Comfortable and relaxed with conservative populism

This piece first appeared in Meanjin (Autumn 2018).

The last time identity played such an outsized role in Australian politics, then opposition leader John Howard famously stated his ambition for a country in which people should feel ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about the past, present and future. Howard’s phrase has been remembered because, for detractors and supporters, it captures something deep and resonant in the conservative idea of government. It is an idea worth revisiting now, more than 20 years later, as our politics again breaks down over claims of institutional and historic unfairness, and a conservative response that is, depending on how you look at it, either wilful complacency and disregard or an entirely understandable desire to be left in peace.

The purpose of this essay is not to rehash the meaning of Trump and Brexit, to muse about the collapse of the conservative establishment, or to declaim against any specific issue on today’s activist agenda. Instead, I propose to examine the philosophical debate that underlies the political back-and-forth. I will explore the struggle for recognition that animates identity politics. In the concept of recognition, progressives have found a cause to rally behind: differential institutional treatment of members of historically oppressed groups that enables those individuals to participate fully in society, thereby securing their dignity as truly equal citizens. Its absence is held to cause real harm. This is a strong claim that, if correct, implies a justification for the coercion, both state and cultural, of those who contribute, by act or omission, to the continued marginalisation of others.

The question, then, is whether anyone can in good conscience believe that the existing political and cultural institutions of our liberal democracy (which together I refer to as the social order) are preferable to a politics that prioritises the recognition of difference. Or, alternatively, whether such conservatism, indulging in comfort and relaxation not available to all, is an ongoing threat to equal citizenship and individual dignity, and must therefore be excluded from our politics and our society.

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