This year’s Federal election was the first to be fought by competing
populists, rather than new Labor third way triangulating types and old
paternalistic Tories. Populism’s the only ideology left in town, you
It’s been fifteen years since Francis Fukayama proclaimed the ‘end of
history’. Liberal-capitalism had won; it’s the only show in town, he
breathlessly told us.
A week after John Howard swaggered into the Wentworth Hotel to claim a
fourth election victory, it might be time to revise Francis. Because
while he’s right about capitalism’s appeal to most Western voters, he’s
wrong about liberalism.
As John Howard has proved, flunking the liberal test on issues like gay
marriage or asylum seekers hardly displeases the public. Indeed, voters
in Sydney’s endless suburbs don’t seem to mind a bit of peeping-Tom
morality, as long as its accompanied by angry rhetoric about
café-going, Turkish-bread- munching elitists. Indeed, Howard’s
New Liberals have almost completely crunched liberalism, which is all
about cultural and economic rationalism, and a small state.
They’ve effectively become right-wing populists, like American
Republicans. Only less religious. As American commentator Thomas Franks
wrote recently, the Republican theft of populist language from the
American Left has led to Republican wins in four of the last six
American Republicans used to be viewed as ‘big money’ types, who didn’t
care when tens of millions of Americans were unemployed during the
Great Depression, because they really didn’t have to sacrifice
anything. Except for their second country club membership.
That was before Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan discovered the ‘silent
majority’. Now it’s the Democrats who are ‘limousine liberals’, in the
words of semiautomatic-carrying blonde hack Ann Coulter.
‘Howard’s battlers’ are really a variation on the Republican Party’s
‘Joe Six-Pack’ and ‘Nascar dad’ voters. Making John Howard the first
real ‘Western Suburbs’ Liberal leader. His critics are right when they
portray Howard as a suburban accountant. But the fact that he’s not
that glam, is why he appeals to marginal voters.
Conservatives, in America and Australia, are seen as the sort of people
you’d have over to sink a tinny, or go shopping at the nearest
All this might seem unexceptional, if you don’t really know the history
of the populist ideology. Populism, you see, is more than just
appealing to the mob (whether they’re carrying pitchforks, or not).
English speaking populism began in the late nineteenth century, in
America. Bible-belching leftist-populists used to cross America’s
prairies and marshes, winning voters in every small town they
Conspiracies were their thing. Populists’ most famous propaganda
inevitably featured the big money octopus, representing the few big
bankers who ran America. They didn’t like branch-stacking Washington
pollies, either. Populists started a party in the 1890s that became,
for a decade, America’s genuine third party (and almost did in the
Populists campaigned for a progressive income tax, with the rich paying
more than the poor. They wanted the railway oligarchs (who made
transporting farm-produce expensive) sent back to Wall Street, where
And while socialists claimed that conflict in society was about the
workers versus the bosses, populists also believed in class politics.
Except, in their case, the working classes were the producers, whether
farmers, workers, or small business people. And their opponents were
those who didn’t make anything. But got something for nothing.
Sound familiar? As the ideology has matured, the targets of populist
preachers have got more diverse. Pauline Hanson, the most convincing
Australian populist ever, ranted about the ‘multicultural industry’,
the unemployed, and WTO bureaucrats. Confusing the Canberra elites,
whether Liberal or Labor. Hanson led a populist revolution that really
shifted Australian political argument.
The Liberals were the quickest to pick and choose from the populist
buffet, refreshing their social views with the help of the Reagan
After all, Menzies’ description of Liberal voters as ‘forgotten people’
meant that Howard had something of a Liberal tradition of populist
language, to pull out of the closet, and nip and tuck.
But one of the things that commentators haven’t noticed about Mark
Latham, and which really scares Liberals, is his discovery of leftwing
You can see it in the way he monsters the banks, American
pharmaceutical companies, and single mothers. Rich or poor, to him
they’re all elites who live off the labor of others.
And his education policy, with its appeals to populist resentment of
kids with trust funds, sailing through schools with rifle ranges, was
about all Labor had going for it during the election campaign.
Why did he lose then? Because Latham’s Labor are still L-plated
populists. And their forest policy was a reminder to “ordinary
Australians” of Keating-era identity politics.
Heading into another three years of opposition, then, Labor should take
heart in finding the ‘big idea’ that will win them elections in the
Because if Peter Costello becomes Liberal leader, even Australians with
big home loans will notice that the New Liberals are still liberal
enough to believe in privatization. And low corporate tax.
Mark Latham will be waiting for those disenchanted voters in suburbia,
promising more welfare, more Medicare Golds. He’ll be a more authentic
populist than Melbourne private schoolboy-type Peter Costello.
And Howard’s battlers will raise a schooner glass to that.
A subscriber writes:
Charles McPhedran, while showing a great depth in his study of US history, to me has really missed the point
in his article. The errors start in the first three paragraphs, where he shows no real grasp of Francis
Fukayama’s understanding of what liberal capitalism is. Mr. Fukuyama is part of the so called ‘neo-con’ group
in US politics and as such what he means by liberal capitalism would not necessarily include gay marriage or
asylum seekers. To me, his main point is that the great clash of civilisations is over – socialism (in all its
forms, whether sydicalism, anarchism, communism or national socialism or other) has been consigned to
irrelevance. The other options, including a clericalist state (like Iran), shold be contained and will eventually
To me, populism itself is also on its way into the dustbin of history, as this election shows. Contrary to
Charles’ argument, I believe that Howard’s election shows that parties that try to pander to naked partisan
greed and the ‘Big Idea’ will be defeated by an appeal to economic sense, as they have found that those that
attempt to use naked populist policies and big ideas will normally end up hurting them.
To me, Howard campaigned on the idea that he has proved he can manage the economy, not do anything too
scary and can be trusted to ‘bring home the bacon’ with a minimum of worry. Whether fair or not, the claimed
safe pair of hands was heavily contrasted to the Labor approach of policies set to disrupt the country.
Latham’s attempts to distance Labor from the Liberals on economic policy merely served to ram this home.
Labor’s social and environmental policies would have come into play if he could have run a small target
campaign on the economy – I believe it was his attempts to play the populist in economic policy that undid the
Labor campaign. From working on the polling booths, most voters (even the confirmed Liberals) did not know,
and did not care, about the Liberal economic policy, or how many billions were being spent, saved or wasted.
They believed Howard (and Costello) were not going to ruin them. They did not know that about Labor.
However good the Labor policies may have been on other areas, it was the economy that sunk them. Clinton’s
maxim of ‘Its the Economy, Stupid’ is one that Labor would do well to look at next time.