Quite a bit of effort is being devoted to explaining why, from the Arab Spring to the London riots, from suddenly Eurosceptic Europeans to the Tea Party, governments everywhere are under siege.
Thomas Friedman, he of the most laughable piece on the Arab Spring in the entire Western commentariat, tried recently to manufacture a “theory of everything” to argue it was all about — sitting down? — globalisation and communications technology. The year 2000 called and wants its copy of The Lexus and the Olive Tree back, Tom.
More usefully, Reuters’s Felix Salmon has talked of a massive collapse in consent and trust in governments. Nouriel Roubini, warning of the possibility of a depression, said “recent popular demonstrations, from the Middle East to Israel to the UK, and rising popular anger in China — and soon enough in other advanced economies and emerging markets — are all driven by the same issues and tensions: growing inequality, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness.”
It’s rather a long bow, but at some point someone may make the effort to link up the Convoy of No Confidence, the anti-carbon tax protests and efforts such as last week’s anti-gay marriage rally with this wave of worldwide discontent. There is a connection, of course, but it’s only with the Tea Party in the US, in the apeing of tactics, the cultivation and manipulation of a grassroots movement by media figures and wealthy conservatives (whether the Koch brothers or Gina Rinehart) and shared platforms of climate denialism .
But similar demographics also keep recurring with these groups, and it’s interesting to think about why. The Tea Party is characterised by middle-aged or older, conservative, white, middle- or higher-income people, more often male than female. That’s exactly the demographic for climate denialists in Australia and, judging by those who have turned up to the no-carbon tax rallies, similar to that group as well.
There’s some overlap with the demographics that characterised One Nation voters — who tended to be middle-aged (but not, despite the stereotype, old) middle-income and religious. But One Nation members tended to be poorly educated (Tea Party members are better educated than most Americans) and were primarily regional.
That’s why there’s no link with what’s happening elsewhere. It’s isn’t comfortably-off middle-aged white men breaking into Foot Locker in London.
Why the shared demographics between here and the US? What’s interesting about the Tea Party and the various rally movements that have emerged in Australia is that both have only done so since Barack Obama became president and Julia Gillard became Prime Minister. Moreover, they’ve emerged despite Australia and the US being almost polar opposites in terms of economic performance.
While the Tea Party (particularly where it overlaps with the birther movement) contains racist elements and there’s a strain of misogyny in the attacks on Gillard, I suggest these groups aren’t driven by overt racism or sexism. The participants in such groups are unlikely to be any more racist or sexist than the rest of us.
Instead, the motivating force behind these groups appears to be more about expressing resentment about social and economic change in recent decades, and particularly because such changes have delivered nothing but difficulties for the demographics we’re talking about: social change has undermined the once-dominant status of older white heteros-xual people and males in particular, and, in the Australian context, economic changes have squeezed them, along with everyone else, into a far more competitive, market-based economy that no longer delivers the sort of certainty they grew up with and that Generation X, in particular, never had.
For such people, Gillard’s gender (and unmarried status) or Obama’s race are not so much a problem as a high-profile, indeed inescapable, symbol of how much the world has changed and changed in ways that deliver nothing but pain for such people. That’s why they elicit such fury, not because of innate s-xism or racism.
This resentment of change and sense of persecution at the hands of broader socio-economic forces perhaps explains another commonality of such groups, here and in the US: a conviction that they are being repressed and censored. There’s plenty to be concerned about when it comes to the state of free speech in Australia. But when right-wing rallies receive massive media coverage out of all proportion to the number of attendees, the claim rings hollow.
And sure, it’s a staple of the Left that the mainstream media is biased and right-wing, and conservatives always think the media’s full of trendy left-wing journalists. But in the case of the recent rallies, it has a peculiarly personal flavour of persecution to it. And it had its most absurd expression yesterday in the sight of Alan Jones, a rich, old, white, conservative male and thus the perfect — OK, near-perfect — rally spokesman (though alas, Alan, you were only following in the tyre tracks of the truckies’ mate, John Laws), inventing a wholly fictitious claim that the AFP had stopped trucks outside the ACT. That is, the miserable numbers at the rally weren’t because people disagreed or weren’t interested, but because the federal authorities had stopped them.
This claim about “censorship” is now a regular argument of right-wing groups or commentators, and often expressed along the lines that any criticism or even inconvenient factual reporting of its claims is an abrogation of free speech — that is, the “right to free speech” is now supposed to encompass a right to be heard without any counter-argument or undesirable coverage.
Sophie Mirabella attempted this pre-emptively ahead of the rally yesterday, using News Ltd’s opinion platform to accuse “freedom of speech-loving journalists” of trying to “find an offensive placard, to photograph someone looking unhinged” as a way to deter free expression — even of politicians themselves (who as we know lack their own platform to say whatever they like and get national coverage). Mirabella herself made the comparison with the Tea Party, claiming “the same uneasiness was revealed in the way the US media reacted to the Tea Party movement. Protest, it seems, is the preserve of the left.”
Evidently Mirabella doesn’t read too much US political coverage. The coverage of the Tea Party by the US mainstream media has been a publicist’s dream, and a critical part of its success in swaying the Republican Party’s political tactics — exhibit 1, the “Democrats are just a recalcitrant as Republicans” tone of the debt ceiling debacle.
Sometimes the demands for free speech are a cover or precursor for attacks on critics. In July, the Australian Christian Lobby withdrew from a debate on same-s-x marriage in Tasmania, insisting that one of its members had been “slurred” by the “gay rights lobby”. “For many these concepts are precious, even sacred, and people with those views should be free in this society to raise them in the public square without intimidation,” said Jim Wallace.
Last week’s anti-same-sex marriage rally at Parliament House, convened by the “National Marriage Coalition”, of which the ACL is a founding member, then featured US speaker Rebecca Hagelin who compared same-sex marriage to polygamy and “marriages” between paedophiles and children (imagine the stir if a visiting progressive had compared heteros-xual marriage to rape). And what better example than Alan Jones, angered by a straightforward and appropriate question about fees from journalist Jacqueline Maley yesterday, gallantly trying to incite the gathering against her? Perhaps Maley, being, you know, a woman, and deemed a “leftist” by one participant, was the nearest they could get to Gillard.
The trick is, these groups aren’t motivated by any particular issues, however angry they may be about a carbon price or taxes. The issues are mere tokens. It’s more about them and their resentment that the world has changed on them in ways they don’t like and don’t feel comfortable with. It’s the sense of persecution that comes from no longer occupying a privileged position in society but instead having to cope with life just like everyone else.