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Getting Elected

The Australian Labor Party & the American Democrats

 
Cover: November 2007November 2007Medium length read
 

When I left Australia for Washington DC, Mark Latham was about to resign and then explode, having comprehensively lost the election that established John Howard as one of the world's most successful conservative leaders. Kim Beazley was about to be re-installed as Labor leader, although no one - at least, no one in the Labor Party - thought he had even a chance of leading his party to victory so long as Howard remained prime minister. And Howard looked as though he would remain prime minister until he was carried out of the Lodge in a box. Labor despaired of ever winning government. It was not just that the Coalition had increased its majority - a singular achievement for a three-term government. Howard had engineered a cultural transformation of the nation unmatched by any prime minister since, well, Robert Menzies.

When I arrived in Washington in November 2004, George W Bush had just been re-elected. The Republicans had held on to their majority in the Senate, and had actually picked up seats in the House of Representatives. If there was hubris in Canberra after the Coalition's election win, it was nothing compared to the hubris of leading American conservatives. Karl Rove, Bush's senior adviser, talked about a generation or more of Republican dominance. Republican leaders in Congress behaved as if Rove was right, thuggishly threatening to bar lobbyists if they refused to employ staffers of leading Republican congressmen, and treating their Democratic opponents with undisguised contempt.

Like the Labor Party in Australia, the Democratic Party was in shock in late 2004 and into 2005: leaderless, aimless, angry. In large part, this reflected the apparent victory of conservatives in the culture wars and the triumph of neo-liberal economics in the two countries - and for that matter in Britain as well, where Tony Blair's New Labour had embraced Thatcherism in some ways more wholeheartedly than had the Iron Lady's conservative heirs. Indeed, it can be argued that both Paul Keating and Bill Clinton were the true architects of the triumph of neo-liberal economics in their respective countries. It was Keating, in the '80s and '90s, who was the first significant Australian politician to reject economic nationalism and argue that in a globalised world only the internationalisation of the Australian economy would deliver long-term economic growth and prosperity. And it was Bill Clinton - not Ronald Reagan or George HW Bush - who most fervently argued for the benefits of globalisation. In the '90s, Clinton cajoled and coerced the Democratic Party into signing major free-trade agreements covering North and Central America. It was politicians of the nominal centre-left, in the aftermath of the collapse of communism, who most emphatically rejected economic nationalism and any real role for the state in running public utilities, let alone trying to pick winners by supporting key economic sectors like manufacturing with taxpayers' money.

In a recent interview to promote his new book, The Age of Turbulence, the former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a neo-liberal hero and long-time Republican, said that Bill Clinton was ‘‘The best Republican president we'd had in a while." Clinton, he said approvingly, was for "free trade, globalisation, welfare reform and fiscal restraint" - the pillars of neo-liberal ideology. And while Greenspan failed to mention Paul Keating's role in reforming the Australian economy in his book (Keating was reputedly furious!), he lavishly praised Bob Hawke for having the courage to ditch most of Labor's traditional economic policies: protectionism, centralised wage-fixing, a pegged dollar and an ideological commitment to state-run enterprises.

When Keating lost the 1996 election and Al Gore ‘lost' the 2000 presidential poll, their centre-left parties bequeathed to their conservative vanquishers economies that had been transformed - transformed in ways that neo-liberal ideologues had urged their conservative political representatives to embrace, but to no avail: not in the case of the Fraser Government, in which John Howard was the treasurer, and not in the case of either Ronald Reagan or George HW Bush. As a consequence, neither Howard nor George W Bush had to present themselves as neo-liberal reformers with radical agendas for economic change, for the hard work had already been done. George W Bush, in fact, ran for office as a "compassionate conservative" who would seek to ameliorate some of the harshest consequences of Clinton's agenda! For his part, Howard ran a small-target campaign, enunciating few policies and eschewing any suggestion that he would undo the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating years.

What both Howard and Bush offered was something much more nebulous, but powerful nevertheless: victory in the culture wars. What they offered was cultural transformation, a quite radical shift in how Australians and Americans saw themselves. For Bush and his conservative-evangelical base, this meant victory over the East Coast liberal elites on abortion, on gay marriage, on the separation of church and state - to name just a few of the key battlegrounds of America's culture wars. These wars dated back to the '80s, with the rise of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, the first of the fundamentalist-Christian organisations to run essentially political campaigns at local, state and national levels backing candidates who supported their ‘values' agenda. Ronald Reagan - no paragon of evangelicalism - was the first Republican president to take up the causes of these organisations, but it was George W Bush and Karl Rove who devised a strategy for winning the White House that was based, in part at least, on mobilising the Christian conservatives. Through smear campaigns, the word ‘liberal' became a term of abuse: Democrats were godless supporters of abortion and homosexuality who disparaged patriotism and were out to destroy the family; they were flag burners and baby killers and secularists who believed in evolution and reckoned that God and Christianity had no place in classrooms and public life.

At the beginning of George Bush's second term, in January 2005, even though an ever increasing number of Americans were alarmed about what was happening in Iraq and were developing serious doubts about Bush's competence, the social conservatives and their evangelical foot-soldiers were well on the way to victory in the culture wars. It seemed to me, travelling through the US that year, that Americans were in the grip of a nostalgia for a simple, more wholesome past. This was a sure sign that many had accepted the conservatives' story: that such an America once existed before the liberal elites had, beginning in the '60s - the decade of shame in which every sacred American institution was trashed and when American values were disparaged in the most hateful of ways - taken control of schools and universities and, most importantly, the courts.

Thomas Frank, in his book What's the Matter with Kansas?, argued that so complete was the conservative victory in the culture wars that by late 2004 "ordinary Americans", blue-collar Americans, were voting Republican in their millions, against their own economic interest, supporting a president whose only major initiative in domestic policy was a huge tax cut for the very rich. They were doing this, Frank argued, because they had bought the conservatives' story about the destructive social impulses of the liberal elite, the ideological godfathers of the Democratic Party. So seemingly complete was the conservative victory that not a single candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, either in 2004 or for the 2008 poll, would dare call themselves a liberal. Nor is it possible now for any serious Democratic presidential contender to declare him or herself an agnostic, let alone an atheist.

The ordinary Americans of Frank's book - the workers in the meatpacking factories of Kansas City, for example - have their Australian equivalent in the so-called Howard battlers, even though there remain significant differences between Australia's and America's culture wars. There is no Australian equivalent of the evangelical movement, which has had such a profound effect on the Republican Party. Abortion is not a touchstone issue here, and it is doubtful that a campaign for a constitutional ban on gay marriage would have much political traction; neither issue would likely be a vote-changer in any election campaign, state or federal. Nor is it likely that creationism, which is supported by a majority of Americans and for which conservatives in almost every state in America have fought to get on their high-school science curricula, will ever become a hot-button issue for Australian conservatives. There are simply not enough biblical literalists among them.

Nevertheless, John Howard, almost single-handedly, has crafted a cultural transformation in Australia over the past decade that is as significant as that achieved by the conservative culture warriors in the US. That transformation has been perhaps Howard's major project from the moment he won office in 1996, one he has pursued relentlessly and consistently and ruthlessly, and for which - more than his foreign or economic policies - he is despised by Australia's cultural elite, its writers and film-makers and artists. From the time he made that now-infamous speech about ending political correctness and allowing the voices of the long silent - people like Pauline Hanson - to be heard, Howard has worked tirelessly to remove every vestige of Keatingism from the national consciousness. Republicanism is dead for at least a generation. Reconciliation, based on white Australians' apology for Aboriginal suffering, is politically dead. (Indeed, in railing against the so-called black-armband interpretation of the nation's history, Howard gave credence to revisionist historians who deny Aboriginal suffering.) Cosmopolitanism is dead, replaced by an Australian patriotism that celebrates economic advances and military retreats.

This will be Howard's legacy, rather than the years of economic growth and rising national wealth during his prime ministership, the foundation for which was laid by the preceding Labor governments - if neo-liberal reform is indeed the reason for Australia's recent economic success. (It can, of course, be argued that it has been the emergence of China as an engine of world economic growth, and its voracious demand for Australian raw materials in particular, that has been primarily responsible for a decade of boom times.) Howard and Costello have not been great economic reformers. What have been their major contributions to economic reform? It is hard to think of any. Howard's political achievement has been to convince Australians that he is the architect of their prosperity, and that only he can guarantee this prosperity will continue.

John Howard, then, has claimed credit for victory in the culture wars - credit that is due him - and also responsibility for the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth since the golden era of the '50s, which is a much more dubious proposition. But whatever its truth, it is undeniable that Howard managed to transform Australia culturally. The question is whether this transformation can be undone - and for that matter, whether a Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd, were it to win government, would actually seek to undo it.

Do the similarities between the Labor Party and the Democratic Party in 2004 - a sense of hopelessness coupled with an impotent fury at the injustice of their opponents' victories - still exist, three years later? The Democratic Party, in that time, has gone from despairing of ever winning back Congress or the presidency to controlling both houses of Congress and almost certainly - even if Hillary Clinton is the candidate, which is the most likely outcome of the primaries, now just months away - winning the November 2008 presidential poll. It is remarkable how quickly Karl Rove's supposed generations-long Republican ascendancy has ended. The political comeback of the Democrats, and the Republican Party's concomitant descent into political and ideological chaos, was one of the great stories of my time in Washington.

The seemingly inept and divided Democrats - led in the Senate by the dour Harry Reid, who was known for saying both too much and too little at the same time, and in the House by Nancy Pelosi, who many Democrats considered a political liability and not just because she represented a heavily gay district of San Francisco (not exactly the best way to attract Middle America's support) - brought about what George W Bush described as an annihilation of Republicans in the November 2006 congressional elections. Derided by many in their party in 2005, Reid and Pelosi - the latter in particular - were suddenly political giants. But this victory had little to do with the Democrats regrouping, and much more to do with the realisation among Americans, particularly swinging voters, that Bush has led perhaps the most incompetent of postwar American administrations. It was not just about Americans' increasing disillusionment with the conduct of the war in Iraq. There was also the appalling response to the drowning of New Orleans and the ideological cronyism that had infected every office of the administration, coupled with perceived arrogance and corruption - not to mention the hypocrisy of congressional Republicans who campaigned for ‘family values' while protecting those among them who propositioned schoolboys on work experience on Capitol Hill, and those who were well-known cruisers of public toilets, even as they railed against gay marriage. And congressional Republicans, with Bush's acquiescence, had been responsible for the largest budget deficit in the country's history.

By November 2006 the conservative coalition that had been built over two decades by Republican strategists between the ‘values' conservatives and the small-government neo-liberals had more or less fallen apart. It was always a shaky alliance. The proponents of free-market solutions to every conceivable problem at America's leading neo-liberal think-tank, the Cato Institute, were, if not opposed, then entirely indifferent to the ‘values' concerns of the Republican Party's Christian-conservative base. The not-entirely-deserving beneficiary of the collapse of the coalition was a Democratic Party which suddenly found itself in control of both houses of Congress with no real agenda but to make George W Bush's last two years of presidency as painful as possible.

Not even on Iraq did the Democrats have a clear position. The liberal wing, represented by the so-called netroots - the internet bloggers and activists who rose to prominence in 2004 by raising tens of millions of dollars online for Howard Dean's presidential bid - pushed congressional Democrats to use their majorities to immediately cut off funding for the Iraq war. They repudiated the centrist politics of Bill Clinton, including his faith in globalisation, and they reckoned that Hillary Clinton was simply a political clone of her husband. Opposition to the Iraq war was their unifying issue, but their politics was about rejecting what one of their leaders called the "mythical middle". Netroots activists and their supporters are in the main college-educated baby boomers and their children, and they despise the Clintons only a little less than they do Bush. They are increasingly influential in the party, at least at the grassroots level: every Democratic presidential candidate, including Hillary Clinton, attended their last annual convention, held in August. But they have failed to get congressional Democrats, including the leadership of both houses, to take up their main cause: forcing an end to the Iraq involvement. The Democrats in Congress, other than a few lone members, were unwilling to even try to block Bush's "surge" - sending an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq - let alone to force a troop withdrawal.

As a result, there is widespread disillusionment and anger among grassroots Democrats, and there is outright hatred of Hillary Clinton. Polls among netroots supporters have her at about 2%; among Democrats in general, her support is up around 40%, an almost 20% lead over Barack Obama, her closest rival. On Iraq, as well as on a range of domestic issues, including health care, trade, and the benefits and costs of globalisation - indeed, on neo-liberalism in general - grassroots Democrats are out of step with the party's political mainstream, if the polls are to be believed. There is deepening bitterness between them and centrist organisations like the Democratic Leadership Council, which is staffed by veterans of Bill Clinton's administration. The odds are that the grassroots Democrats - that is, the liberal elites in the party - will not prevail, despite support from Hollywood moguls and the billionaire investor George Soros, who are backing either Barack Obama or John Edwards.

The so-called centrists are in the ascendancy, and that's not only because the Clinton machine is so powerful and because Bill Clinton remains such a powerful figure in the party, having been the only Democrat to win two presidential elections since Truman more than half a century ago. Those Americans who will decide the next presidential election are not the affluent, educated intelligentsia; they are those who want change after the disasters of the Bush years, but are not enamoured of the liberal elites within the Democratic Party. This means that the conservatives' victories in the culture wars may not necessarily be overturned when Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House. The political influence of conservative evangelicalism may have peaked, but it remains a force to be reckoned with: Hillary Clinton, for instance, despite the fury of the netroots, was a sponsor of legislation in the Senate to make flag-burning a criminal offence.

Which brings us to Kevin Rudd and his approach to the election - his "me too-ism" in relation to John Howard and his small-target strategy for winning government. In a sense, Rudd is the Hillary Clinton of Australian politics. My sense is that he is not loved by the left-leaning elites, who think he is too hungry for power, too prepared to do whatever it takes to become prime minister. These are exactly the charges levelled against Hillary Clinton by the intelligentsia that forms the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The big difference is that, despite opinion polls pointing to a landslide win for Labor, Howard remains a formidable opponent leading a government that a majority of Australians believe has done a fair job during the time it has been in power. None of this can be said in relation to George Bush and the Republican Party.

For Labor, winning government is a much more formidable task than it was for the Democrats last November - or it is for Hillary Clinton if she gains the Democratic Party nomination. In the US, the majority of Americans have concluded that Bush is a bad president and that the Republicans in Congress are arrogant and corrupt. In Australia, if the polls are right, the majority believe that things are going along nicely and that it might be time - given that Rudd, unlike Mark Latham, is competent and careful - to give the other mob a go. Australians might believe it's time for a change, that John Howard has had his turn, but what they don't want in his place is a Latham. For this reason, Hugh Mackay's suggestion that the Australian electorate has finally woken from its slumber and is about to punish Howard for what Mackay believes is his venality, his trickiness, his untruthfulness, his promotion of a rampant materialism and selfishness, his wink to racism and his use of the politics of fear, is fanciful, a form of wishful thinking, an example of what Robert Manne, writing in the September Monthly, called the "left-wing blindness" of our "professional elites". Kevin Rudd might well feel, in the words that John Howard once used about himself, that the times are right for him.

Howard has been too great a political presence for his demise not to have a long-term effect on Australians' sense of themselves and their country's place in the world. But just what that effect will be is impossible to say. Will Rudd, then, if he is elected, attempt to overturn Howard's greatest achievement, his victory in the culture wars? Will Rudd, despite his proclaimed conservatism - fiscal and otherwise - bring back honesty and integrity to politics, eschew the politics of fear, embrace multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, and foster an Australia that appeals to the selfless rather than the selfish instincts of ordinary people? So much will depend on the effect on Rudd of winning the prime ministership, on how it changes him, on how he deals with the inevitable tests of office: tests of his stamina, his ability to handle pressure, his self-knowledge.

But there will certainly be no return to the agenda for a new Australia that Paul Keating pursued when he was prime minister. And it is almost certain that Rudd, if he wins, will quickly disappoint the dreamers who hope for a root-and-branch undoing of Howard's cultural hegemony. Rudd is no Whitlam, and Julia Gillard is no Jim Cairns. This is not 1972. The Labor Party's factions are no longer involved in ideological conflict for the soul of the party; the factional battles are about little else than power. Even leading left-faction figures believe the professional elites are naive and out of touch with the reality of Australian politics and, as Manne put it, the "moral instincts of ordinary Australians".

In a little over a year, it is possible, indeed likely, that Hillary Clinton will be the president of the United States and Kevin Rudd the prime minister of Australia. The time of the Democratic Party and the Labor Party will well and truly have come: these two parties of the nominal centre-left will have travelled along parallel paths from the political wilderness to power. A President Clinton and a Prime Minister Rudd will, if they wish, be able to compare notes on how they plan to handle the inevitable disappointment of the professional elites in them and their governments.

About the author Michael Gawenda