Can Liberals Play Hard Ball?


The electoral victories of Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama ushered in a period of liberal hegemony in Australia and the US. Now that the victory celebrations on both sides of the world have simmered down, it’s timely to ask what comes next for the liberal project.

Let’s turn first to the United States. Barack Obama’s recent speech to Congress on healthcare mattered so much precisely because his presidency seemed to be drifting. With healthcare reform stalled, Obama’s hitherto stellar polling has gone into slump. More importantly, Obama himself is beginning to appear politically tin-eared. Last year’s charisma has been replaced by a stumbling hesitancy, by an apparent inability to seize initiative.

An apparently trivial example: shockjocks and rightwing bloggers recently sprung on Obama’s back to school speech to gin up phoney outrage. Their fevered response presented, you might have thought, a wonderful opportunity for Obama to force mainstream Republicans to wear the collective derangement that’s gripped their movement: the Nazi signs, the mutterings about Communist plots, the general hysteria of the so-called Tea Party gatherings. Instead of hitting attack mode, however, the administration stayed politely mute — and so mainstream news outlets around the world reported on Obama’s speech (in which he told kids to — gasp! — study hard) as if it were a genuine controversy.

The incident, inconsequential in itself, illustrates a key aspect of contemporary liberalism: its reluctant to fight for its own program. Politics is, for the most part, a zero sum game. On almost every issue, there are diametrically opposed interests, and each decision necessarily results in winners and losers. In the US, the forces of the Right are well-organised — and they don’t like to lose.

Insofar as Obama has a strategy for reform, it’s centred on winning over conservative opponents by conciliation and compromise.

He stumped as the anti-torture candidate, promising accountability for abuses. But to deliver on civil liberties would require a knock-down, drag-out fight with the security state and its manifold supporters in government and media. This is something for which the Democrats have no stomach. Accordingly, Obama now says that officials who sanctioned the myriad cruelties of the CIA’s secret prisons will face no penalties whatsoever, while the practice of "extraordinary rendition", by which detainees are deprived of human rights protections by sending them to interrogation abroad, will continue. He even backs the indefinite preventative detention of terror suspects, a proposal as Orwellian any of Dick Cheney’s schemes.

The same goes for war. Though a majority of Americans oppose the conflict in Aghanistan, elite opinion backs a decisive victory as a strategic priority for the US. The result? The Administration has now sought $68 billion for the war — for the first time, spending more in Afghanistan than Iraq — and Obama is expected soon to authorise a "surge" involving tens of thousands more troops.

Reform by conciliation means that, in most controversies, Obama seeks to appease the Right, even — or perhaps especially — if that means attacking the Left, a point well illustrated by the recent sacking of Van Jones, Obama’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. In an administration dominated by corporate Democrats like Rahm Emanuel, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, Jones was something of an anomaly: a former black nationalist who’d become a fairly mainstream environmentalist. His activist background made him a natural target for the noise machine of the Right, however, and it grabbed his description of Congress Republicans as "assholes", and his signature on a 9/11 conspiracy petition, and demanded his dismissal.

Given the senior Republicans endorsing "Birther" conspiracies, Jones’ tenuous connection to 9/11 "Truthers" scarcely seems a hanging offence. And as for the "assholes" remark, George W Bush famously said something similar about a New York Times journalist without anyone blinking.

Nonetheless, Obama dismissed Jones, presumably concluding that by doing so, he’d get the conservatives off his back. Of course, the episode proved to the demagogic Right that its howlings have an impact. More importantly, it left Obama’s supporters demoralised and confused. Their President, it seemed, cared more for Republican tub-thumpers than the progressive community. Why should Democrat activists feel inspired to take the arguments for healthcare reform to their communities?

Grassroots support, of course, would provide Obama with a counterweight to the conservative network of thinktanks, radio stations and talk shows. The raucous Town Hall meetings on healthcare have proved disastrous for Democrats precisely because the Administration has not been able marshal an activist response to the Right-wing mobs.

The more Obama erodes his base, the more vulnerable he becomes, and, this in turn leads him to seek further compromises with the Right. It’s possible that Obama’s speech to Congress represents a turnaround — certainly, he struck a much more aggressive note — but I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

The Rudd revolution has progressed along a course both remarkably similar and oddly different.

Rudd, too, instinctively conciliates the Right and attacks his supporters. Think, for instance, of the occasions when the hapless Peter Garrett has said anything reminiscent of his progressive past: his eminently reasonable suggestion that tourists not climb Uluru led to an immediate slap-down from the PM, even before the tabloids really took up the issue. Rudd displays an indecent enthusiasm for disciplining blue-collar unionists who embarrass the party, and a corresponding willingness to back conservative moral campaigners of the Hettie Johnson ilk.

Yet in Australia, there’s no sign of the disorientation that’s afflicted the Obama Administration. Labor’s poll numbers remain astonishingly good, and it’s the Liberals who can’t catch a break.

Perversely, the difference may well lie in the fact that the ALP and Rudd didn’t raise the expectations to the degree that Obama did. The election of the first black President carried connotations that the victory of a bespectacled Queensland bureaucrat simply didn’t. Where Obama’s speeches genuinely soared, Rudd presented as a tightly buttoned schoolmaster, a competent figure rather than an inspirational one. Moreover, while Americans saw Obama’s win as a repudiation of the disastrous Republican administration, Rudd campaigned as both economically and socially conservative: promising a continuation of Howardism as much as an alternative to it.

Since then, Labor has perfected a politics well suited to an era of political quietism. The Rudd Government presents itself as a team of technocrats, managing the complicated business of government so efficiently that ordinary people need pay little attention. The ALP faces no equivalent of the healthcare issue or America’s commitment to Afghanistan. With the economy dodging a bullet during the GFC, politics remain quite distant from the lives of most Australians — and the polls suggest that’s how they like it.

So what’s the problem?

Australians might not be interested in politics but politics remains interested in them. Consider climate change, an issue that was prominent in both the US and Australian election campaigns. From what we’ve seen so far, liberalism will struggle to confront the looming environmental catastrophe.

If Obama is floundering as he tries to implement health reforms that materially improve the lives of ordinary Americans, how will he manage the intense disruption a serious response to global warming will entail? It’s inconceivable that carbon-based economies will be greened without a major confrontation with some of the most powerful entrenched interests in the world. The project will require the mass enthusiasm — indeed, mass participation — not seen in the US since the New Deal. Where will this come from?

In Australia, Labor couldn’t even defend a tax on plastic bags in supermarkets. How then will Rudd overcome the coal industry and its supporters? There’s no way of conciliating with people who make a living from greenhouse gas and hence there will be no resolution without a fight.

And where will that leave the project of liberalism?

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