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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It’s The Values, Stupid

This piece originally appeared on the cover of the IPA Review in April 2017.

Before it finally announced its intention to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in March this year, the Turnbull government professed a very strong view on where section 18C ranked in its list of political priorities.

Eliminating this threat to freedom of speech—one of the most fundamental democratic liberties—by scrapping 18C ‘wouldn’t create one job’, according to Treasurer Scott Morrison. It ‘won’t build a road’, declared Malcolm Turnbull.

There are many things the government does that won’t create jobs or build roads, but its throw-away dismissal of freedom of speech shows that it understands very little about the forces behind Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump. For the last few decades, an entrenched political class has chipped away at the key institutions of liberal democracy: the rule of law, free speech and tolerance, impartial justice, and a limited state. At long last, conservatives have lost patience.

In 1992, Bill Clinton’s election strategist James Carville coined the campaign slogan: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Economics matters, of course. Understanding the moribund economic growth since the Global Financial Crisis is a big part of understanding the politics of 2017. Morrison and Turnbull are therefore right to be concerned about jobs and roads, but democracy is more than a mechanism to agree on the best company tax rate. More than anything, when we vote, we vote our values. Continue reading

Trump: chief critic of American conservatism

A version of this article appeared in the IPA Review in 2016. It is a review of George Hawley’s book Right-wing critics of American Conservatism.

Since the Second World War, right-wing politics in the United States has been dominated by an order of intellectuals, commentators, and institutions that together make up what has been known as the conservative movement. The movement began in the early 1950s with the philosopher Russell Kirk and consolidated towards the end of that decade behind the flagship magazine National Review, founded by William F. Buckley, drawing together a diverse mix of traditionalists, libertarians, and, from the 1970s, neoconservatives. This alliance settled on a program of defending religious and social custom, free market economics, and the development of an overwhelming military capability, which it has attempted to implement through control of the Republican Party. But with the rise of Donald Trump to that party’s presidential candidacy, the terms of this right wing consensus are now in dispute.

In this context, George Hawley’s new book Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism is very timely. Hawley’s book is a taxonomy of right-wing thought, describing movement conservatism and contrasting it with other forms of right-wing thought that the movement has deliberately excluded, beginning with Buckley’s vanquishing of the paranoiac anti-communist John Birch Society through to the more recent shunning of members who evince racist attitudes.  However, despite the conservative movement’s tight policing of its boundaries, these other philosophies and styles never disappeared. The appearance of movement conservatism as a synecdoche for right-wing thought has always been false.

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