What if they gave a culture war and nobody came?
It’s now looking just about as certain as any electoral outcome can be that the Howard government will be defeated, and that the Federal Liberal party will join its state and territory counterparts in opposition, possibly for several terms to come. Given that the economy is doing well, and that the Australian electorate is not obviously in a state of leftwing ferment, this (still putative) outcome needs some explanation.
One striking fact, despite having received an overwhelming mandate in 1996 for a policy of making Australia “relaxed and comfortable”, the Howard government, and, even more, their supporters, see themselves as being engaged in a “culture war”. An even more striking fact is that the other side in this culture war has been just about invisible, particularly in political debate. It’s hard to see either Kevin Rudd or his smooth and scrubbed counterparts at the state level as engaged in a struggle to undermine traditional Australian culture. Even the Greens, led by Bob Brown, don’t fit the bill. And this is consistent with my day-to-day experience. Maybe UQ is riddled with extreme cultural leftists, but if so, I don’t get invited to their parties.
Yet opinion columns, talk radio and the rightwing blogosphere are dominated by diatribes against what appears, in their telling, as an amorphous mass of political correctness, environmentalism, radical feminism and general hostility to ordinary Australians and their values, which supposedly dominates not only the Labor party but all of our major cultural institutions including universities, the legal system, the ABC and even, in many accounts, the commercial mass media in which these bloviators are writing.
The pursuit of the culture war is, in my judgement, one of the main reasons that the conservative parties have become increasingly unelectable.
There are three main reasons for this. First, unlike the US, there is no core constituency for this kind of thing. Although some lefties get worried about the religious right, it’s pretty much non-existent here. The churches as a whole are moderately leftwing on most issues. That includes socially conservative Christians like Family First, who are typically centre-left on most economic issues. Even Hillsong, often see as the aspirational class at prayer, has backed Labor’s call to increase foreign aid. The other potential constituency, successfully mobilised by Pauline Hanson, to whom slogans like “political correctness” appeal, consists mainly of people who are generically unhappy about changes of all kinds, amounting to maybe 15 per cent of the population. That’s enough to provide the talkback shock jocks and their print and net equivalents with an audience, but not the basis of long-term success in politics, especially as much of this group is disengaged from politics much of the time
Second, the vitriolic style associated with the culture wars turns most Australians off. It’s striking given all the talk of looking for a “right-wing Phillip Adams” that hardly anyone on the right tries to emulate Adams’ avuncular style.
Third, and most importantly, the factoid-based, point-scoring, style of argument that goes with the culture wars eventually leads to complete insulation from factual reality. Any proposition, no matter how ridiculous, can be defended in this way, long after the average person has seen through it. This has been most obvious in relation to climate change and Iraq, but there are a whole string of issues where the culture warriors have imprisoned themselves in an orthodoxy every bit as constricting as the largely imaginary monolithic leftism they are supposed to be confronting.
Looking at the commentators who generally support the Coalition, the great majority (virtually everyone at the Oz, Devine pere et fille, Bolt, Akerman, McGuinness, Pearson, the IPA and much of the CIS) are self-proclaimed culture warriors and climate change delusionists, and most of the rest are carried along by this tide. The only pro-government commentators I can think of who are largely free of this kind of thing are Andrew Norton and Harry Clarke (no doubt there are some others – feel free to point them out). As long as the Liberal party gets its intellectual firepower from such sources, it will struggle to connect with Australians in general.
Note: A bunch of other people, including Mark Bahnisch, Guy Rundle (may be paywalled) and Andrew Norton (can’t find it now, but I’m sure I read it) have written useful stuff on this. And Chris Berg of the IPA has a good debunking of fears about the religious right.