To discourage ambition, to envy success, to have achieved superiority, to distrust independent thought, to sneer at and impute false motives to public service — these are the maladies of modern democracy.Robert Menzies, “The Forgotten People”
The reaction of the right to the Liberal Party’s devastating result last Saturday is an important event to study for political sociolog- OMG who I am kidding? This is hilarious! These people are nuts! Forget “get the popcorn” — get yourself a popcorn machine! They’ve spent the whole week planning to revive the party in outer suburban seats they went backwards in, or mid-suburban working-class seats where they get a third of the 2PP.
But wait, it gets better. It’s clear that the right is pushing for a sort of populism which not only attacks the metropolitan cultural elites but is going further and actually attacking the well-off and the rich for being… well-off and rich. This is the party of free enterprise doing this. It’s the most wack thing I’ve ever seen.
Guardian Australia (and everyone else) has already had great fun with Tim Smith, the almost impossibly self-parodic member for Kew (i.e. Kooyong) who damns his own constituents as “privileged and entitled” — after drunkenly crashing a Jaguar into the wall of a child’s bedroom.
“The causes of the defeat in Kooyong to the ‘teals’ can be applied across Australia, indeed it’s a global phenomenon that wealthy inner-urban elites are voting for the Left … These [the forgotten people] are the Australians who will bear the brunt of what the ‘teals’ are demanding in terms of emissions reductions by 2030. The people of Kooyong, Wentworth, Goldstein, North Sydney and Mackellar aren’t forgotten or quiet. They are loud, entitled, and privileged.”
Crash through or just crash, eh, Tim?
But there’s also News Corp Tim Blair:
“Dave Sharma has been cast aside in Wentworth after just a solitary term by voters who preferred super-wealthy tealian Allegra Spender … If voters in urban seats are now so rich that they can afford to discard meaningful parliamentary representation, it clears the field for the Liberals to reinvent themselves as a party primarily concerned with the cost of living.”
On Radio National, Leichhardt member Warren Entsch talked of “billionaire” Simon Holmes à Court running the teals through funding Climate 200 — a three-error remark that blotted his progressive copybook with a bit of misogyny as well. In the lead-up to the election, Janet Albrechtsen had already portrayed teals and their supporters as “posh thickos”. And every evening Paul Murray begins his hypnotically Pravda-esque hour on Sky with a sort of simpering play act of the new independents, in which this human pub-raffle meat-tray affects the voices of what he calls the “Tiffany teals”.
This, and much more of it, is all… courageous. The working assumption appears to be that the Liberals can become the party of “the forgotten people” — low-to-middle income suburbanites in our era — in part by actively attacking the wealthy above them. This is the sort of thing professional political activists might assume would work, because their lives are based on orienting themselves towards an enemy. But of course most people who are the “strivers” don’t think like that.
The energetic, aspirational people that the Liberals want to attract in outer suburban seats may find well-off teal seaters to be foolish or alien, but their thoughts are not organised around their resentment of them. They want the things such teals have — a big house in a good place, good education for their children, the freedom that money brings to shape a life. They may not choose the same type of house or neighbourhood, but they have the same sort of idea of what constitutes prosperity and success.
Try to run a break between the aspirational and the successful and you get a different type of politics. The right want the Liberals to present themselves to the outer suburbs as the defenders of cheaper energy prices, greater home ownership, and job security through economic management. But to do this while sneering at wealth is an anti-aspirational politics, one of modesty and acceptance. It is far closer to DLP politics — of a modest, abstemious, repressed, Catholic middle class — than it is to Liberal individualism.
The Australian right think that in doing this, they are mimicking Trump’s populism. But they have it completely wrong. Trump never sought to advance an idea of deserving and undeserving wealth. Nor did he argue any connection between wealth and the elite values his supporters abhorred. Wealth was good any way you got it. He wanted to spread it around. He posed in front of a gold elevator to say “Hey, it’s not a zero-sum game. We can all get some.” When he attacked “crooked” Hillary or “lying Nancy” Pelosi, he made their elitism about political power, not money. He avoided the sort of strangled resentment the right is now trying to mobilise against the teals.
Furthermore Trump was able to transform the Republican Party quickly, because it had long since lost the support of the north-eastern WASP elites who had run it for decades. They transferred to the Democrats in 1964, after concerted efforts by other groupings within the mega-party took the Republicans rightwards. But the Liberal Party is nothing like that. It remains utterly dominated by the intersecting, largely Anglo-Saxon networks of the major private schools, and the way in which they undergird a whole social power network.
The men and women from these networks, and those coming up, are not about to give up that power to the branches of the outer suburbs — or to hand the party over. So the idea seems to be that they will run a deepfake of sorts. The plan seems to be that the Tim Smiths and Peta Credlins and all sorts will go out to the suburbs and preach to the forgotten people about the inner-city elites who are taking advantage of them.
In their trauma, the right are currently engaged in ancestor worship, via Menzies’ “forgotten people” speech, which turned 80 last week. How did Sir Robert handle the problem of the rich? He simply ruled them out while defining “the middle classes” —
“I exclude at one end of the scale the rich and powerful: those who control great funds and enterprises, and are as a rule able to protect themselves — though it must be said that in a political sense they have as a rule shown neither comprehension nor competence.”
— then he never mentioned them again in the speech. By and large, “the forgotten people” is not a class war speech (though pretty uninterested in the working class) in the manner the right are trying to mount. Menzies argues that each class has its way of life, and what he seeks to do is define that of the middle class:
“The case for the middle class is the case for a dynamic democracy as against the stagnant one. Stagnant waters are level, and in them the scum rises. Active waters are never level: they toss and tumble and have crests and troughs; but the scientists tell us that they purify themselves in a few hundred yards … But what really happens to us will depend on how many people we have who are of the great and sober and dynamic middle-class — the strivers, the planners, the ambitious ones. We shall destroy them at our peril.”
That would seem to describe the teals rather more than Tim Smith — especially that “sober” bit. How strange, but scarcely unusual, that the right’s reverence for the speech disguises from them that they are acting against its dominant spirit.
The ironies are practically endless. If Tim Smith, man of the people, had managed to put his Jag all the way through that child’s bedroom wall, the person who might have to save them could well have been Monique Ryan, paediatric neurosurgeon, now MP for Kooyong, and pretty much the sort of person whose emergence the Menzies of 1942 saw as a mark of progress. The Liberals have a long road to recovery. One would suggest they don’t let the Tim Smiths of this world do the driving.