Four propositions about conservative voting

Here are four propositions about voting behavior which, as far as I can tell, have been true in nearly all democratic countries for at least the past 50 years. Other things equal, people are more likely to vote for conservative parties if:

  • They have higher incomes
  • They have lower education
  • They live in rural areas or small towns
  • They are members of a dominant racial/religious group

By contrast, lot of commentary on recent electoral losses for the left seems to start from the presumption that “traditional” left voters have all of these characteristics, except perhaps high incomes. However, since these “traditional” voters are “aspirational”, it is assumed that they will vote in line with the income they wish they had. Given the actual preferences of voters like this, the obvious inference is that the left should adopt the policies of the right.

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The CIS vs religious freedom

The Centre for Independent Studies has just issued a report about Australian public attitudes to religious freedom. I’m happy to say that the majority (64 per cent) attitude coincides almost exactly with the one I’ve expressed here, namely that

within very broad limits, what we do and say in our own time is no business of the boss.

That cuts both ways: both offering protection to people whose religious expression offends the boss, and preventing religious organizations from discriminating against employees whose beliefs or life choices aren’t consistent with the religion in question. There are limits of course, most obviously in relation to people whose job it is to represent the organization and its beliefs. But these should be the exception not the rule.

Given its history, (the CIS used to be the leading centre of ibertarian thought in Australia) one might imagine that the poll results would be reported as good news. But this is not the case.

Taking a corporatist line, the CIS argues that individual freedom should be subordinated to the collective rights of organizations to enforce their beliefs, even when they are engaged in in providing publicly-funded services.

The contortions required to reach this point reflect the basic problem underlying this legislation. From the point of view of the proponents, it isn’t about protecting religious belief and expression (what individuals want), it’s about establishing a special, and protected status, for religion.

That is not only contrary to public opinion, but runs directly against the spirit of our constitution, which states (s116)

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth

In line with its appalling performance on most issues, the High Court has read s116 down into insignificance. But there is nothing to stop the Commonwealth from prohibiting or severely constraining religious tests, and it should do so, particularly in relation to publicly funded organizations.

Yes, the world is paying attention to Australia’s climate inaction

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story Opening paras

Like their counterparts in many other countries, members of Australia’s political class are frequently accused of living inside a self-regarding bubble. That’s certainly true when it comes to climate policy. But bubbles can be punctured by shocks from the outside, and one arrived earlier this month in the shape of a demand from the European Union, led by France, that Australia must make stronger climate commitments if it wants a trade agreement with Europe.

Before looking at the EU position, it’s worth considering how far removed from reality our political class has become. As bushfires raged through October and November, a bipartisan consensus emerged: any discussion of the relationship between the fire catastrophe and climate change, let alone any suggestion of a policy response, would be divisive and unnecessary. Many media outlets were happy to go along with it.

The same willingness to ignore the deeper issues extends to climate-related policy more broadly. As energy minister, Angus Taylor has repeatedly and egregiously misled the public about key aspects of his portfolio. He has denounced renewable energy, made spurious claims about the benefits of coal-fired power, and promoted the government’s claim to be observing our emissions-reduction commitments while vetoing any policy action that might promote that goal.

For all of this, he has had a free pass from Labor and most of the media. Their attention has been focused on a series of trivial scandals, culminating in the publication of a forged document used to accuse the Sydney City Council of hypocrisy. These transgressions may or may not cost Taylor his job, but their pursuit will do nothing to tackle the climate emergency.

More over the fold

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Virtue signalling and hypocrisy

Most of the time, the accusation of “virtue signalling” includes an implicit connotation of “hypocrisy”. But then, why introduce a new and obscure term for something we have known about for millennia?

The answer is that hypocrisy is a specific accusation that can be backed up, or refuted, by evidence. For example, if a church leader who claims to be a Christian advocates locking up innocent children, the case is pretty clear-cut.

By contrast, “virtue signalling” is an insinuation rather than a factual claim. It doesn’t need to be backed up, and usually isn’t. If the person accused of virtue signalling on the basis of a symbolic action shows that they are in fact making costly efforts in support of their cause, these actions are just added to the charge sheet.

The charge of virtue signalling doesn’t rely on the actual inconsistencies of individuals. Rather it relies on in-group shared negative perceptions of out-groups (inner city latte sipping lefties and so on).

To restate the central point, accusations of virtue signalling aren’t meant to promote virtue: rather to argue against it. Those who use the accusation want to score points in favor of behavior they aren’t willing to defend openly.

By contrast, it’s worth remembering the observation of La Rouchefoucald that “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue”.

Virtue signalling

One of the stranger terms of political abuse to enter the lexicon in recent years is “virtue signalling”. It’s used almost exclusively by the political right and covers many different kinds of statements, actions and policies, mostly associated with the culture wars.

A particularly striking feature of this is that, until recently, “virtue” was a term primarily associated with the right. Bill Bennett (Education Secretary under GW Bush) had a big hit with The Book of Virtues back in the 1990s. He’s now an apologist for Trumpism.

It’s too complicated to cover all aspects of this in one post, but it may be useful to compare two symbolic actions

  • displaying a rainbow flag; and
  • wearing a MAGA hat.

Clearly the term “virtue signalling” would be applied only to the first of these. And this is just a not a matter of semantics, as it would be if the left had a corresponding term.

People who display the rainbow flag are virtue signalling in the obvious sense of the word: the flag says something like “equal marriage is a good cause. I support it, and so should you”.

Normally, the opposing response would be to say “No, it’s not a good cause, and those who support it are wrong’

The problem for the right is that they don’t have any moral standing for a claim like this, and they know it. While many rightwingers undoubtedly believe homosexuality to be sinful, they know that this belief violates norms of equal treatment and personal freedom they claim to accept, and they therefore can’t put it forward without inviting condemnation, or at least rejection, including from their own side. So, they have to resort to terms like “virtue signalling”, in this case implying an ostentatious moral superiority, combined with hypocrisy.

And the same is true across the whole range of issues summed up in the cognate term “Social Justice Warrior”.

The MAGA hat is the mirror image of this. For leftists, the MAGA hat is not treated as a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American. Rather, it’s regarded an offensive statement of support for Trump’s racism, misogyny and corruption.

The whole point is to be offensive, to “trigger the libs” as Trump Jr’s recent book puts it. No claim to virtue is being put forward. It’s a pure piece of identity politics, making the assertion that the wearers should be treated as superior without having any actual claim to being superior, morally or otherwise. Again, this can’t be spelt out; being an explicit white nationalist remains beyond the pale, and the conduct of the Trumpists defies any credible defense.

So, the intellectual apologists of the right can only resort to <i>tu quoque</i>, making the claim, in various forms, that the left is just as bad as their own side. This started with the Republican War on Science, but is now virtually universal.

The point of “virtue signalling” is to make this claim, without having to say what is wrong with the virtue being signalled.

Blue Labor: rightwing identity politics

I’ve started writing a regular column for Independent Australia (every two weeks), and my first column has just gone up. It’s a response to Nick Dyrenfurth and David Furse-Roberts, Australian advocates of Maurice’s Glasman’s Blue Labour ideas in the UK (apparently Glasman visited here for a few months. The central point is that, far from offering a policy alternative to the political right, Blue Labor is all about a specific kind of identity politics, focused on stereotypical male manual workers. These workers assumed to be socially conservative and economically aspirational, but to vote for Labor because they don;t like the silvertails on the other side, despite sharing all of their views.

It took me a while to write this, and several other people came out with very similar analyses in the meantime, notably including Jeff Sparrow. Dyrenfurth responded, complaining “I doubt Jeff Sparrow has read my book instead of relying upon selective media reports and a book extract comprising less than 3% of the book’s contents”

I have (almost) zero sympathy for this. If you can’t summarize your book in 700 words without giving readers a radically wrong impression of your central idea, you shouldn’t publish a summary at all. The only criticism of an extract I would regard as unfair is of the type “Quiggin doesn’t mention topic X or qualify the argument with reference to Y”. In this case, it’s perfectly legitimate to point to the fact that these topics are in fact covered in the book, but not in the extract/summary.

Almost invariably, this rhetorical move involves backing away from the core message presented sharply in the extract/summary, and pointing to the more nuanced presentation in the full length version. On this score, I can only appeal to my Crooked Timber co-blogger Kieran Healy (NSFW title)