When David joins Goliath

The reasons you'll vote conservative, according to conservatives.

Hand-drawn image of a family gathered around an old-fashioned looking television. Surrounding them are floating televisions with images of Donald Trump and Pauline Hansen on the screens. Image: Aiden Magro (adapted for web by Justine Landis-Hanley)

“I think it’s tragic that the left hasn’t been able to clean up in this era. There are so many people out there who are looking for a better kind of politics, who are looking for a more liberal open minded [politics]… something more dynamic and connected. People are crying out for that.”

We’re on the phone to Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked!, who is calling in from London.

O’Neill is a self-confessed libertarian, but not a conventional one. He was once a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) – a small Trotskyist offshoot that began to drift away from Marxist orthodoxy in the late 80s. His familiarity with the language, theory and praxis of the left is evident in his line of argument.

“Trotsky says the aim of the left is to increase the power of man over nature and decrease the power of man over man,” O’Neill tells us.

“[The left] now wants to decrease man’s power over nature and increase man’s power over man.”

Like many journalists before us, we’re trying to grapple with emerging phenomenon of 2016: the global Right’s rising success.  From the outset of our investigation, we suspect that it has something to do with the frustration of the ‘little guy’, the working class hero.

O’Neil agrees: “the more distant [the left] feels to ordinary people, the more [members of the left] view ordinary people as a kind of anti-revolutionary-tabloid-newspaper-reading mob of complete idiots.”’

We like to think of most things in binaries. Political ideology is no exception, and people broadly classifying themselves and others into one of two camps: right or left. We compartmentalise beliefs and policies into these supposedly dichotomous alternatives based on instinct, but it is possible to pick apart some of the classification criteria. Left-wing politics was designed to support social equality and egalitarianism. In a world of disparate economic income and social bearings, leftist ideology became the bastion of the proletariat – inspiring movements for worker’s rights, poverty eradication, and equal opportunity.

To us the 40-hour week, social security, and affordable healthcare are all symbolic of the left’s deep commitment to the downtrodden. But in recent decades, progressive politicians have increasingly failed to capture the attention and support of the working class. The ascendancy of neoliberalism, ushered in by an unholy alliance between conservatives and ‘third way’ leftists like Keating, Clinton and Blair, has led to a political consensus seemingly indifferent to the struggles of the underprivileged.

Real wage growth has stagnated while the cost of living has only increased. Though the Australian economy has remained broadly prosperous, the working and agricultural classes have not always shared in the spoils, a trend visible across the developed world. As government services are lost to the ideology of privatisation, and globalisation threatens blue-collar industries, it’s little surprise that people are struggling.

Most of us are familiar with the narrative: if recent elections are anything to go by, the middle-class is a disenfranchised lot, who are turning to embrace the anti-establishment populism Trump, Farage, Hanson and Le Pen are touting.

These evidential shifts make it more important than ever to determine why the ‘little guy’ is becoming increasingly attracted to these ideological positions. And here’s a hint: it’s not just because they are ‘deplorables’.

Our search for answers takes us to the office of Malcolm Roberts, a One Nation Senator from Queensland. If any party in recent memory has seemed to successfully ride the waves of right populism, it’s One Nation. We sheepishly call the number listed on the Parliament House website, not expecting anyone to pick up.

A chirpy voice answers the phone — David Goodrich, Malcolm’s Senior Adviser, is delighted to chat. On the other side of the phone, we exchange bemused looks as Goodrich alternates between recounting memories of his times as a student journalist and offering detailed descriptions of his office décor: a Trump cut-out and the Gadsden flag.

“The first problem with the left,” he begins confidently, “is that it’s all a bunch of crap.”

In our conversation with O’Neill, he offered a similar sentiment: “the Left is not attractive to ordinary people whose prime interest is ‘how do we gain more control over our lives and how we get wealthier’… The more positive side of politics…will come in conflict with the left.”

For O’Neill, who claims to maintain a ‘post-race’ outlook, the left’s increasing shift towards identity politics and prioritising of social concerns over economic ones – policies designed to support the majority by turning to the minority – cannot capture the disenfranchised. He offers an olive branch of advice to those sitting across the ideological spectrum: “…the politics of race over the politics over universalism… just accept all that stuff and get on with it.”

Interestingly, our interview subjects not only all condemn the left’s obsession with identity politics, but each reclaims the title of ‘most oppressed’ in this narrative. They suggest that the left’s “smug moralising” manifests a “PC agenda” that ostracises the average person. Political legitimacy has gained a new currency: self-aggrandising victimisation. As people are forced to compete to have their voices heard, the majority don’t understand, or appreciate, why their grievances are automatically dismissed due to a classification of ‘privilege’.

They have a point. Yes, this line of argument chooses to ignore the hardships generated by identity intersections. But the dominance of identity politics among progressive circules has created the perception that left-wing sympathy often fails to extend to the white, the heterosexual, and the male.

It is difficult to support a political ideology that discredits your hardships, and deprioritises your needs.  According to Chris Kenny — a prominent commentator with a self-defined “rationalist approach to national affairs” – the left should go blaming the environment for their sinking popularity. An undue focus on environmental concerns at the expense of working class prosperity is further cause for progressive failure. He tells us that the recent decision to shut down Hazelwood’s coal-fired power plant will not make an “iota of difference to the environment and will only cause misery to the disenfranchised”. 

It’s decisions like this, he says, that reflect a capitulation to the left agenda. For him, media outlets, journalists and academics dominate public discourse with dismissive views that little regard for average listener. The rise of the ‘hard right’ is also linked to the moderate right’s failure to provide adequate challenge to this narrative. 

It’s this sense of censorship and condescension that explains why our University classmate John* has come to embrace the alt-right:

“The left tends to champion phrases such as ‘white privilege’ … the white man who just finished his 17 hour shift at the factory… does not at all feel as if he has gotten any advantage,” John explains.

While the left enjoys the image of the right as heartless pigs, there does appear to be a very real sense of sympathy for the plight of the ‘little guy’, at least in the anti-establishment strand of right-wing ideology.

Though broadly pessimistic, O’Neill suggests the left would do well to embrace an aim of improving material conditions.

The left needs to make their support for the working class far more visible. Engagement with this demographic should begin with a clear explanation of how the left can improve their autonomy and material lot. This requires a far more visceral sympathy for working-class struggle, and greater respect for their concerns.

At first it seems unclear how the left can balance this aim with their desire to defend groups demonised by resurgent conservatives. Should they trade safe spaces and ideological purity for increased palatability amongst the working class?

Realistically, these trade-offs are far from absolute. Members of traditionally marginalised demographics overlap significantly with members of the working class. Greater engagement with working class will allow progressives to reinforce connections between both groups’ struggles, and abandon the atomistic game of identity politics.

But the left must also try to understand and defeat right-wing arguments, rather than simply ridicule them. While progressives scoffed at Trump voters, a very real storm of discontentment was brewing in the Midwest. Smug platitudes are not enough to win back disenchanted voters. The trend towards ‘no-platforming’ and telling people to ‘self-educate’ is concerning, with conservatives drumming up a narrative of an authoritarian left.

Bemoaning people’s inability to be ‘woke’ is not only unfair given the role that privilege plays in making leftist theories accessible, but also makes them particularly hostile to such ideas. If we accept that the aim of the left is to help the oppressed — and we should — then the current approach does not align with this ambition.

It’s O’Neill’s third suggestion that appears most delicate to execute.  O’Neil justifies banning ‘call-out culture’ based on the pettiness of reprimanding “white men with dreadlocks”. But we meet him halfway: the solution lies in creating a more informed left that uses callouts only in the appropriate context.

Perhaps accusations of tone policing were more suited to situations where the voices of African-American civil rights activists were being disempowered, not situations at USyd where stupol hacks are asked not to scream. By arbitrarily appropriating call-outs that emerged in vastly different contexts, well-intentioned progressives have created an exclusionary left, hostile to expansion and broader social engagement. But more importantly, the excessive use of call-outs — particularly in unsuitable contexts — has drastically reduced their rhetorical effectiveness in fighting oppression. There are instances where calling-out oppression is necessary and useful. But the fact such practices have become a mindless default reaction seriously dilutes their power.

Goodrich picked up on this point: “people on the left just want to look good”. His view is that identity politics gives license to a form of ‘oppression Olympics’, where individuals seek to ‘out-left’ each other. This competitive division is, at best, a race to the bottom.

It’s long been said that the right is particularly good at putting pragmatism ahead of principles, something that became obvious throughout our interviews. Despite some disagreements, our interviewees certainly don’t seem to be embroiled in the same sort of infighting that we have experienced in self so-called leftist circles.

So much of so-called populism appears to be just that -— popularity. Being able to capture people’s attention requires more than just good politics and better promises. People need to be able to personally connect with movements, whether through an inspiring vision for the future, or a relatable narrative. Leftist political groups produce figureheads that fail to engage and inspire the masses they need to win over: Shorten cannot capture the attention of the masses like Gough. Di Natale cannot polemicise like a young Bob Brown. For all her polish and poise, Hillary Clinton simply couldn’t energise voters the way Trump apparently did.

O’Neill, for instance, seems to think the alt-right is successful because they’re “funny”. There’s little doubt that a lot of their success comes from their ability to provide simple diagnoses for complex problems. But the razor sharp wit of Ben Shapiro is particularly devastating in a context where many of the most capable leftists — the ones who could fuck him up in political argument — would rather shout him down than play on his field.

The use of rhetoric was obvious in our conversation with Goodrich. He spoke in short, simple sentences and offered easy answers to complex questions. He established relatable scenarios and aimed at a friendly interaction. He cared, or at least was strategic enough to seem to care.

The left isn’t short on leadership options -— who knows where we’d be if huggable Bernie-brand Left populism was given a go. In any event, the left is teeming with capable, charismatic leaders, most of who are either confined to the radical fringe or buried beneath party bureaucracy. Suitability and likeability shouldn’t solely depend on the palatability of policy for centrists or swinging voters.

The fact that members of the working class are increasingly rejecting leftism — a political movement born from proletariat concerns — is frustrating.  But that’s just it: throughout our research, the overriding reason for the emergence of leftist heretics appears to be working class frustration.

The left once thrived in conditions of frustration. If it ever hopes to legitimately improve the lives of the oppressed, especially those of identity groups to which it has become concerned, the left must find a new way to capture the support of the privileged straight white male.

The importance of this project for the left cannot be understated: they have a world to win. HS