Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Conservatism

The courage of their convictions.

A big congratulations to Senators Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce for crossing the floor to vote for the CPRS scheme.

Senator Judith Troeth

Senator Judith Troeth

Senator Sue Boyce

Senator Sue Boyce

For the last month the central debate amongst political insiders was how many conservative climate sceptics were going to cross the floor to vote against the CPRS. No one doubted the threat was serious, and on some of the early amendments they even carried out their threat to vote no. This wasn’t enough for the cons, and following one failed spill motion they resigned on mass, forced a second leadership challenge and though expecting to lose, pulled out a surprise victory in the leadership stakes. Of the 10-15 Liberal senators who still supported of the CPRS in line with a strong majority of the public only 2 voted yes, and the bill failed.

As for Turnbull, he surged amongst Labor voters in his final days for his defiant support of the CPRS, and provided himself an exit narrative far more historically praiseworthy than the already pencilled in outline of having badly lost an election arguing for policies he didn’t support. His biographers have their story, and while not the PM outcome he thought himself destined for, it’s one he can be proud of. (And out of bitterness or convictions he’s still arguing for an ETS. Watch this space.)

So what is the moral of this story: In Australian (&US) politics, it seems only conservatives have the courage of their convictions. In government the conservatives ruthlessly pursued their policies, and now in opposition are fundamentalist in their rejection of the lefts agenda (Such as Tony Abbotts sudden disapproval of mandates). True, this stridency isn’t always the best electoral politics, Bush & Howard went down humiliatingly and Abbott is miles below Rudd on the polling. But in policy and momentum terms it matters. Bush got through much of his agenda (save reforming social security), as did Howard, and in office Obama and Rudd have struggled to get their signature issues through (Health & ETS respectively) and only barely scrapped through a stimulus package (whose debt they now wear like a bad smell). All of which makes their re-election campaigns so much harder as they have little to point to as achievements. This isn’t a startling new observation obviously, but it is worth recognising when it occurs. There’s all sorts of explanations floating around, assigning rational reasonableness to the left & irrational ignorant passion to the right, but it doesn’t really hold weight. Likewise theories that this is just a post-election backlash (as the US teaparties have been seen) don’t work either because the same determination was evident in government.

Instead, it seems to reflect the pattern of the last 30 years. The right emerged circa 1970 with a clear vision of society and agenda, easily won the rhetorical war against the dying remnants of Post-WW2 liberalism, and has stayed in the ascendant ever since. Though the left had some electoral victories (Hawke, Clinton) and has made good advances in some areas (homosexual rights, environmental, retaining welfare net), it hasn’t ever really gotten up from its crouched, defensive position. It hasn’t been willing to be blooded and potentially risk any kind of electoral backlash in order to carry out its policies. It was so anxious to gain government it weakened or deferred most of its real beliefs, and having gained it is even more anxious to keep it. This isn’t always the worst thing, sometimes good government means just pragmatically minding the store, something that is in the best of the conservative tradition. But when it comes to big critical issues, it also can translate overwhelming strength into policy defeat. Rudd’s suffered it here, and we are just waiting to see if Obama can escape it in the US (the public option is dead, but surely something will get through). So good on Troeth and Boyce for having the courage of their convictions that seemingly few other liberals and moderates do. To vote as they see their conscious and beliefs dictate, not based on calculations of self-interest.

If liberals/the left is to escape this, the option is not more strident politicians, but a much clearer and more thought through agenda. One that can carry liberal/left/progressives of all tempraments through, and mutually re-enforce various elements. It’s not enough to support health care & climate change as individual policies, we need to show how these build towards an clear vision of a better country. I’ve started to begin such work here, I hope you’ll join with me on this.

The end of the US Republican Party?

gop_elephant_dead(7)If you are in need of a laugh, and your sense of humor tends towards the black, then you can’t miss Alan Jones interview last week with Malcolm Turnbull. You have to feel sorry for Turnbull given the squawking queen performance of Jones denying Climate Change, and demanding Turnbull adopt policies he simultaneously knows are impossible (such as forcing India/Pakistan to take the boat people).

That said, however much I feel sorry for Turnbull, his and the Liberal party problems are nothing compared to that faced by their Republican Party colleagues in the USA. This may be a strange thing to write just a few days after Republicans won Governor races in Virginia and New Jersey. But the real heat of the fight was always the congressional seat of NY-23. It’s a very instructive story for the problems faced by Conservatives in the US. They can’t control their base, they are now losing battles they thought comfortably won, and could even split in the face of an insurgent uprising from their right. But first to a small seat in upstate, rural New York:

NY-23 is a small congressional seat that has not voted Democrat since prior to the Civil War. The Local Republican party elected a candidate named Dede Scozzafava. Deciding she was far too moderate for their liking, party Right-Wing heavyweights such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Fred Thompson, Tim Pawlenty, Glenn Beck & Rush Limmbaugh endorsed the Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. That is, members & boosters of the Republican Party, including their former Vice-President candidate endorsed a third-party candidate in an ultra-safe seat. And they managed to lead the party to Victory defeat.
Post-election coverage has naturally been spun to say state governorships are the important thing (they arn’t), but they were also very hum-drum affairs unreflective of the national debate. They featured unpopular local governors, poor economic times, and a tendency for voters to swing after big change elections. Not a good result for the democrats, but nothing amazing. Likewise Republican/Independent Mike Bloomberg scrapped back in as NY Mayor by spending about $180 per vote. Ie not a good time for incumbents.

In Australia Turnbull is threatened with the loss of 14% of his coalition at absolute worse should it split. However this would give his party many opportunities for picking up new seats and allow a re-forging of their image. Equally it would let them regain absolute discipline in the party, and improve the leaders image. Not the greatest but manageable with some opportunities included.

The Republicans in the US however have only just held off an insurgent attack from the right on their party, and in the processed sacrificed a safe seat for it in congress. Yet given the nature of the activists they face, the loss has instead encouraged the insurgents. Such is their close connection to reality. In turn the Republican party has responded by capitulating and agreeing not to get involved in or fund candidates in primaries. In Australia you almost can’t win a seat without the establishment pre-choosing you, in the US right, the establishment is afraid of it’s own base.

This is a party which lost both houses, in the Congress and Senate in 2008. Its loss on the presidancy was a virtual guarantee, with its former leader having some of the worst ratings of a President in history. Its chief opponent is smart, moderate, has a unique cool and symbolic status, and is putting electoral victory above ideology. He will be very very hard to beat.

Equally, whatever annoyance Turnbull may face from shrills like Jones, it’s nothing compared to the power of presenters such as Rush Limbaugh. GOP chief Michael Steel had to apologize for calling Limbaugh an ‘entertainer’, along with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (of hiking the Appalachian trail fame), and congressmen such as Phil Gingrey and Todd Tiahrt all for offending the great Rush. Turnbull ridicules Jones to his face, US republicans grovel before Rush. The comparison is stark.

The only energy on the Republican’s side comes from the extremists of the party, who are holding their own rallies, and supporting extremist theories such as Obama wasn’t born in the USA or is a radical communist. Neither of which endears the public to support them nationally.

The one shining light the Republicans have this year is the heat and noise created by the fight over health care. This is a 60 years plus fight by democrats, that usually has died with a whimper in some congressional committee, and then is forgotten (that’s at best, at worst like 1994 it nearly killed Clinton’s presidency). The one big hope Republicans had was to defeat Obama on this score and prove he was a radical or couldn’t govern. Last night at 11:09pm the US House of Representatives passed their version of the Healthcare Bill. The bill now has to go before the Senate, which was always the real fight.(Actually the biggest challenge is to allow the bill to even be voted on, as I mentioned a few days ago, it requires a supermajority of 60 votes to stop delaying tactics and force a vote. Democrats have 58 members, with 2 independents who support them. But lax party discipline compared to what we see in Australia, or even their US Republican counterparts.)

Health care reform is not yet law, but it has gotten far closer than ever before. If it does pass, it will be with very strong public support, and show that Democrats can govern and deliver on their promises. And (as Republicans really fear) once the public get used to having some level of government involvement (though they already accept Medicare for seniors and veterans/congressional care by govt) then expanding it for all the working poor will be a much easier option than initially pushing through the legislation. So whilst things are pretty horrible for Malcolm Turnbull and Australian conservatives at the moment, spare a thought for their US counterparts. For all the heat and noise they’ve created, their support is cratering, and the insurgents are driving them to the fringe, and the leaders are afraid to fight them. It’s even plausible the party could split if this keeps up, with a “Conservative” Party offshoot.

The GOP is a party that lost the public’s faith in its conduct of War, Economics and Culture. It is being challenged by a President it still doesn’t understand, and is being pushed to the brink on a bill it thought it had defeated 60 years ago, certainly at least destroyed the rationality for 20 years ago with Reagan. It is in a primal scream of rage and impotence, right now, and deeply in pain. Worse, it is facing an enemy not comfortably coming from where the guns are faced, coast ward towards the left, but from the inland, the right. And it’s former hero’s such as Palin and Pawlenty are leading the charge against it. Unlikely, but something to watch. In many ways they remind me of the French revolutionary, who see’s a crowd flooding by and declares “I must find out where they are going so I may lead them”. The GOP leaders, freshly into the benches of opposition are desperate for any way back to power. They have tried to force their ways back into power, to demand it, to insist on it. Yet the public ends up disfavoring them far more thanthe hapless democrats.

So keep your head up Malcolm, in comparison you’ve got it easy.

Wither Freedom?

Via Andrew Sullivan, comes this intriguing comment by his conservative colleague at the Atlantic Ross Douthat

the battle between social conservatism and social liberalism at the moment isn’t a battle between competing utopias, but a battle over which tragic choice is worse: The choice to stigmatize, which can damage and even ruin lives, or the choice to destigmatize, which can damage and ruin countless lives as well….we’ve come a long way down their road, and I think we know enough about the consequences to say that there would be real gains to human welfare available – for downscale Americans, especially, but not only for them – if we were to go some distance in a more conservative direction.

This may seem a basic utilitarian argument: what are the outcomes of each choice, and how best might we shape society for the greatest happiness. But there is one crucial calculation left out here: Destigmatizing human relationships, that is social liberalism, by its mere presence grants each and every one of us the individual freedom to actually make a choice.

We may not like the outcome of some of these choices, but it is superior in almost every way, whatever the outcome, that such a choice has actually been made by the individual. Without such a choice being available we can not expect the individual to accept responsibility for the outcome, nor equally can we praise the actions of those we think made the “right” choice, if they did not feel they had any other option available to them.

Without freedom, no happiness is possible. No figure in history has ever sought to celebrate the happiness of the slave, whatever his access to good food, social stability, or access to pleasure. That is why utilitarian arguments have always been so centrally concerned with individual freedom, and championed by those like Bentham, Mill or Singer who wish to promote as much individual freedom as possible, rather than social conservatives who, (were it not for their love of pre-received authority) would be natural allies of such a strain of thought. If we truly do need such harsh social shame and stigma to produce positive outcomes, then utilitarian calculations would be perfectly suited to justifying it. But instead, for reasons more of history and religion than logic, Conservatives pretend their claim is a moral one, when at heart they would wish to deny all human choice, and thereby cannot claim any more a sense of morality than we may expect our laptop or toaster to be “moral” in doing what they are engineered to do.

Freedom mis-used, is still freedom. As a society we do desperately need to act to try and fix some of the social ills we see, for example:

We[Australia] have 7.8 million households in this country; over 10% of those have experienced a break-in.
We have 16 million people aged over 15 in this country; 5.5% have experienced sexual assault.
191,000 males between 18 and 25 reported being assaulted in 2005 – 44% of those in bars.

But, it would be meaningless to try and solve these problems by first trying to prevent what makes us human, and is the prerequisite for any life worth living: Individual freedom in the pursuit of happiness.