Trump’s Victory and Australian Politics

By Ian Marsh, Adjunct Professor, Institute for the Study of Social Change


Trump’s ascension no doubt creates new agenda challenges for Australia. But his campaign generated so many diverse and inconsistent statements that the policy landscape remains obscure. What is crystal clear is the gulf between elite worldviews and large swathes of public opinion. Remember those panegyrics to economic globalisation: The World is Flat and The Golden Straightjacket? What now of Thomas Friedman’s assured analysis?

Here is one potted reading of the past half century or so. Start with the mass party world. The parties drew their power and reach from class identity. Here is Ernest Bevin’s description of his (British) socialisation: ‘I had to work at ten years of age while my employer’s son went to the university until he was twenty. You have set out for me a different set of conditions. I was taught to bow to the squire and touch my hat to the parson; my employer’s son was not. All these things have produced within me an intense hatred, a hatred which has caused me to organise for my fellows and direct my mind to a policy to give to my class a power to control their own destiny and labour….At present employers and employed are too often separated by something akin to a barrier of “caste” …The operatives are frequently regarded by employers as being of a different and inferior order…So long as these views continue to exist they inevitably produce an intense class bitterness.’

The post war welfare state-managed economy busted that order. Subsequently, there have been three agenda-setting moments. The first, which extended social pluralisation, was initiated by the post-68 cultural upheaval. The second, the orientation to economic globalisation, drew on an elite consensus. The third, symbolised in Donald Trump’s victory, is a populist surge that fuses anti-globalisation and culturally conservative reactions. Here is a sketch.

The post-68 moment reflected the aspirations of the post war generation. The Beatles and Bob Dylan were their major poets. Their lyrics were a paean to political romanticism.  The social movements expressed this in specific agendas. In the process, the women’s, Indigenous, gay, ethnic, consumer, environment, animal rights and peace/third world movements have reconfigured contemporary social attitudes. Conservative movements have formed to defend the status quo. The community has pluralised and differentiated in ways that older political forms have difficulty recognising and do not readily accommodate.

Social pluralisation is not the only tectonic plate to have shifted. Globalisation constituted a second change. Neoliberalism was its handmaiden and this economic agenda progressively colonised both major parties – in Australia, Britain, the US and in many other western states. This elite consensus has defined economic policy for at least forty years. Global trade and finance has created huge wealth for some and fresh opportunities for many. In western states, new service sectors have prospered. Global trade has been a pathway for many, particularly citizens of Asian states, to enter a middle-class world. In western states, it has created a class of cosmopolitans – people who have prospered, who travel, and who embrace the ideals expressed in international covenants that have, at least in theory, honoured the democratic cause of universal human rights.

But the Trump victory, which marks a third agenda change, symbolises another side. Inequalities in many western states have multiplied, established manufacturing industries have collapsed and a divide has seemingly opened between those who share cosmopolitan orientations and those who feel left out or patronised. These feelings are no doubt compounded by refugees and migration. Cosmopolitans do not compete for jobs, they do not experience economic insecurity and they do not see immigrants as threats or scapegoats. Less fortunate citizens may feel otherwise. Populist leaders promise redress.

These three epic changes –social pluralisation, the pro-globalisation elite consensus, and the anti-globalisation populist surge – are upending politics in most western states. Australia was insulated to some extent from some of these wider pressures by the mining boom and by Kevin Rudd’s response to the GFC.

But a slow-burn legitimacy crisis is surely also corrupting our domestic politics. The Liberal party combines socially conservative and socially liberal members – perhaps an echo of its genesis as a fusion of Deakinites and Free Traders. Labor is analogously cross-pressured. Its working-class base is vulnerable to the nostalgia of Hansen’s mythical Australia. Its middle-class supporters are vulnerable to the Greens. Policy contradictions are legion. For example, hailed by the Productivity Commission, the exit of the car industry has generated an even more egregious boondoggle in the submarine contracts. It has renewed the political appeal of protection.

So, what is the significance of the Trump victory? It surely marks the end of the neo-liberal era, at least as it has figured in the elite consensus.    But what of Australian domestic politics? The Senate’s proportional voting system means that minorities will continue to dominate this House. On the other hand, the preferential voting system for the Representatives preserves for now the two major parties.

In the face of the foregoing epic changes, it’s no wonder that effective government is an increasing illusion. The two party structure, which was established in 1909, has past its use-by date. But change in the basic structure of power is a big step – one that will be resisted by many, not least the political elites who are the primary beneficiaries of present arrangements. So, one scenario could be persisting gridlock and persisting dysfunctional government. Another might be breakup in one or other of the major parties and the emergence of a multi-party system. If we want to see the virtues of this alternative look no further than New Zealand.

Meantime for the US one hope must be that internal divisions within the Republican Party mean Trump will face no free ride with his Congress. Then there are public expectations. Like May in Britain, how will they be fulfilled? Looking more widely, the French, German Dutch and other elections next year will no doubt produce analogous outcomes. The global order seems poised for significant change.

In our own case, the structure of politics is a threshold obstacle to prudent action. The gap between the formal political system and its publics nourishes populist discontent. Pressures for realignment may be clear. But the contingency that might trigger this outcome is impossible to forecast. Enjoy the ride!

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