Left shares blame for the rise of the rogues



One thing that lets me sleep at night is the fact that demographics have shifted in the US and they do not favour Donald Trump. Still, I felt rattled after the second presidential debate, when a man from Georgia called CSPAN to say he had voted for Bill Clinton and nothing changed. He believed it was time to try something new. Something different.

Donald TrumpI had heard this before — right before millions of Filipinos voted for Rodrigo Duterte. I went over the demographics again, like rosary beads.

Much has been made about how Republicans had initially benefited from the 'birther' campaign and the Tea Party. It suited them to have proxies undermine the executive branch. In Congress, they twice engaged in brinkmanship over the debt ceiling. In other words, the political right only has itself to blame for the nihilism which now engulfs it — and potentially, the nation.

But the failures of the left also bear examination. While Clinton's current lead cannot be attributed entirely to her virtues, the polling gap between her and Trump should have been much wider, earlier. She is fronting a man with no qualifications, no scruples and no restraint.

Clinton's (post-primary) policies target those who feel let down by government. Debt-free college, a living wage, paid family and medical leave for up to 12 weeks, tax relief for small business, closing tax loopholes that serve the wealthy, campaign finance reform, dropping the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Yet these have not penetrated certain pockets of America. Why?

The answer holds relevance for other countries where a progressive, policy-based approach to solving problems has meant jack-all. At the last Philippine elections, there were presidential candidates who ran on issues rather than bombast. Grace Poe was noted for her strategic approach to poverty alleviation, as well as the calibre of her advisers. She came a far third in the tally.

In Australia, a disciplined, idea-driven campaign against the Coalition (which had wobbled through the first half of the year) did not deliver government for Labor. In fact, some of its natural constituents gave their first preferences to other parties, including the Greens and One Nation. Its primary vote was the second-lowest in 70 years.

How could the left have lost its capacity to sell a progressive vision? Because it sold out.


"The left has tended to make more concessions than the other side. It adopted the language of market and capital, and sought to appease conservative anxieties, and ceded 'rationalism' to the right."


In the late 1990s, third-way politics became orthodoxy. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair peddled a fusion of economically liberal and social democratic objectives. People took to it. Maybe the old ideological segments no longer held, or maybe people genuinely believed that a centrist path could reconcile disparate goals.

The incompatibilities held, however. Julia Gillard, though aligned with the left, presided over the publication of NAPLAN results when she was education minister. It was essentially a market lever for lifting school performance, with parents as consumers choosing between competing brands. It has not been proven to benefit students themselves.

As prime minister, she pushed ahead with welfare cuts that saw single parents slide off parenting payments to Newstart — a policy later disowned by Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese during their contest for leadership. Gillard also legitimised concerns about 457 visas being misused at the expense of locals. At the height of boat arrivals, she said that border anxieties were not racist and that 'people should feel free to say what they feel'. At a union gathering, she carved a distinction between the party of labour and a party that is progressive and socially democratic.

In other words, the left has tended to make more concessions than the other side. It adopted the language of market and capital, and sought to appease conservative anxieties. It ceded 'rationalism' to the right, as if inequality was not a drag on growth, which would be pragmatic to address.

This capitulation leaves us worse off, with none to tame neoliberal excess. Welfare reform under Bill Clinton exacerbated poverty, with family caps that targeted women of colour and devolution to the states that saw them shrink cash assistance for the needy. In the UK, the Labour Party under Ed Miliband failed to detach itself for some time from Tory-led austerity policies and the damage these wrought, until it was too late.

When the left recovered some of its values this year — like structural fairness — they were not as potent as they should be. People had moved on. As the man from Georgia said, it was time to try something new, something different.

This has hollowed out the right as much as the left, of course. The right must reckon with its insipid response to its own destructive elements and find something constructive to say if it is to remain relevant. The job for the left is to earn back credibility among those who look to it to blunt the impact of the economic forces that affect their lives. It needs to speak in its own voice and exercise its own authority, rather than mimic the right.

Perhaps 2016 will prove to be a purgative when it comes to opting for rogues, a line in the sand that says policies still mean something after all. This can only come from differentiation.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Donald Trump image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Duterte, Trump, Gillard, neoliberalism



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Existing comments

The left has won most of the battles over the last hundred or so years. The last battle it needs to win is for the common person to gain power over capital. To do that it needs to abandon the us and them mentality of the past. Let us not forget that 100 years ago it was only in a handful of so called democracies the common person had the vote. Britain and the US were not on that list. (common people = male and female not property owners) The power over capital was being achieved by home ownership, government owned assets, compulsory superannuation funds and sovereign wealth funds. If the only direct benefit a worker gets for their work is their wages then they will forever remain amongst the poorer in society. The move to the right financially was a proper move to allow ordinary people to share the growing wealth. The biggest problem faced by society is the widening wealth gap.

Bruce | 16 October 2016  

At the risk of having Fatima box my ears for commenting off topic, or seeming to make light of a thoughtful and thought provoking essay, I have to say that one thing that keeps me awake at night is the fact that demographics have shifted in the US and they now seem to favour Hilary Clinton. If readers would like to get some idea of what the world might look like should she become president of the USA, go to https://newmatilda.com/2016/03/23/john-pilger-why-hillary-clinton-is-more-dangerous-than-donald-trump/ and read John Pilger’s prediction. It’s not a pretty sight and what a terrible choice US voters have to make!

Paul | 17 October 2016  

Interesting analysis, thanks Fatima. Seems that instead of having a choice between progressive and conservative economics and social policy, we're now in a situation where we have to choose between two economically conservative parties, one of which is socially progressive and the other is socially conservative. My concern is not just that the left has betrayed economic progressivism, but that for people of faith there's not even a viable economic progressive/socially conservative option anymore. We're stuck with Christian parties more than happy to let companies exploit workers, so long as children aren't aborted. I also wonder if part of the Left's problem is that, while it's been happy to make concessions on its economic platforms, those same concessions haven't been evident in its social ones. The rhetoric that comes from political leaders on the Left does little to address social conservatives' anxieties about the issues that concern them.

Joseph Vine | 17 October 2016  

Wonderful thought provoking article. Great comparisons and truthfully, Ireland and rest of Europe need to be counted in there too. I hurt when I think that I personally voted these people into Government over the years, I feel they are a product of me and the likes of me and I am so disappointed with myself. Thank you for putting it into words

Máire O'Donoghue | 17 October 2016  

An excellent article, Fatima! I detect the same dynamic on the foreign policy side, with "the Left" as ready to go and bomb for "freedom" as "the Right" (and as ready to send back the refugees who flee as a result). Indeed, I fear that "left" and "right" are just labels of convenience for an increasingly small pool of oligarchs. As Orwell ends Animal Farm, "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” Unless we are prepared to leave the old labels behind and rethink our frames of reference, and seeking wholesale reform of the political system, we will continue to be sold the (microscopically) lesser of two virtually indistinguishable evils.

Justin Glyn SJ | 18 October 2016  

Re Bruce, compulsory super is one of the worst things the left has ever done for workers, particularly low income earners. There is an unavoidable opportunity cost when income that could be paid as part of a normal salary has to be locked away in super.But unions keep wanting to compel employees — who were once their core constituency — to put more into super at the cost of a lower standard of living while working. Never mind that many would prefer extra take-home pay to help them pay off a mortgage, bring up family, repay deferred education fees etc. Compulsory super does nothing to ensure workers control capital. What happens to the money that goes into super funds is essentially decided by the fund managers who devote the vast amount of this money to the largely socially useless activity of buying and selling existing financial assets rather than investing it in productive new enterprises. Compulsion also artificially bloats the size of the finance at the expense of more productive areas of the economy. Compulsory super is a worse form of industry protection that just about just about anything else that apply for 1980s "reforms". It is why we have the fourth biggest funds management industry in the world but only the 12th biggest economy.

Brian Toohey | 18 October 2016  

Brian I disagree with your attack on compulsory super. The right have long condemned any form of compulsory super because “employers” can’t afford it, not employees. Much of the money that went into industry super funds was used for infrastructure. For the first time in our history a significant portion of the wealth used to develop Australia was Australian. It coincided with the beginning of a quarter of a century of unprecedented economic growth. It was originally framed as a means of giving the average person a means for financial independence on completing work. Two things allow people to avoid poverty in retirement, home ownership and other assets that can be converted to cash. Saving has rarely enabled people to make the same leap. Investing is the only way. For the fortunate it has been home ownership but historically significant home ownership beyond the well off has been an aberration. It rose to approximately seventy percent of people only because of the War Service Homes Scheme combined with state housing authorities which provided long term tenants a chance to purchase their homes. Both schemes have all but disappeared.

bruce | 18 October 2016  

Never mind the angsting about whether the nominally leftist parties have drifted from their core ideology: exactly when has the Left proved its vision can work? Not in the Soviet Union, the PRC, North Korea, East Germany, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, post WWII Britain, etc, etc. Please don't bring up Sweden, where some seventy years of the most free market economy in history bankrolled a short but intensely reckless socialist binge that crashed into a wall in the 1990s. So, again: where are the lights on the hill for the left? They keep snuffing out! Like Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, who in 2013 was invited by Philip Adams, Lee Rhiannon, and other card-carrying leftist luminaries to Australia to educate us about the wonderful progress of socialism in his country. (He died. If only he had lived and continued to reign, Venezuela would be a glorious testimony to socialism! As it is, well, the less said the better.) For the anti-left, pro-capitalists, the hill is a veritable Christmas tree. Hong Kong 1960 to 1996, for starters - the lodestar. Sweden 1880 to 1950. Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, West Germany under Adenauer and Ropke ... the list goes on and on. Is there some leftist arcadia that I’ve overlooked which rebuts all the historical evidence? Put up or shut up.

HH | 19 October 2016  

Successful societies, those that make life bearable for the majority, not just elites, are generally social democracies. Repeatedly unfettered capitalism has to be rescued by governments (GFC and the Great Depression). Extremes of either side inevitably lead to disaster for a significant portion of the population. What happens is that ideas aimed originally at lifting the poorer classes get hijacked by the wealthy (superannuation). Capitalism was originally a leftist idea; a means for poorer people to compete with the elite hereditary gentry. (serfs and small merchants). When the wealth scale disproportionately tilts one way in a contest it is not hard to pick who usually wins. A quote from Marx which will no doubt surprise many, “Democracy is the road to socialism”. When one elite usurps power from another elite (most of the examples of so called socialist societies you give HH) democracy and socialism are the first victims. Australia was one of the most successful social democracies in the world, still is. Marx was scathing of the so called democracies because none of them were. When he wrote suffrage for common people did not exist, it was reserved for wealthy, male landowners. Jesus was more socialist than Marx.

Bruce | 20 October 2016  

"right before millions of Filipinos voted for Rodrigo Duterte." The Trump of the Philippines is becoming more interesting every day, as witnessed by news from his current visit to China. He can't get China to agree with Philippine claims in the South China sea but he can get them, through trade deals, effectively to pay rent for their activities in that area, a sort of 'pay-for-play' from a position of weakness that would do a 'Crooked Hillary' proud, not that the Trump of the Philippines would refer to the soon-to-be President of the United States in any manner other than courteous, given that it will be her weakness towards China, or perhaps her 'pay-for-play' 'private position' towards China, that will give his weaker hand its strength. Concerning Australia's response to all this, What Would Julie Do?

Roy Chen Yee | 21 October 2016  

Bruce, if Australia is a social democracy today, how is the U.S. an example of “unfettered capitalism” as you imply? In many ways, the U.S. has more “fetters” to its capitalism than we do: Australia is ranked well above the U.S. on the Heritage Index of Economic Freedom and has been for many years. The GFC-related difference between these two countries is that, unlike Australia, U.S. lenders were pressured by their governments to create sub-prime mortgages—a statist type of intervention that is the very antithesis of unfettered capitalism. Bottom line: if Australia is a social democracy, then so too is the U.S. which helped create the GFC. As for the state’s huge role in creating the Great Depression and economic depressions in general, see Murray Rothbard, “Economic Depressions: Their Cause and Cure” available online at mises.org.

HH | 24 October 2016  

“And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed". Hillary Clinton. One can understand why the right are concerned when the country that sanctifies the separation of church and state has a presidential candidate saying things like this.

Magda | 26 October 2016  

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