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Discontents: identity, politics and institutions in a time of populism

Donald Trump constantly invoked the idea of political correctness gone mad in his presidential campaign. Reuters/Scott Morgan

Discontents: identity, politics and institutions in a time of populism

This piece is republished with permission from Perils of Populism, the 57th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, presenting an in-depth analysis of the rise of populism across the world.


Fifteen years ago, economist Joseph Stiglitz published a book, Globalisation and its Discontents. For Stiglitz, globalisation meant:

… the closer integration of the countries and peoples of the world which has been brought about by the enormous reduction of costs of transportation and communication, and the breaking down of artificial barriers to the flows of goods, services, capital, knowledge and (to a lesser extent) people across borders.

While the global economy has continued to expand, Stiglitz could not foresee the extent to which the movement of people would become a toxic political issue, as refugee flows and draconian measures to prevent them have increased.

Stiglitz was primarily concerned with the impact of globalisation on the world’s poorest countries. But he also acknowledged its impact on democratic institutions.

Contrary to the neoliberal belief that economic globalisation would ensure the triumph of Western-style democracies, it appears that democratic institutions everywhere have been weakened by their inability to satisfy an increasing number of voters. This was remarkably prescient, given Stiglitz was writing before the catalyst of the global financial crisis.

It is not difficult to find evidence for this claim. Despite some small gains in the past decade in a few African countries, liberal democracy has been on the retreat in several countries: Russia, Turkey, Thailand, Hungary.

In established democracies, major political parties have either been taken over by populist forces, as is the case for the US Republicans, or lost ground to them, as in France.

The apparent failure of globalisation seems to have energised the right to a greater degree than it has the left. In several countries, social democratic parties have lost much of their traditional support, with some of it even having swung to nationalistic and socially conservative movements.

The term “populism” is now so widely used that it seems equivalent with any political position not shared by the speaker. One of Australia’s more distinguished political commentators, Paul Kelly, consistently attacks Bill Shorten for “populism” when he is really pointing to a mixture of opportunism and cautious appeals for greater equity by an opposition leader who is strongly committed to the processes of liberal democracy.

In contemporary usage, “populism” is generally understood to mean political movements and individuals who channel widespread alienation and frustration by claiming to speak for “the people” against forces that are said to be destroying cherished ways of life. “The people” in Western societies are, for the most part, implicitly understood to be white and Christian, blurring the line between race and religion.

In particular, attacks on Muslims are a hallmark of contemporary populism. There are versions of left-wing populism – as in Venezuela or Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, where racism is not an ingredient – but they are less relevant to the Australian experience.

The essential difference between populism and democracy is that democracy entails more than majority rule. Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning of the “tyranny of the majority” remains relevant today. The protection of political freedoms and minority rights is an essential test of democracy.

Majority support for slavery, racial discrimination or denial of equal rights to women does not make any of these things democratic. Populism feeds on a heady dose of philosophical nihilism, which sometimes seems to echo critiques of globalisation made by the left.

In an article on the rise of an alt-right movement straddling the Atlantic, Jane Goodall quotes one of its central figures, Reza Jorjani. She said:

Tensions and disagreements were to be anticipated.

But they were clear in what they stood united against:

The alternative right unequivocally rejects liberal democracy.

Populism and identity politics

Populist leaders not only attack the institutions of global capital, they also disregard the checks and balances of institutional democracy.

Vladimir Putin’s imprisonment of opponents, Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, Viktor Orbán’s attacks on immigrants and NGOs, Nicolás Maduro’s recourse to military courts and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s assaults on journalists and secular opponents are all justified in the name of protecting “the people”, and are legitimised by popular election.

This creates a dichotomy between “the people” and the (largely unspecified) “ruling elites”, despite the reality that populist leaders themselves are clearly part of the latter.

No matter. Their ability to channel anger and frustration at the status quo, and to promise easy solutions, seemingly grants them immunity from being attacked for their own exploitation of the system. Trump, Putin and Erdoğan are all notable for the extent to which they have profited personally from their control of state institutions.

As national economies are increasingly subject to the flows of international capital, the ability of governments to control them declines. This has resulted in increased economic inequality in wealthy countries and led to greater voter dissatisfaction – and a search for political scapegoats. An emphasis on nationalism is one manifestation of this search.

Nationalism is often assumed to emerge spontaneously from “the people” rather than, as is often the case, to have been carefully cultivated by political leaders. Commentators have stressed hostility to immigrants in fuelling the vote for Brexit in England (though not all of Britain) last year. But had several leading Tories, above all Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, not campaigned for withdrawal, it is unlikely that the referendum would have ended as it did.

While Trump won over a considerable number of white working-class Americans, his victory was equally due to the support of traditional Republican elites. And his administration is staffed by wealthy conservatives rather than the working men and women to whom his rhetoric appealed.

Such populists both denigrate the state and turn to it to repress those they see as “enemies of the people” – the phrase used by Trump against the media. They distrust the intermediaries of liberal democracy – parties, pressure groups, media – preferring to resort to rallies and direct contact between leaders and mass audiences. They scorn the idea that politics is an elaborate system of building consensus through persuasion and mutual respect.

Hungary, whose leader proclaims he seeks an “illiberal democracy”, has perhaps the best current example of this form of populism in power: an elected government is attacking independent media and NGOs, while whipping up support through systematic scapegoating of refugees and, to a lesser extent, Jews and homosexuals.

Responding to a question about gay rights, Orbán summed up the language of contemporary populism more eloquently than either Trump or Pauline Hanson ever could:

Tolerance, however, does not mean that we would apply the same rules for people whose lifestyle is different from our own. We differentiate between them and us.

Populist attacks on “political correctness” have become shorthand for resentment against a whole set of social changes that unsettle people who feel what was once taken for granted is now under attack.

Trump constantly invoked the idea of political correctness gone mad in his campaign. And his victory was based on the collapse of old-style blue-collar jobs, and on Hillary Clinton’s failure to win over the educated white Republican women whom she assumed could not abide Trump, but who disliked her more.

In both the Trump and the Brexit vote, there was a deep undercurrent of racial resentment that was expressed through attacks on “political correctness”. But this was deeply entangled with basic economic concerns.

In the aftermath of Trump’s win, some commentators claimed the Democrats had become a party of special interests, unable to speak to the majority. One of Clinton’s supporters, historian Mark Lilla, wrote:

Some years ago I was invited to a union convention in Florida to speak on a panel about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech of 1941. The hall was full of representatives from local chapters – men, women, blacks, whites, Latinos.

As I looked out into the crowd, and saw the array of different faces, I was struck by how focused they were on what they shared. And listening to Roosevelt’s stirring voice as he invoked the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear – freedoms that Roosevelt demanded for ‘everyone in the world’ – I was reminded of what the real foundations of modern American liberalism are.

Lilla is only half-right. When Roosevelt made his demands they effectively excluded more than half the population: African, Latino and Native Americans, homosexuals – even women were in part excluded from the freedoms of the New Deal.

Too often, attacks on political correctness and identity politics assume a world in which rights and freedoms are equally available to all. In reality it is those who experience discrimination and disadvantage who most need to assert their identity.

Lamenting what he sees as a decline in Christian-based values, Kelly wrote recently that:

Politics is intruding into private and family life. Value judgements are being made in a way inconceivable two decades ago.

But to argue this is to overlook the ways in which value judgements and state power have always shaped “private and family life” – abortion, adoption, adultery – and to overlook the position of privilege from which so much of the denunciation of identity politics stems. The women’s and gay movements emerged precisely because of the need to struggle against state-supported discrimination.

Identity politics can be both individual and collective. We assert ourselves – as women, as Indigenous, as queer – to emphasise both our particularities and our sense of belonging.

In so doing, identity politics implicitly breaks with the Enlightenment tradition of claiming us all as equal citizens committed to liberté, égalité, fraternité (though, in practice, the universal citizen of Enlightenment thought was a white male with property).

Asserting difference through the creation of social movements based on specific identities of race, language, gender and sexuality was a necessary step toward expanding citizenship to become genuinely universal and not, as social conservatives argue, a retreat from these values.

Yes, there are versions of identity politics that assert difference to justify prejudice and persecution. But that does not deny the need to build a sense of community and self-acceptance among people who are not fully included in dominant power structures.

In the contemporary world, the most obvious examples of the identity politics of hate come from extreme white nationalist groups, who claim an identity that is defined by superiority to all others.

It is ironic that many of the attacks on “identity politics” come from people who wish to privilege another form of identity – namely, the national. To assert “Australian values” is, after all, to declare a particular form of identity that carries with it specific entitlements.

Nationalism has been the model for certain forms of identity politics, and contains the same tensions between liberatory and repressive possibilities. Arguments for “national identity” too quickly become arguments for exclusion, with unpopular views denounced as unpatriotic. Tony Abbott wrote of attending an Anzac Day dawn service at which:

… the padre denounced political correctness as shutting the mouth, twisting the mind and warping the soul.

But is the demand to adhere to “Australian”, as distinct from universal, values not just another form of political correctness?

It’s worth recalling American critical theorist Nancy Fraser’s assertion that both redistribution and recognition are essential for a just polity. Equality of access and opportunity depends upon both redistributive policies and a genuine acceptance of diversity.

Perhaps a third category needs to be added to Fraser’s terms: sustainability. The dismal failure to control carbon emissions over the past decade illustrates just how problematic this dimension has become.

Fraser argues that “struggles for recognition [can] be integrated with struggles for redistribution”, rather than portrayed as single-issue demands which have no bearing on economic structures.

As “identity politics” becomes increasingly understood as the politics of victimhood rather than empowerment, it is essential to remember that no one movement has a single identity, nor can it achieve liberation without larger social and political change.

The enthusiastic support of many corporations for same-sex marriage is a case study of embracing equality through recognition while failing to discuss the inequities of distribution or to think globally.

Qantas might well parade its support for marriage equality in Australia. But this does not prevent its close alliance with Emirates, the official airline of a state that criminalises homosexuality, nor does it guarantee decent conditions for all its employees.

The current language of “equality” centres almost entirely on civic and political rights, not on social and economic equality. In human rights language, these are first- and second-generation rights. To people struggling to survive in a rapidly changing economy, this emphasis on “rights” can sound dismissive and elitist – one of the standard complaints about identity politics.

We need a politics of shared values rather than one based on separate identities. To speak personally: I am deeply committed to a struggle for queer rights. But that does not mean I feel a political bond with the many right-wing homosexuals who support groups such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom.

The danger, as Fraser points out, is that:

… struggles for recognition simultaneously displace struggles for economic justice and promote repressive forms of communitarianism.

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is known for his attacks on immigrants and NGOs. Reuters/Bernadett Szabo

What populism means for political parties

It has become commonplace to claim that the collapse of “rusted-on” support for the major political parties is due to a new form of cultural politics, pitting inner-city cosmopolitan “elites” against rural and outer suburbanites.

Liberal assistant minister Angus Taylor reportedly claims that cultural identity and political correctness are can explain Trump, Brexit and Hanson’s resurgence:

Political correctness, above all, is the thing I hear from people.

This is a neat rhetorical device to avoid the role of growing inequality and resentment at rapid social change that the economic policies of his government do little to moderate.

In a similar vein, the columnists of the Murdoch press are obsessed with questions such as Safe Schools, same-sex marriage and hate speech, while insisting that most voters have little interest in these issues.

Reflecting on the 2016 federal election, former Liberal Party leader John Hewson wrote:

The whole political process over the past several decades has been an unsavoury race to the bottom, delivering little real/effective government … The last election … clearly revealed voters’ dissatisfaction.

In his judicious Quarterly Essay on Hanson, David Marr quotes political scientist Ian McAllister as saying that respect for the political class has fallen to its lowest level in recent history.

It is not surprising, nor necessarily troubling, that party loyalties are declining. The development of a multi-party system is not itself evidence of populism. The largest minor party in Australia remains the Greens, which, despite the fulminations of the Murdoch press, is committed to parliamentary processes and does not meet most definitions of populism.

When she governed with their support, Julia Gillard faced far more problems from within her own ranks – Kevin Rudd, Craig Thomson – than she did from the Greens.

Our political institutions are products of the 19th century. Our major parties were shaped in the 20th. But Australia today is a very different country, largely because of globalisation.

The opening up of the economy to global pressures, and a subsequent change in its nature, has meant greater affluence but also greater inequality. In the past three decades, the manufacturing industry has declined and whole communities have been destroyed as factories and assembly plants have given way to apartment blocks and shopping malls.

The mining boom created a sudden surge of wealth in some areas, but much of that growth has slowed. And while some new jobs have been created in the meantime, they are more dependent on educational qualifications.

With these shifts has come a decline in blue-collar trade unions, and a rise in self-employment. In the past two decades union membership has fallen from about 40% of the workforce to well under 20%.

Meanwhile, the rapid development of the virtual economy and our dependence on electronic media continue to erode traditional jobs and change the very ways in which we organise our lives. Traditional divides between “work” and “leisure” are disappearing with the ability to remain hooked into the internet wherever we are.

Australia today has 10 million more people than it did in 1980 – a staggering growth that has made house prices and urban congestion major political issues in the capital cities.

Our population has become much more diverse, with a very high proportion having been born overseas. The subsequent emphasis upon diversity – not only of race and ethnicity, but also of sexuality and gender – is often the basis for bitter political divisions.

The collective impact of these changes has been to undermine the assumptions of mainstream politics, which are based upon structures and institutions that have little changed during the past century. Relatively few people retain deep loyalties to the major parties, which explains the rapid turnover in governments and the attraction of minor parties.

There are currently nine members of the Senate who are from parties named after individuals: Hanson, Nick Xenophon, Jacqui Lambie, Derryn Hinch. When I asked Hinch in a pre-election radio interview about the potential hubris of an eponymous party name he agreed, but said that were he to campaign for the Justice Party he’d poll far fewer votes.

This being said, it is easy to overstate the decline of votes for the major parties. One assumes most voters have some understanding of preferential voting, and are using their first preference to send a signal while still making an effective choice between a Coalition and a Labor government. Minor parties poll better for the Senate than the lower house because voters understand it is the latter that determines which party will form government.

More troubling is the hollowing out of the major parties, as fewer people join and participate, leaving them open to manipulation and branch-stacking. Approximately 100,000 people “belong” to political parties in Australia. In most cases this means no more than paper membership, often to support a particular faction or candidate.

Labor Party membership has increased since the decision in 2013 to give members a role in the choice of the parliamentary leader. Currently, it’s at more than 50,000 paid-up members. The Liberals have roughly 40,000, while the Greens membership is about 10,000.

Exact figures are very hard to find, but none of Australia’s political parties have a membership as large as that of the most popular AFL teams.

Increasingly, politicians are those who have worked their way up through the party machinery, often with little experience or knowledge outside their immediate political base. This in turn creates greater cynicism among voters, who are exposed to stories of corruption, self-interest and endless point-scoring.

The tendency of politicians on both sides to constantly denigrate and belittle their opponents is a major contributor to the corrosion of liberal democracy.

Growing cynicism about politics is also, in part, the product of neoliberal attacks on the state, which depict governments as disconnected from real lives and bent on taking away our money and our freedoms.

The past few decades have seen a systematic delegitimisation of the idea that the state exists to provide collectively what we cannot provide as individuals. This leads to declining commitment from more and more people to maintaining public services, and increases inequality.

For instance, as more parents want private schooling for their kids, the political and financial support available to the state system decreases, which widens the gap between school outcomes and, in turn, employment opportunities.

And the more universities position themselves as corporate enterprises, the more state support for higher education dwindles, despite political rhetoric about the need for greater knowledge and innovation.

The neoliberal economy has broken down many of the thick networks of voluntary associations that were fundamental to a liberal political culture. Not only have unions declined, so too have middle-class business and social associations that often provided the base for the conservative parties.

As church attendance has decreased, the influence of fundamentalist minorities across all faiths has increased, which is closely associated with the rightward shifts within the Liberal Party.

Yes, new forms of social and political networking have flourished this century, but they are often realised by little more than a Facebook like or signing an electronic petition. It’s unwise to over-romanticise the associative life of an earlier period, but there is a real difference between face-to-face interaction and “electronic activism”.

As the disciplines of meeting procedures and building acceptable compromises are sacrificed to instant tweets and ticks, politics becomes indistinguishable from other aspects of consumerism.

In a similar effect, where online media demand instantaneous coverage, commentary has come to replace genuine reporting – and with this comes a decline of civility in public debates.

2GB broadcaster Alan Jones’ appalling comments on Gillard (that her father “died of shame”) followed a tendency in the media to address her as “Ju-liar”, rather than prime minister.

However, the left can be equally guilty of shutting out debate – about gay marriage, transgenderism, Islam – by branding anyone who expresses unease as bigots.

Instead of rational discussion, the media feed on crude polarisation. This is the basic presumption of the ABC’s Q&A program, which seeks out guests with dramatically opposing views, regardless of how absurd they will appear.

Too often, there is a lack of generosity from those seeking change who misread unease with the pace of change as bigotry and hostility. Where the left sees sexism, racism and homophobia, the right yells that its freedom of speech has been infringed upon. As writer Christos Tsiolkas noted:

There is a symbiosis that links the outraged liberal to the furious conservative, the radical activist to the enraged reactionary. It is the subtext that seems to define the contemporary moment: my rage is grievous and justifiable, and yours is ignorant and selfish.

Nine members of the Senate are from parties named after individuals, including Pauline Hanson. AAP/Lukas Coch

What for Australia?

Liberal democracy in Australia, with its particular federalist inflections – a powerful upper house, a complex set of electoral systems, compulsory voting and tight party discipline – has manifold imperfections, but it also has certain strengths worth defending.

That governments are held accountable through free and fair elections and that freedom of speech and association are protected are important assumptions, even when there are clear failures to meet them.

Equally important are the institutional arrangements that ensure the workings of the system. It’s unprovable, but if the US had an independent electoral commission to set electoral boundaries and/or compulsory and preferential voting, the results of both the 2000 and the 2016 presidential elections might have been very different.

Despite its imperfections, Australia’s electoral systems mean a closer fit between voters’ intent and electoral outcomes than is true in other English-speaking democracies – with the exception of New Zealand, where a system of proportional representation has enabled good government since its adoption in 1996.

Interestingly, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Australia in the highest sector for democracy, above both the US and the UK.

It’s important both to defend the institutions of liberal democracy and to question how they might be improved. For some theorists, the possibilities of the electronic age and the decline in traditional party membership open up a path towards forms of more direct democracy.

The political philosopher Simon Tormey has written of the increasing tendency to bypass representative institutions in favour of direct action of various sorts:

The perception, increasingly, is that citizens don’t need representatives and politicians to make themselves heard or to act. They can do it for themselves in the expectation that others will want to join in or support their efforts …

There are interesting moments of “deliberative democracy” being used to help resolve contentious issues by bringing together groups of interested citizens, such as South Australia’s appointment of “citizens’ juries” to consider the question of nuclear waste.

But, at some point, direct action needs to be translated into legislative and bureaucratic responses. And while new forms of consultation and participation might supplement representative government, they are unlikely to replace it.

When the federal government sought to resolve same-sex marriage through a referendum there was strong opposition from many of those most affected, who insisted on the primacy of parliament.

In the aftermath of the student and anti-war movements of the 1960s (more accurately the early 1970s), several radicals turned their attention to the “long slow march through institutions”. Tom Hayden, one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement, became a state legislator. Danny Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the May 1968 Paris movement, became a European parliamentarian.

What Donald Horne termed “the time of hope” in Australia (1966–72) was a period marked both by the emergence of the new left and new social movements and by Gough Whitlam’s reshaping of the Labor Party to offer a real alternative to the legacy of the Menzies decades.

The anti-Vietnam movement included several leading figures within the Labor Party, which came to power with a commitment to ideals that had been inspired by the anti-war, Indigenous, feminist and environmental movements.

In the following decade, Bob Brown went from leading protests against environmental destruction to become the leader of the Greens, and many of his parliamentary colleagues have followed similar trajectories.

We need strong social movements to keep pressure on governments, but we also need good people in government to develop and enact progressive policies. Many of my friends on the left have lost faith in the Labor Party, viewing it as corrupt and unable to either take on big business interests or defend human rights unambiguously.

Yet when I attended Labor’s national conference in 2015, I was struck by the size and energy of two groups: the environmental activists and the refugee advocates. Their presence in the party reminds us that a Labor government is pressured from the left, a Coalition government from the right.

The rise of populism has created new rifts in the body politic – sometimes, as in France, displacing the major parties; sometimes, as in the case of Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, unseating dominant party elites.

Neither has happened in Australia. My hunch is that the dominance of the existing major parties will persist in the medium term, while the Greens seem unlikely to break through and become much more than a minor party with limited reach. The best prospect for countering a toxic mix of bigotry and rising inequality is a Labor government constantly pressured from “the left” by the Greens and significant social movements.

But nothing is inevitable in politics. Faced with the potential growth of populist right-wing parties – whether led by Hanson, Cory Bernardi, or someone yet to emerge – mainstream politicians need to recognise the cynicism of the electorate, and rebuild trust in the political system.

In a recent Lowy Institute poll, nearly one-quarter of Australians said that “in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”. It’s not clear what respondents understand by either “non-democratic” or “some circumstances”. But I suspect the response suggests ignorance rather than antipathy.

Despite well-meaning attempts to introduce civics into school curricula, there is a disconnect between the minority who follow politics in detail and the bulk of people who dutifully turn up to vote (the latter being an important protection against the triumph of demagoguery).

Populists thrive on a mix of passion and ignorance, and they need to be countered on both levels. The deep distrust between those who seek to effect change through mainstream institutions and those who work outside of them (through movements such as GetUp!) needs to be resolved, as both are important.

If politics is the art of the possible then what is possible is itself determined by political choices, and requires debate and coalition building. The greatest challenge for our political leaders is to demonstrate that politics matters, that while in some respects the state might take away from individuals, when managed properly it can ensure a richer life for us all.

There’s a New Yorker cartoon, published just after Trump’s inauguration, of two corporate dudes in an office, one of whom says:

Part of me is going to miss liberal democracy.

Australia is not yet at that point. Our challenge is to simultaneously strengthen the institutions of democracy and re-imagine the role of government in a rapidly changing global environment.


Thanks to Robert Manne and Sean Scalmer for their comments in writing this essay.

You can read other essays from Griffith Review’s latest edition here.