Social democratic consensus

In my Quadrant Online piece on the left sensibility, I argued that the Australian left sensibility had accommodated contradictory ideas over time, including:

protection and free trade, nationalisation and privatisation, empire and republicanism, White Australia Policy and anti-discrimination law.

But I should also have noted that if my political identity survey is a guide, current-day social democrats show a high degree of policy consensus. In the latest issue of Policy, I have an article that collates the survey responses of the three varieties of economic liberal (classical liberal, libertarian, and social conservative and economic liberal) and compares their views with those of social democrats:

On the questions asked, there is more diversity of opinion among those who self-described with pro-market labels than among social democrats. On five issues discussed in this article—fiscal policy, minimum wage, unfair dismissal, national curriculum, and school funding—there is not a clear economic liberal majority for the ‘neoliberal’ position. By contrast, there were no social democratic responses inconsistent with their general ideological perspective.

Looking at the full list of social democratic responses, only on two policy issues do social democrats have substantial numbers on both sides of a debate. These are between an ETS and a carbon tax and whether anti-discrimination law should have exceptions or not. The climate change disagreement is over a policy method rather than a policy goal, and is invisible in public debate. Only anti-discrimination law – probably not a major issue to most people – is causing public disagreement.

My survey was primarily designed to assess centre-right opinion, so different questions may reveal more diversity of social democratic view. But it did ask questions across a wide range of policy areas, so in future research I would start with the hypothesis that there is a high degree of policy consensus among social democrats, and that in this case an ideological label can be used to infer positions on many issues.

6 thoughts on “Social democratic consensus

  1. Basically, it is the politics of secular salvation.

    Here is a question: what positive achievement can the Left point to which is theirs, and theirs alone, and which are not either of a basically liberal variety or activism-as-achievement? The welfare state was built by governments across the political spectrum, as were things such as votes for women, women in politics, legal advances for indigenous Australians, etc. So what is distinctively their achievement?

    And can we produce a list which is even remotely worthy of the self-congratulatory (even self-righteous) moral certainty which is so often the flavour of the left? Or is the sensibility of the left really its greatest source of self-worth and therefore the thing which has to be constantly reinforced? Is it that sense of moral-worthiness which is the real heart: moving on from position to position that, taken together, are, as you suggest, a self-contradicting record. So that an ostentatious moral certainty is the true common thread, supported by whatever is the Correct Position of the moment?

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  2. Firstly, I do not know why you would automatically discount reforms achieved by building consensus. Surely if the achievement of positive outcomes is the real desire, rather than a desire to simply score points against an opponent as if all of politics was some grand football match, then achievements made through finding common ground with liberals and changing minds are significantly better.

    Secondly, on a large number of essentially social issues the modern left sensibility (which tends to support individual freedom in matters such as sexuality, political and artistic expression etc) has a lot of natural common ground with liberalism. It is therefore completely to be expected that causes such as the vote for women were implemented with support from both camps (an in opposition to the conservative camp).

    Thirdly, the fact that the orthodox view in a given political movement on any given issue might change over time is neither the sole preserve of “the Left” (to continue an earlier example, conservatives are now completely on board with women in politics), nor is it a condemnation – it is a virtue. When the facts change, we should certainly be prepared to change our minds – and this comes back full circle to the essential point that we should all be in this to achieve positive outcomes, not to simply barrack for the political football team that we were born in to supporting.

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  3. “on a large number of essentially social issues the modern left sensibility (which tends to support individual freedom in matters such as sexuality, political and artistic expression etc) ”

    Though the Hey Hey controversy suggests there are some areas in which the general public tends to be more supportive of individual freedom than those with the ‘left sensibility’.

    They are supportive of individual freedoms for people like them (eg sedition laws, Henson case) but not for others (eg vilification laws).

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  4. “Here is a question: what positive achievement can the Left point to which is theirs, and theirs alone, and which are not either of a basically liberal variety or activism-as-achievement?”
    Universal health insurance? Introduced by Labor, scrapped by the Liberals, reintroduced by Labor …..

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  5. They are supportive of individual freedoms for people like them (eg sedition laws, Henson case) but not for others (eg vilification laws).

    I don’t think it’s “people like them” – the majority of those with “Left sensibilities” wouldn’t self-identify as artists, and certainly controversial photographic artists would be a tiny minority. It’s more that when it comes to freedom of speech/expression, value judgements tend to be made on what forms of expression are inherently important and which are destructive. For example, conservatives would tend to consider sedition or the disclosure of state secrets to be destructive enough to ban, whereas leftists tend to consider hate speech to be in that category. Liberals tend to a more ideological view in which the principle of freedom of speech itself is the most important thing.

    (Also, there’s a considerable difference between saying “a responsible broadcaster shouldn’t be publishing this” and calling for legal sanction. I don’t recall seeing anyone asking for offensive humour to be made against the law, as your other examples are).

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  6. Caf – I did not mean to say that most people with the left sensibility were artists, clearly not, but that they would tend to see artists as people like (not the same as) them in their general worldview. The Red Faces act would on the arguments of some of its critics come within the scope for Victorian vilification law, which includes holding ethnic groups up to severe ridicule (it’s a total misreading of the RF act, but as I recall the law intention does not matter). One of the many criticisms that could be made of the vilification law is that educated people can evade it via the exceptions for artistic, scientific or academic purposes, while ordinary people who are not so sophisticated in the way they express themselves get caught.

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