Public ideas

Liberalism’s tenuous hold


On last weekend’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue discussed developments in US politics with two experts – Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute and Nick Bryant, former North America correspondent for the BBC, author of When America stopped being great, and now at Sydney University.

The 21-minute session – What’s the future of the Republican Party? – was about two recent events – Liz Cheney’s defeat in the Wyoming primary and the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago.

The Republican Party they describe is more like an armed insurgency than a political party in a democracy, but this is not a new development: Trump is simply the latest manifestation of a party that has been moving further to extremism in recent decades, that defines itself not by what it stands for, but what it stands against – the Democrats.

The belief that the election was stolen is held not only by a few crazies, but by many establishment Republicans. Their latest story, for example, is that IRS agents armed with AK47s are attacking small businessmen, and that story has quite a bit of traction among the party faithful.

The Republican narrative is the narrative of war. Once hatred of the other side is established, there is no need to argue the comparative merits of parties’ political platforms. The Republican strategy rests on giving the impression that the other side represents an existential threat to one’s own side, and that the true believers (whatever that belief is) should take up arms against it. In fact Republican-aligned paramilitary groups like the Proud Boys are interpreting the call to arms literally. On the ABC’s Religion and Ethics program Stan Grant interviews Lydia Kahlil of the Lowy Institute on the global rise of right-wing extremism. It has been fuelled by people’s grievances rather than ideology, but just as Marxists managed to use people’s grievances to mobilize the masses, so too is the right using the same tactic.

The idea of an existential threat to western civilization was the message Hungarian dictator Viktor Orbán expressed to Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas earlier this month. Orbán’s rhetoric is almost straight out of Mussolini’s fascist handbook. His disdain of liberalism and democracy is framed as a defence of “Christian values”, as if the message of the Christian New Testament is one of hatred rather than love.

The most frightening aspect of Orbán’s message to the conference is not his vile language, but the ready acceptance he has found among Republicans, and the way he sees his own government as the European branch of the Republican Party, that should “take back the institutions in Washington and in Brussels.”

Mann and Bryant see Trump as unstoppable. Events that should have been moments of Trump repudiation – for example January 6 – have been moments where Trump has consolidated his position in the Republican Party.

Both Mann and Bryant draw attention to basic flaws in American democracy. Most democracies, with the notable exception of the US and the UK, have some form of runoff election, ranked-choice (preferential) voting, or proportional representation, allowing a plurality of political views to shape electoral outcomes. The US electoral system, however, gives little chance for new political movements to arise. Because of America’s first-past-the-post system, if Cheney runs as a presidential candidate she could well help Trump seize victory by drawing Democrat votes, in the same way as Ralph Nader contributed to Bush’s victory in 2000.

It is strange that a country that thrives on choice – think of the overwhelming offerings on a US fast food menu, or of the 40 different models when you pick up a rented car at the airport – offers citizens only a binary choice between two parties, one of which has drifted to the far right. At a state level there are some steps towards voting reform: Alaska has ranked-choice voting and it may help ensure that Sarah Palin does not win in a state by-election. That seems to be enough to ensure that Republicans will do everything (as did the UK Conservatives) to impede ranked-choice voting.

Doogue urges us to read Cheney’s full speech. Newsweek has a transcript, CNN has a three-minute extract of its main part, and the full 14 minute speech is on YouTube (listening to the applause suggests that her Wyoming audience is tiny compared with a Trump rally). It’s in the tradition of American rhetoric, with the inevitable reference to Abraham Lincoln, and claims of exceptionalism: “Our American freedom is a providential departure from history. We are the exception. We have been given the gift of freedom by God and our founding fathers.” But it’s mainly about the threat to America’s democratic institutions and the rule of law posed by Trump and his followers:

Our nation is barreling, once again, towards crisis, lawlessness and violence. No American should support election deniers for any position of genuine responsibility, where their refusal to follow the rule of law will corrupt our future


It is easy for us to regard America’s drift to extremism as something peculiar to that country, a result of its flawed electoral system, or as unfinished business from the Civil War, but the drift to authoritarianism is happening in many democracies, and our political system still has plenty of shortcomings. These include the absence of an integrity and anti-corruption commission, lax political donation laws, no laws relating to truth in political advertising, and a governance system that leaves the position of head of state unresolved.

George Williams of the Centre for Public Integrity warns about Trump’s lesson for us: lies can’t be allowed to flourish. He calls for a national law for truth in political advertising. Otherwise there is nothing to stop a candidate claiming that staff of the Australian Taxation Office, armed with Steyr rifles, are wandering the land threatening small businesses, or that Labor insiders are running a child sex exploitation ring from a pizza restaurant in Braddon. (OK, I have chosen the two most outrageous US examples, but 52 percent of those who voted for Trump in 2020 believe that “top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings”, and plenty of Australians have fallen for scare campaigns about privatizing Medicare, terrorists coming by boat disguised as refugees, $100 lamb roasts, lies about electric cars, and fear of “death taxes”.)

Stan Grant writes that Scott Morrison's secret self-appointments point to an insidious weakening of the guardrails of Australia's democracy. His warning is less about Morrison himself (plenty of journalists now seem to have a licence to expose him to the public), than about the general pattern in once-robust democracies for executive government to accumulate power while weakening other institutions, including parliament. The process is slow and incremental, and it’s often a special circumstance, such as a pandemic, that provides the justification for such an accretion of power.

Writing in The ConversationAustralian conservatism succumbs to the same radical tendency as like-minded parties abroad – Mark Kenny issues a similar warning, and like Grant he does not lay all the blame on Morrison, but on the people who let him act in the way he did:

As shocking as Morrison’s behaviour was, the reluctance of the Coalition parties to unequivocally condemn it may inflict even greater long-term damage to the conservative cause.

Reflections on the welfare state

Daniel Mulino, the member for Fraser in inner-west Melbourne, is one of the most academically qualified members of federal parliament, with an undergraduate degree in law and a PhD in economics from Yale among his suite of degrees. He has just published a book Safety net: the future of welfare in Australia. You can hear him discussing his work in a 19-minute interview on the ABC’s Between the Lines program.

He describes how the welfare state emerged from its beginnings in Bismarck’s Germany, and developed fully in the postwar period after 1945. Australia was one of the pioneers, even before Federation. The welfare state is under pressure, however, partly from ideological opposition, and partly because of its pressure on public expenditure. Much of that fiscal pressure has to do with ageing populations in “developed” societies, and is manifest in growing expenditure on health care, pensions, aged care and disability support. These expenditures dwarf some of the earlier demands on the welfare state, such as support for the unemployed.

He outlines three aspects of the welfare state – universal service provision (e.g. Medicare), redistribution (particularly through progressive taxation), and social insurance through risk management. Without denying the importance of distributive welfare, he stresses that the welfare state is on a stronger footing if it is seen within an insurance framework.

No doubt, if he were on air as an academic, he would draw attention to the difficulties Australia has in funding health, aged care and other labour-intensive public services: he would be well aware of Baumol’s so-called “cost disease” which predicts that expenditure on publicly-financed human services has to grow over time. And he would be well aware that Australia has almost the lowest tax base of any high-income “developed” country. But Mulino is a member of parliament in an economically conservative government that is not yet game to confront the electors with the need to pay more tax. So he stresses the potential for achieving significant productivity improvements in these human services as a way to improve outcomes without committing more resources.

(The link above is to the entire 54-minute program. I’m not covering foreign affairs on this website, but you may find the first 24 minutes of the program, an interview with Kishore Mahbubani, of interest. Mulino’s segment runs from 35:30 to the end.)