Why Progressives Should Be Smiling


The convincing victory of Barack Obama last year was more than just good news for Democrats. At one level it demonstrated that billionaires can’t simply buy electoral victory. But at another it showed that demographic trends in the USA are flowing strongly to the progressive side.

Hispanic Americans, rejecting the Republican Party they had engaged with under George W. Bush, came back strongly to the Democrats. African Americans rejected Mitt Romney with an unprecedented zero per cent of them choosing him over Obama in an NBC/WSJ poll. Working class white men, many of whom the Democrats had lost in the Reagan era, supported a President who had fought to save their jobs. The Republican Party started to look like the wealthy, Anglo, extremist elite that critics had claimed it always was.

And there are few indications that the political decline of American conservatism will stop.

Urban populations tend to vote progressive and the people of the United States continue to move from rural areas to cities, and will do so for decades to come. The Democrats are fostering a new generation of Latino leaders to ensure that they can properly represent this important constituency. The Castro twins in Texas are remarkable not just because they are a sign of the future of American politics, but because they are a sign of Democrat ambitions: to create a progressive stronghold in the 2016 elections in what has been the heart of the Deep South and the seat of the American Right for generations with a view to winning the state from the Republicans in 2020.

Such a tectonic change in the politics of the US raises questions about whether the long-held view of the country as inherently conservative can be maintained. And, with such transformations in the nation which has been at the centre of the global order since the Second World War, it is doubtful that world politics will continue unchanged.

It is worth considering whether Australia, a nation that has also been judged as inherently conservative, can continue to be viewed in this way. The major realignment of the ALP on the question of Palestine, for instance, has been linked by some commentators to the recognition that the issue was of concern to many Arab-Australian voters.

Barry O’Farrell’s front page Sun Herald anti-discrimination story on the weekend also indicates an attempt to engage with ethnic communities for whom racial vilification is an important issue. For a conservative Liberal politician to specifically target an area which might antagonise media allies like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt signifies a shift in the electoral playing field.

Certainly the record of the Gillard Government points to a political environment in which fundamentally conservative forces no longer determine national decisions. Despite the precariousness of a hung parliament, reliant on the support of country independents, Labor has succeeded in implementing one of the most controversial and far-reaching environmental initiatives in Australian history — as well as winning victories against Big Tobacco and initiating a national disability insurance scheme.

The inability of the conservative forces across the country to bring the government down, aided by a campaigning national media network in the Murdoch press, or at least stop it from introducing reform — is telling, aided as they were by a campaigning national media network in the Murdoch press.

As well as progressive reforms, however, the Gillard Government has also restarted the Howard government’s Pacific Solution. When it reopened the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, following the Expert Panel recommendations, it may have thought that a damaging political issue was neutralised. But in the lead up to the election the real possibility of a further High Court challenge to the policy hangs over the Minister for Immigration. Chief Justice French’s Court has already displayed its willingness to take a stand against actions of the Executive in this area and it would not be surprising if it were to do so once again.

Dilan Thampapilai has identified the vulnerability of the policy to being found to be unconstitutional on the basis of the Government’s aim of keeping migrants detained offshore for up to five years as part of its "no advantage" measures. And even if a challenge to the Commonwealth’s policy does not succeed, there is also the possibility of actions in the Nauruan or Papua New Guinean courts against their governments for allowing the detention of asylum seekers. Indeed the PNG Opposition Leader has indicated his intention to commence proceedings. The success of any of these is good news for those who oppose the inhumanity of the current asylum seeker regime.

In the long term, what is even more worrying for the conservatives is Rupert Murdoch’s mortality.

For the many years of Murdoch’s domination over the nation’s news and political reporting, government policies allowing overconcentration of media ownership seemed like a good idea to the right. But as Rupert’s life nears its end they are realising their error in failing to build a more durable and widely distributed group of media power players.

The next generation of Murdochs lack their father’s conservative ideological commitment. Indeed some of them have come out specifically against Murdoch Senior’s political initiatives, like Fox News. Without Rupert to steer the News Limited ship, the days of conservative dominance in the Australian political sphere may be limited.

But as well as these long term signs of movement towards a more left wing mainstream, progressives in Australia have more immediate reasons to be cheerful in 2013.

The prospect of the defeat of Tony Abbott in the upcoming election is looking more likely. His levels of approval have sunk dramatically, and although Newspoll has been used to argue that the Coalition will still win, unanswered questions remain about how the significant levels of support for Katter’s Australia Party will influence the outcome. Whatever the results, it is certainly clear that Abbott has been forced back onto the defensive for the first time in years. And that is something to celebrate.

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