Conservatism is so last year

3 03 2008

In a recent post, Bruce reflected on the (possible) fall of the right-wing narrative that underscored the tenure of the Howard Government. Since they were booted out of office, the Lib/Nats have abandoned core policy positions on Aboriginal reconciliation, on industrial relations and on nuclear power. Even in the last term of the Howard Government they were dragged kicking and screaming to the party on climate change, and as has been recently revealed, were planning to pull Australian soldiers out of Iraq. Howard himself appeared on the cusp of a U-turn in indigenous affairs policy in the dying days of his regime, promising a constitutional referendum to recognise indigenous Australians in the constitution, and embracing symbolic as well as “practical” reconciliation. The major force in conservative politics in Australia is now sans a political platform, and sans a galvanising leader. [UPDATE: And how.] On the other side of the ledger, the Labor government has ratified Kyoto, apologised to the Stolen Generations, introduced legislation to dismantle Workchoices, and (as per party policy) will pull Australian troops out of Iraq. The death of a monolithic narrative, as Bruce put it, and

it happened in a very Australian way. Cars weren’t torched. Government departments weren’t blockaded. Counter dogma wasn’t preached by mass sections of the public. With a quiet confidence an a relatively minimal level of fuss, Australia simply said “no”.

In the comments I opined that the Australian right perhaps overreached itself, endeavouring to transpose a politically successful US Republican Party/Religious Right formula into an Australian context for which it was unsuited. But maybe that wasn’t the problem at all. Maybe the formula itself was tainted.

That is the view of Greg Anrig, vice president of policy at The Century Foundation. Anrig is the author of The Conservatives Have No Clothes (see this article for an overview), in which he argues that

the most important ideas developed and marketed almost exclusively by the right’s elaborate network of think tanks and advocacy institutions, after implementation by conservative Republican officeholders, have demonstrably failed to produce the promised results and in most cases have made conditions worse in concrete ways.

Anrig claims that rather than betraying the nostrums of modern conservatism, the Bush administration has faithfully implemented them; hence, Bush’s failures are the failures of modern conservatism. The author also emphasises the disconnect between modern and traditional conservatism, arguing that where traditional conservatism (as defined by 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater) promoted “economic, social, and political practices based on the successes of the past,” modern conservatives “simply wanted to roll back government, through any means necessary.”

The leading funders of movement conservatism didn’t think twice about what the consequences for the public—intended or unintended—might be of getting rid of this or that program or regulation or tax or policy. Just do whatever it takes to get on the offensive, attack, and beat back the government. Those were the kinds of results they wanted.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Even if you allow for the differences between the Australian and US political systems.

Anrig discusses his book here.

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12 responses

3 03 2008
Bruce

With a quiet confidence an (sic) a relatively minimal level of fuss, Australia simply said “no”.

Ah bum, typo. Now I have to go fix it. ;-)

4 03 2008
SB

I don’t buy this narrative. The reason Howard lost here was the accumulated stench of his dishonesty and racism combined with an attack on working conditions and feeling that he had been around for too long. Howard has been replaced by Rudd who is slightly less conservative, but not much.

Certainly social conservatism has taken a beating lately, but it has been on the back foot since the 1960s. We are merely seeing a backlash as we get around to formalising the progress made in that period.

As far as economics goes, the free market is widely accepted as being beneficial and leftist economics has been dead in the water for the last twenty odd years.

In international affairs the one really vibrant force is political islam. It is making great strides and it is deeply conservative.

4 03 2008
AV

As far as economics goes, the free market is widely accepted as being beneficial

Within reasonable constraints, perhaps. But I don’t think any Australian political party would be doing itself any favours if it attempted to get rid of Medicare, for instance. And Workchoices (the free market applied to industrial relations) proved disastrous for the Coalition (along with the other factors you mentioned).

4 03 2008
SB

Yes, no government is going to get rid of medicare. I was more referring to the marginalisation of command economy nonsense which occurred after the fall of the Soviet bloc. In the seventies there were lots of academics who seriously believed the Marxist fairytale and lots of active communist groups around campus. to the extent they still exist no one takes them seriously any more.

4 03 2008
Bruce

As far as economics goes, the free market is widely accepted as being beneficial and leftist economics has been dead in the water for the last twenty odd years.

I prefer not to view economics in left and right, especially with it’s allusions to orthodoxies that frankly nobody to either pole of the mainstream actually hold. The “right end” of the mainstream aren’t de-regulate-at-any-cost and the “left end” of the mainstream are probably more liberal, albeit social liberals ala what the Democrats should have been standing for.

Most people to the left of the Australian middle (i.e. people other than the odd sincere Marxist, a few over-enthusiastic Uni students and a few people in the media well past their use-by date) couldn’t give a rat’s about Marx’s historicism of economics and many to the right thought Work Choices went too far (an admission even leaking from Liberal ranks).

The momentum of the politics in as far as economics goes, I suspect will make a turn towards the social-liberal (with Rudd dragging his heels). While not a victory for old Left orthodoxy (or subsequent rebrandings), I don’t see this as a victory for conservatism of any brand. The momentum is moving away from that part of the political spectrum.

5 03 2008
SB

There is a fundamental incoherence in painting things in left/right terms. If this distinction ever meant anything, at least since Marx and his view that social relations are determined by the ownership of the means of production, it is an economic distinction.

I have a lot of sympathy for the view that the term ‘right’ is a term of abuse invented by the left to imply their polar opposite, that is to imply that there are others at least as bad as they are. This was relevant in the Stalin’s excesses. If you go back to the French revolution (where the term ‘left’ originated) the left were the blood-lusting Jacobins.

At the end of the day society is moving to formally end the social conservatism that was in practice decimated in the sixties (and that is generally a good thing). We are developing an inclusive model for our society and trying to balance this with the right amount of social glue to keep the whole enterprise together.

5 03 2008
AV

I have a lot of sympathy for the view that the term ‘right’ is a term of abuse invented by the left to imply their polar opposite, that is to imply that there are others at least as bad as they are.

I would have sympathy for this view also, if I saw substantial evidence that such is the case–evidence, most importantly, that is untainted by unsubstantiated presuppositions about who and what the term “left” designates.

5 03 2008
AV

At the end of the day society is moving to formally end the social conservatism that was in practice decimated in the sixties (and that is generally a good thing). We are developing an inclusive model for our society and trying to balance this with the right amount of social glue to keep the whole enterprise together.

I think you’re on the right track, although I think this project–call it “the Enlightenment Project“, if you will–has been under way for much longer.

5 03 2008
SB

I liked this discussion of the left/right issue (and the link into the disputed article section). I guess my own views are coloured by years of having the term ‘right’ used as a form of abuse against me by those who supporteded leftist totalitarian regimes where my crime was supporting democratic governance.

As to the enlightenment project, I am sure most religious fundamentalists would tell you they are about ‘dispelling darkness, fear and superstition’. It might be better to say that the enlightenment is about eliminating non-rational elements from the discussion. The problem with this is that it is very easy to cloak irrational ideas in rational garb. Look a t Freud or phlogiston.

Most of our lives are governed more by spontaneous response than rational calculation. When you catch a ball you don’t calculate velocity, acceleration, resistance and gravity to determine where to put out your hand. We have evolved a simpler method that works well unless something unusual occurs like tricky wind conditions or that we shine only one side of the ball. There is also a partial analogy here with our moral sense. However, what confuses most people in the case of morals is that the alternative of making a rational calculation to check our instinctive reactions is only really available after we have made some assumptions, and the outcome of the calculation may differ greatly depending on what these assumptions are. When it comes to really serious questions like who we love and share our lives with rational calculation is impossible.

6 03 2008
AV

I liked this discussion of the left/right issue (and the link into the disputed article section). I guess my own views are coloured by years of having the term ‘right’ used as a form of abuse against me by those who supporteded leftist totalitarian regimes where my crime was supporting democratic governance.

I’ve grown up in a different era–one in which support for any kind of totalitarianism or authoritarianism on the left, Marxist or otherwise, is either a thing of the long-distant past, or so marginal as to be practically irrelevant as far as the terms “left” and “right” are used in contemporary discourse. (The post-1960s (postmodern) disenchantment with Marxism and utopianism has no doubt contributed to this.) It’s interesting to me that the term “lefty” has in the recent decade or so been applied disparagingly to many positions which in past decades would have been regarded as mainstream: support for universal healthcare and education, human rights and the rule of law are some examples which spring to mind. (The anti-communist former editor of Quadrant Robert Manne is a “lefty,” on this view.)

I think the terms “left” and “right” serve a useful purpose–temporarily at least–in orienting oneself in the current political landscape. But it has to be remembered that they are relative terms, and that the political landscape is constantly shifting. As a kind of shorthand these terms are OK, but not as forms of abuse, and if you’re going to speak in support of a given idea, or attack a given idea, it is best to say what the idea is and not simply write it off as “leftist” or “rightist.”

It might be better to say that the enlightenment is about eliminating non-rational elements from the discussion. The problem with this is that it is very easy to cloak irrational ideas in rational garb. Look a t Freud or phlogiston.

Agreed. See my post on “ratiosimilitude.”

There is also a partial analogy here with our moral sense. However, what confuses most people in the case of morals is that the alternative of making a rational calculation to check our instinctive reactions is only really available after we have made some assumptions, and the outcome of the calculation may differ greatly depending on what these assumptions are. When it comes to really serious questions like who we love and share our lives with rational calculation is impossible.

And yet, as Barack Obama once pointed out to a crowd of evangelicals, when it comes to how these serious questions affect policymaking in a liberal democracy, you have to be able to speak in a register that people of all faiths and no faith alike can understand and appreciate.

6 03 2008
SB

AV: you have to be able to speak in a register that people of all faiths and no faith alike can understand and appreciate.

The main problem is cases where that register doesn’t exist. If one group starts from a radically different premise then it may be that their is no such register. If someone argues that something is desirable because the laws of scientific socialism or of god say so then it is hard to argue with them. It is important that the education system foster dialogue. I think that society has a strong interest in schools, particularly special interest schools, not indoctrinating students with absolutist ideas, but teaching them critical thinking.

6 03 2008
AV

It is important that the education system foster dialogue. I think that society has a strong interest in schools, particularly special interest schools, not indoctrinating students with absolutist ideas, but teaching them critical thinking.

That’s what I had in mind, actually.

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