right and often simple luck. So I think the broader context is at least if not more important than any ‘intellectual basis’ for the right.


  5. Your analysis is probably right.

    Personally I’m someone who voted for Rudd at the last election on the basis that he was Howard light and would remove workchoices.

    Rudd looked like he was going to be like Hawke and Keating but he looks more like Blair and Brown. Spin is his thing.

    Rudd has removed workchoices but it is also evident that his government wants to run deficits forever, justifying it with ‘nation building’. This is worrying.

    A major difference between the US and Australia is that here the coalition was removed while still fairly popular. The win wasn’t that big ( 8 seats or so? ). The Libs lost more because they underestimated Rudd and he brilliantly wrong footed them by adopting most of their policies. The Libs have also wisely not disowned the Howard legacy. This is also much easier, Howard ran a balanced budget as opposed to Bush’s profligacy and was quite happy to increase the government’s spending on social spending that he approved of ( baby bonus, etc ).

    Intellectually Australian Conservatism seems to be based more around Quadrant, the CIS and IPA than right wing shock jocks. We don’t have deeply conservative states where extremists can garner a base. Andrew Bolt is in a different class from Hannity and Michael Savage. There is effectively no abortion debate here.

    As for the intellectual base both Australian Conservatism and the Australian Left are actually pretty close. Australian Conservatives are skeptical that the government can fix things while the Left is more enthusiastic. But it’s shades of grey. The IPA and CIS might want less government, but their side didn’t really slash government. The Left here accepts a big role for the market. Neither is intellectually pure, but rather pragmatic.


  6. “undemocratic judicial fiat there”

    AKA the common law.

    The conservative movement in the US was a coalition of north eastern cold war types (who coalesced around the National Interest), religious/anti abortion/pro gun types and tax cutting, deregulation, types. They got together to elect Ronald Reagan who advanced all their agendas. But really they had nothing in common apart from dislike/hatred of Democrats in general and, later, Bill Clinton in particular.

    The conservative movement would have disintegrated years ago but for the filip it got from 9/11.

    In Australia, there is no conservative movement and never has been. Conservatism is just the tactics of the day to get the coalition elected.


  7. ‘“undemocratic judicial fiat there”
    AKA the common law.’

    No, Roe v Wade was a constitutional case and cannot be over-ridden by statute, as the common law can be. This has had very unfortunate consequences for the US legal-political system, and is one reason why I oppose a bill of rights here.


  8. Well, OK, but not every one would agree that the upholding of constitutional rights by the nation’s highest court is “undemocratic”. (Some would, but it’s hardly a lay down misere.)

    Anyway, it is very unlikely that the US right’s opposition to abortion would be any the less had the right to abortion come about by statute. How can I be so sure? Because gay marriage is being legislated, state by state, and the right’s opposition to that is just as fierce, because the religious motivation is just as strong.


  9. Beyond the Senate approval process, there is no democratic input into the court’s constitutional decisions. The question is not whether the same result would be arrived at by democratic means. Democratic systems are important as political safety valves, giving people an opportunity and a process for persuading their fellow citizens to change policy, while granting (temporary) political legitimacy to the winning side. The absence of this safety valve on some issues in the US has led to a corrupting of the judicial appointments process (where a candidate’s views on abortion and other hot issues are more important than their general suitability) and possibly contributed at the margins to the violent activity of anti-abortion activists.


  10. I think part of the difference is due to our country being 1/10th the size and its relative uniformity (no red or blue states). The full spectrum of views probably exist here, however the activists at either end don’t have the critical mass to be much of a force.

    e.g. There is a conservative Christian block in Australia, but they don’t have a stronghold the way the Christian right does in much of the South.

    This means there is a lack of self-reinforcing partisan fevour. Complementing this is compulsory voting. This in turn means that the Australian major parties try to appeal to the center, not to their own “base”. It is much harder to clearly define the ideology or article of faith for our major parties.

    All of this means that it is relatively easy for the Right in Australia to re-invent itself based on whatever issues come up. This assumes that the Liberals here are not as captive to right-wing special interest groups the way the Republicans appear to be.


  11. Agree with your general point, but not sure about this:
    “in hindsight the ‘economic rationalist’ movement fizzled out after 1996”
    For those of us who use the phrase in a negative way, economic rationalism is now the mainstream, default way of thinking for policy makers. It’s more or less become the unquestioned status quo. A recent example was the printing contract for our health department which was awarded to some company in the eastern states and not to the organisation here, which employs the intellectually disabled, which had had the contract. Why consider anything other than what’s cheapest?
    Here’s a recent quote from the always worth reading Andrew Hamilton, at Eureka Street:
    “Human beings are shaped by their relationships to one another and to the world. Through these relationships they transcend their individuality and their brutishness. The health of society and the resistance to monstrous behaviour lie in the quality of everyday relationships in family, workplace and social groups. To develop this reflection might lead us to explore concepts such as selflessness, fidelity, solidarity, and their opposites.

    Discussion of the budget rarely touches on what kinds of relationship it encourages and handicaps. But on these things the effectiveness and seriousness of the budget finally depend. “


  12. C’mon, Guys, are you serious? Republicans lost an election, albeit badly, and you already calling the death of American Conservatism? It’s a two party political system and your party is going to lose. Badly at times. The worst thing that Conservatives can do right now is to start believing the political analysis from their worst enemies. Have you ever heard Democrats saying FDR’s policies are dead and buried? Why should Conservatives always start slashing their wrists after a bad election loss?

    Should I also remind you that despite the outlandish claims of dead Conservatism, almost 50% of the votes were cast for the Conservative candidate?

    Most of the above analysis can be boiled down to moving conservatism further to the Centre or perhaps even further to the Left. I know that knuckle-dragging pro-abortion Red State simpletons offend the blue blood “intellectual” Conservatives but so what? John McCain was a maverick, “across the aisle Republican”, anti-abortionist, global warmenist and NYT favourite Conservative to boot. And how did that work out for ya?

    I know that knee-jerk reactions are inevitable after a big election loss. Still, think back to Carter’s landslide win in 1976 and Reagan’s famous landslide only 4 years later. If Reagan followed your logic he should’ve turned Republican Party to the Left, because that’s apparently what the voters wanted when they rejected Republicans in 1976, very much as they did in 2008. Except he didn’t and went on to become one of the most revered and influential politicians of all times.

    Next US election will be run on economy and Republicans can win if they return back to the small government agenda that went missing from the last two Republican administrations.
    Here is a little inspiration, and stop being such Dem butt-kissing sissies!


  13. “Next US election will be run on economy and Republicans can win if they return back to the small government agenda that went missing from the last two Republican administrations.”

    Tiger I think you could be correct, but only if the Republicans focus on the issues they can win on (which is small government). If they get worked up about Abortion, Stem Cells, Abstinence only, etc… I think they lose.

    There’s only so long you can flog a dead horse and I think that many of the Republicans key base energizing issues are going to hurt them with the centre. On a lot of those issues they are in the vocal minority, there are no extra votes to the right.

    Reagan won because he had new (and arguably better ideas) and credibility.


  14. Sorry about the poor English in my last post.

    My translation of your article is: Australian political structure and culture protected Australia from the excesses of the right. That is all well and good and I tend to agree, it was unfortunate for the right and the country that they got control of the senate. Having a system that protects itself from extreme positions however is not a foundation for future political success.

    The theme is the intellectual decline of the right; I really am curious; can anyone write a decent foundation that they are decline from.

    I am also curious as to what one would claim as the foundation of the left, at the moment they are unraveling the mess created by the excesses of the “conservative” governments, what comes next? It’s one of the reasons I think the left/right thing is now nothing more than hollow nonsense. When it comes to serious matters like economics, both lots have very little to say.

    Take Turnbull’s budget reply; derogatory adjectives are not policies. Take the Rudd government, it is not changing the country like Keating and Whitlam did, heck it looks as if they won’t even have the balls to introduce a carbon trading scheme.

    As for the debt thing, are you going to tell me the difference between the right and the left is the size of economic stimulus packages?


  15. Charles:

    It’s one of the reasons I think the left/right thing is now nothing more than hollow nonsense.

    How do reconcile that with your earlier comment:

    I am also curious as to what one would claim as the foundation of the left, at the moment they are unraveling the mess created by the excesses of the “conservative” governments, what comes next?

    It seems to me that your earlier comment was the better of the two.


  16. Russell wrote:
    “A recent example was the printing contract for our health department which was awarded to some company in the eastern states and not to the organisation here, which employs the intellectually disabled, which had had the contract. Why consider anything other than what’s cheapest?”

    I don’t know about this contract. However, I would generally want contracts to be awarded to the least expensive tender, all other things being equal. Russell, when contracts are awarded to more expensive firms, taxpayers have to pay more than would otherwise need to. Make this the general way things are administered in government, and you have a lot more taxpayer dollars being used unnecessarily, when they could have been used in ways more valued by the taxpayers.

    And this of course affects people badly off who end up paying more tax than they need to.

    In relation to an organisation employing the intellectually disabled, the support for the disabled can be separated out from the service contract.


  17. Sacha’s right. Economic rationalism does not stand for being tough on the intellectually disabled, but it does stand for thinking clearly about government objectives and how best to achieve them.


  18. Sacha – “all other things being equal”, but they rarely are. I understood from the news that it was simply “this quote is cheaper, give it to them”. And from the reaction you can see that this sort of economic rationalism is not what people want – it’s a sort of theory versus reality thing. Ask people if governments should be business-like, efficient, keep costs to a minimum, and everyone says yes. But then time and time again these sort of stories come up and the same people will say “But, obviously in this case they should …..
    The process reminds me of the organisation I used to work for which put out a tender for cleaning contracts every two years, and always took the cheapest. Eventually the building was completely filthy – a great contributor to morale, but that doesn’t count.


  19. Andrew – I suppose we have different understandings of ‘economic rationalism’. But I see it as breaking things down into little bits, with the easiest to measure bits, and especially the costs bits, being paid great attention, while the rest is just not quantifiable and therefore too hard, or not within the scope of this study, or not our responsibility …. it only focuses on the narrowly economic, where reducing cost is always the primary goal.


  20. Rusell, a filthy building suggests that (a) the contract didn’t involve cleaning the building, or (b) the contract wasn’t administered properly, or some combination of the two. Or that the organisation was fine with a dirty building.


  21. Complementing this is compulsory voting. This in turn means that the Australian major parties try to appeal to the center, not to their own “base”.

    I consider this to be a severely underestimated factor in the differences between US and Australian politics. In a voluntary vote system the most rational strategy is to energise your base and demoralise the other guy’s. Hence the chest-thumping and brutal negativity of US elections. In Australia the rational strategy is to carry the median voter, who is usually interested in a few simple things: do I have a job? Can I afford the mortgage? Rather than pocket battles of the culture wars.


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