The Left Must Return to its Populist Roots


The surge of Right Wing populism in the last year has shocked many in mainstream politics throughout the West . The broad Left (political parties and activists), however, should see it as part of a timely opportunity to shake up the political debate. Support has leached from the centrist mainstream to movements like Trumpism in the US, Brexit/UKIP in Britain and One Nation in Australia. This reflects a wave of anti-establishment anger throughout the West, a wave which the Left should be more adept at riding than the Right. Disillusioned people are already looking for targets for their outrage. The Left needs to point them in the right direction, away from the current scapegoats and toward the economic roots of their suffering. And this time, the Left has the momentum.

Back in the day, in many countries it was the Left that was associated with populism. It may sound strange in today's Orwellian political world, but at one time the angriest parties were the ones that represented those who had the most to be angry about - the poor. Economics was central. In the US, this changed in the 1960s and 70s with the Republicans deploying the 'Southern Strategy' to exploit the white working-class backlash against Civil Rights concessions by the government. Over decades, the Republicans successfully ensured the most emotional debates were confined to the social rather than economic realm, issues for which they could rely on populist momentum - abortion, law and order, 'family values', religion etc. These formed the ground upon which the Right dictated that political battles be fought, and the (increasingly centrist) Democrats capitulated, resigning themselves to targeting socially liberal voters. As the public looked away, the Right began dismantling its despised welfare state and helping inequality crawl out of its 1950s trough to creep back in the direction of the 18th century laissez-fair wonderland where workers' rights are a luxury.

In Australia, the rise of John Howard and Pauline Hanson in the 1990s rode a similar working-class backlash, focusing on social issues like immigration and indigenous affairs.

But today is not a repeat of the 90s. The GFC, social media alternatives to the corporate press, and the passage of time have all helped lift the fog. Many are beginning to see the connection, through an albeit hazy lens, between their crummy situation and the economic system. In the US, establishment Right-Wingers like Ted Cruz were trounced by Donald Trump. Both appealed to working-class nationalists. But while Cruz relied on time-tested talking points proclaiming social conservatism and Christian values, Trump tapped the rising anger at economic exclusion, solidifying his anti-establishment credentials with angry irreverence toward established norms of conduct and policy. In Australia, the Coalition seems increasingly willing to permit Barnaby Joyce to spout protectionist rhetoric and appeal to those left behind by globalisation.

Trump even shared some views with Bernie Sanders - the unashamed democratic socialist (within the context of Trump's trademark inconsistency). Both went after policy traditions that had been unquestioned for decades in the mainstream, such as open markets and foreign military interventionism. Trump's support base also had a demographic overlap with Bernie's: white, low-income and anti-establishment. This was reflected in numerous polls during Sanders' run revealing he was more competitive against Trump than Clinton. NBC polling showed Bernie beat Donald by 15% while Hillary only beat him by 3%. Similarly, in Australia, many voters who support One Nation and other Right Wing minor parties are working-class and anti-establishment - at one time the almost exclusive domain of Labor.

Right Wingers worldwide, while offering inadequate responses to the real economic causes of people's problems, make up for it by trumpeting more overt bigotry than mainstream sensibilities are accustomed to. Despite pro-battler rhetoric, One Nation backed welfare cuts and will likely support the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission. Such parties still wrap their arms around those shafted by the economic system and whisper to them that they should avert their gaze from the big end of town and instead, hone in on minority scapegoats. To win people back, the Left needs to harness the existing momentum, clean the public's lens, and redirect this indignation.

Trump, like Hanson, rails against 'political correctness', mainly the variety that prevents the verbal 'punching down' by those with racial, gender or other privilege, against those who have long suffered disadvantage. Left Wing parties in Australia could further their populist appeal by more forcefully rejecting 'Right Wing political correctness', something Bernie did successfully. He rejected the brand of correctness that had led to the mainstream debate being, until relatively recently, void of serious questioning of economic preferences like 'trickle-down theory', privatisation, welfare cuts, deregulation and ever-increasing tax cuts; ideological dogmas sold as objective, incontrovertible science.

In line with the public mood, the Australian national debate is finally re-focusing on inequality - which should be the Left's home turf. This is timely. While not nearly as bad as the US, our wealth and income disparities are failing to abate, and in some cases increasing. Findings show 13.3% of the population living below the after-housing poverty line, compared to 11.8% in 2003-04. This is coupled with epidemics of loneliness and mental illness, thanks partly to a hyper-selfish economy of isolated individuals and families, disconnected from a sense of community or society.

The public are craving real change and the Left should be the one to provide it. Mainstream Right parties have had a continuous stream of ideologues raging against liberal straw-men for decades. The mainstream Left, in contrast, has been starved of such passion. Perhaps a legacy of the Cold War, Left Wing parties in the West had become cowed over decades, fearfully restricting any display of zealousness to pre-defined social issues. Positive signs of change include the ALP pushing the Banks Royal Commission and highlighting that inequality is the worst in 75 years, channelling public attention in the right directions.

In dispersing a populist message, the broad Left movement have a major advantage of an extremely fired-up base, as seen with the re-politicization of thousands in the US and UK, and the massive millennial-filled rallies held by the likes of Bernie and Jeremy Corbyn. The base will likely grow as humans reconnect with their needs as social beings, wanting more from life than going to work, buying stuff and retreating into our homes. This provides an army of volunteers for the all important ground-game; something deployed effectively by the ALP at the last election.

Long-sighted leadership involves reframing the debate and forcing it to move Left, the same way the Republicans moved the whole US political debate to the Right over the last 40 years. This is how you win more than just the next election. We are at a moment of unique historical opportunity. People are sick of the version of democracy which entails watching TV and choosing between two or three almost identical robots. The laid-off factory worker in the outer suburbs is now fed-up enough to share common ground with the inner-city millennial activist - both irreversibly distrustful of the establishment. To paraphrase recent Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, the times are indeed a changin'. It's time for the Australian Left to pick up the gauntlet and demonstrate what real populism looks like. It's time to reunite the Left Wing cause with the masses whose interests it most serves.