Con­ser­va­tives world over lose win­ning cul­ture

Trump’s mid-term suc­cess ob­scures right-wing losses

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - GREG SHERI­DAN FOR­EIGN ED­I­TOR

What do the US mid-term elec­tions tell us about the fu­ture of con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics, and the con­ser­va­tive cul­tural move­ment, in the US, in Bri­tain, in Aus­tralia and in the West gen­er­ally? They ac­tu­ally tell us a great deal, and mostly it’s pretty bad news.

But first, make no mis­take. Th­ese re­sults were a good out­come for Don­ald Trump. Elected by the me­chan­ics of the elec­toral col­lege with three mil­lion fewer votes than Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016, and re­lent­lessly at­tacked and vil­i­fied by ev­ery­one but con­ser­va­tives ever since, Trump proved that he is nei­ther an aber­ra­tion nor an il­le­git­i­mate pres­i­dent.

This elec­tion defini­tively dis­proves the idea that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans bit­terly op­pose Trump and all his works, and that those who did vote for him are suf­fer­ing grave buyer’s re­morse. Trump na­tion­alised the elec­tions as far as pos­si­ble, made him­self the cen­tre of the de­bate and held Repub­li­can losses in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives to well within the nor­mal mid-term set­back for the party in of­fice.

Much more spec­tac­u­larly, he gained sev­eral Se­nate seats. When there is a big anti-in­cum­bency vote the party in power typ­i­cally loses Se­nate seats. All of this re­flects Trump’s tac­ti­cal agility and ef­fec­tive ag­gres­sion. It also re­flects the fact the Repub­li­cans, much more than the Lib­er­als in Aus­tralia or the Con­ser­va­tives in Bri­tain, are very good at the tech­ni­cal side of elec­toral pol­i­tics. They get out their votes, they raise money, they leave as lit­tle as pos­si­ble to chance.

Pol­i­tics is down­stream of cul­ture. The West’s po­lit­i­cal cri­sis of to­day re­flects and is caused by the an­tecedent cul­tural cri­sis

But let’s try to take a cou­ple of steps back. Trump’s tac­ti­cal ef­fec­tive­ness and the Repub­li­cans’ tech­ni­cal vir­tu­os­ity to­gether tend to con­ceal the fact that, over­all, the con­ser­va­tives are los­ing in Amer­ica and across the West.

Here is a cen­tral re­al­ity. Pol­i­tics is down­stream of cul­ture. The West’s po­lit­i­cal cri­sis of to­day re­flects and is caused by the an­tecedent cul­tural cri­sis. Whether you call them the cul­ture wars or some­thing else, con­ser­va­tives are broadly los­ing the ar­gu­ments about the mean­ing of life, the pur­pose of so­ci­ety, the man­ner of pol­i­tics and the na­ture of the good life. As they lose the cul­ture, they will surely in time lose the pol­i­tics.

That doesn’t mean the Left will be for­ever triumphant. I have of­ten quoted the in­sight of Ross Douthat: if you don’t like the re­li­gious Right, wait un­til you meet the non-re­li­gious Right. The steril­ity of the con­tem­po­rary Left’s view of the hu­man con­di­tion will lead to re­ac­tion. But that re­ac­tion may not come in the civilised tones of a Robert Men­zies or a John Howard. It may have about it the tone of voice of an an­gry mob. It will be anger un­tem­pered by grace. It is most likely to be ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist.

It is a grave mis­take to de­monise Trump, but there are traces of all this in Trump.

The old and pre­vi­ously en­dur­ing con­sen­sus of mod­ern lib­er­al­ism has bro­ken down. On the Left it has been re­placed by the febrile and in­sane, and ul­ti­mately de­struc­tive, doc­trines of post­mod­ernism. On the Right it is chal­lenged by a pre-mod­ern out­look, some of which is a re­treat to tra­di­tion, some of which is an ugly in­dul­gence of anger and an an­swer of mi­nor­ity iden­tity pol­i­tics with white iden­tity pol­i­tics.

How, specif­i­cally, do the US mid-term elec­tions bear on this? The turnout was unusu­ally high at 47 per cent, or about 110 mil­lion vot­ers. In the Se­nate, per­haps 12 mil­lion more peo­ple voted for Democrats than for Repub­li­cans. Each state has an equal num­ber of sen­a­tors — two. So Wy­oming, with fewer than 600,000, peo­ple has two sen­a­tors — just like Cal­i­for­nia, with 40 mil­lion peo­ple.

Ru­ral peo­ple are more con­ser­va­tive than city peo­ple, so the Repub­li­cans get a lot more sen­a­tors. Sim­i­larly, Democrats were de­fend­ing many more “safe” Se­nate seats than were Repub­li­cans, so nat­u­rally their vote was higher.

How­ever, in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, all 435 dis­tricts were up for elec­tion. Democrats won the pop­u­lar vote by more than 7 per cent, or nearly eight mil­lion votes. Al­though a di­rect com­par­i­son is not strictly pos­si­ble, to put it in its near­est Aus­tralian terms, that would mean a two-party-pre­ferred vote for the Democrats of 53.5 per cent against 46.5 per cent for the Repub­li­cans. In Aus­tralia, this would pro­duce a land­slide for the Democrats.

The rea­son it doesn’t in the US is be­cause state leg­is­la­tures con­trol fed­eral con­gres­sional dis­tricts and fiercely ger­ry­man­der them. But in time this

ger­ry­man­der will work its way out of the sys­tem.

Aus­tralia, like the US and many West­ern so­ci­eties, used to have a pro-ru­ral ger­ry­man­der in its elec­toral sys­tem. This meant that con­ser­va­tives were falsely re­as­sured that they still had strong ma­jor­ity sup­port while they had in fact lost it. In 1972 Gough Whit­lam’s La­bor Party won only eight seats from the Lib­eral-Na­tional coali­tion of Billy McMa­hon to se­cure a ma­jor­ity of 67 to 58, even though Whit­lam’s La­bor won 52.7 per cent of the two-party-pre­ferred vote, a re­sult that to­day would give a gov­ern­ment a land­slide.

Once Bri­tish Con­ser­va­tives en­joyed a sim­i­lar ad­van­tage. Mod­ern pol­i­tics is wip­ing those old pro-ru­ral and pro-con­ser­va­tive ger­ry­man­ders out of the sys­tem ev­ery­where. Al­though the US Se­nate, like the Aus­tralian Se­nate, will al­ways have a bias for small states, in time the Demo­cratic voter ma­jor­ity will yield Demo­cratic elec­tion vic­to­ries.

Trump re­mains en­tirely com­pet­i­tive for the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 2020, es­pe­cially if the Democrats choose a left-wing can­di­date, but three crit­i­cal mid­west states that Trump won nar­rowly in 2016, Michi­gan, Penn­syl­va­nia and Wis­con­sin, all went de­ci­sively Demo­crat. He could not pos­si­bly win re-elec­tion with­out those states.

More­over, cul­tur­ally as well as po­lit­i­cally, the Repub­li­cans dom­i­nate only one big state, Texas. They nar­rowly won Florida but it’s al­ways lineball. Cal­i­for­nia and New York are pro­foundly and per­va­sively Demo­crat. So is Illi­nois mostly. Th­ese long-term trends are very dif­fi­cult for Repub­li­cans.

In Aus­tralia, the con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment of Scott Mor­ri­son is by no means de­feated and will cer­tainly fight hard, but in truth it prob­a­bly has a 15 to 20 per cent chance of re-elec­tion. In Bri­tain, Jeremy Cor­byn, the most left­wing Labour leader in mod­ern Bri­tish his­tory, with a long record of sup­port­ing com­mu­nists and ter­ror­ists, stands on the brink of gov­ern­ment, sup­ported by an even more left-wing party in the Scot­tish Na­tion­al­ists, whose chief mis­sion is to tear apart the United King­dom.

A de­cent, con­ser­va­tive woman, Theresa May, daugh­ter of the manse, de­voutly An­gloCatholic, the pic­ture of mod­est per­sonal be­hav­iour and ir­re­proach­able de­cency in her own life, is a dead woman walk­ing, who at last year’s elec­tion trans­formed a safe ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment into a mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment for­ever tee­ter­ing on the edge of the abyss.

Why are con­ser­va­tives los­ing the big ar­gu­ments in the West?

There are struc­tural and strate­gic rea­sons, and tac­ti­cal rea­sons. Con­sider a few.

All over the West, the Left is ded­i­cated and sys­tem­atic in cap­tur­ing in­sti­tu­tions. This is es­pe­cially ev­i­dent in big uni­ver­si­ties. Con­ser­va­tive aca­demics have been all but cleaned out of hu­man­i­ties de­part­ments in main­stream uni­ver­si­ties. In Aus­tralia we have a Monty Python satire sit­u­a­tion in which the Ram­say Foun­da­tion can­not give away tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to a pub­lic univer­sity to teach a de­gree in West­ern civil­i­sa­tion, be­cause West­ern civil­i­sa­tion in the West­ern academy is con­sid­ered to be a syn­onym for geno­cide, rape, tor­ture, sex­ism, colo­nial­ism, im­pe­ri­al­ism and all the rest.

At Ox­ford Univer­sity last year, the stu­dent body at Bal­liol Col­lege banned the Chris­tian Union from par­tic­i­pat­ing in “fresh­ers’ fair” be­cause this might threaten, in­tim­i­date or “harm” stu­dents, be­cause Chris­tian­ity is as­so­ci­ated with West­ern civil­i­sa­tion, and West­ern civil­i­sa­tion is syn­ony­mous with geno­cide, rape, tor­ture, etc.

The mad­ness of the mod­ern Left is truly breath­tak­ing and com­pletely be­yond par­ody. For may years it has been left-wing dogma that chil­dren are not harmed by di­vorce, that pornog­ra­phy does not lead to sex­ual crime, that vi­o­lence on film and tele­vi­sion and so­cial me­dia does not lead to im­i­ta­tive vi­o­lence in the real world. And yet at the same time the Left holds that a Chris­tian Union stall would be in­tim­i­dat­ing to fresh­ers and that the study of Shake­speare’s Othello needs trig­ger warn­ings be­cause of the treat­ment of char­ac­ters of colour.

But while it is easy to lam­poon this mad­ness, con­ser­va­tives have found it im­pos­si­ble to counter it ef­fec­tively.

The US is bet­ter at the cre­ation of con­ser­va­tive cul­ture than Bri­tain or Aus­tralia, partly be­cause it is much more dy­namic about cre­at­ing new in­sti­tu­tions. So there are many lib­eral arts col- leges in the US that fo­cus on the great books of West­ern civil­i­sa­tion. There is just one in Aus­tralia, Campion Col­lege, al­though there are a num­ber of Protes­tant Bible col­leges and the like in the process of trans­form­ing them­selves into gen­eral higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions. They don’t have the scale to chal­lenge the Left’s cul­tural hege­mony but they will keep the torch burn­ing. Only in the US do such ini­tia­tives op­er­ate at scale.

Then there is the sheer tech­ni­cal and po­lit­i­cal in­com­pe­tence of much of con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics. Con­ser­va­tives don’t be­lieve in iden­tity pol­i­tics and they don’t be­lieve in quo­tas. This is be­cause they have a pro­found, doc­tri­nal and sound be­lief in the uni­ver­sal­ist prin­ci­ples of cit­i­zen­ship and in­deed of hu­man­ity. Con­ser­va­tives do, how­ever, be­lieve in di­ver­sity. But they are not very good — in fact they’re bloody aw­ful — at prac­tis­ing di­ver­sity.

It was per­haps the worst mis­take of the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment to be­gin its first cab­i­net with one fe­male min­is­ter. Those forces who tried valiantly to re­form the of­fen­sive pro­vi­sions of sec­tion 18C of the Ra­cial Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act were in­com­pe­tent fools not to find, re­cruit and pri­ori­tise cham­pi­ons of this re­form of Chi­nese and In­dian and other mi­nor­ity back­grounds. This is the mer­est com­mon sense.

Through­out Bri­tain, the US and Aus­tralia con­ser­va­tives are riven over im­mi­gra­tion. In truth, im­mi­gra­tion is a wholly con­ser­va­tive pol­icy. Run prop­erly, it builds up the na­tion, it de­vel­ops the econ­omy, it lifts liv­ing stan­dards, it en­hances na­tional se­cu­rity and it gives life and mean­ing to the uni­ver­sal­ism at the heart of all de­cent con­ser­vatism.

But all con­ser­va­tives are rightly op­posed to il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. That is a pop­u­lar po­si­tion, even with most im­mi­grants. But con­ser­va­tives are of­ten so clumsy in their ar­gu­ments, and some­times tac­itly want the sup­port of the gen­uinely prej­u­diced, that they seem of­ten to be ar­gu­ing against peo­ple on the ba­sis of their eth­nic­ity. Trump is par­tic­u­larly prone to this, even though op­pos­ing il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion is sound in prin­ci­ple and an elec­toral win­ner.

How­ever, this is­sue can pro­vide false hope. A Repub­li­can gover­nor of Cal­i­for­nia in the 1990s, Pete Wil­son, won one elec­tion by op­pos­ing His­panic im­mi­gra­tion. He mo­bilised white vot­ers against His­panic im­mi­gra­tion. But he also con­vinced His­pan­ics that the Repub­li­can Party was their en­emy and af­ter he left of­fice Repub­li­cans have never re­cov­ered in Cal­i­for­nia.

Good po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, of course, can af­fect cul­ture, both by en­cour­ag­ing in­sti­tu­tions and by shap­ing de­bate.

The fright­en­ing lure of white na­tion­al­ism that re­mains only a small mi­nor­ity of Trump’s sup­port is in­her­ently wrong in prin­ci­ple, against con­ser­vatism and ex­tremely dan­ger­ous for con­ser­va­tives. Be­cause older folks are much more con­ser­va­tive than younger folks, win­ning tac­ti­cal vic­to­ries by ap­peal­ing to mass wis­dom against pop­u­lar fool­ish­ness may work for a time but does not build a long-term move­ment.

But the real ele­phant in the room of con­ser­va­tive de­feat is the de­cline of re­li­gious be­lief. Bri­tain is al­ready a ma­jor­ity athe­ist na­tion. Only 15 per cent of Brits iden­tify as Angli­cans. Only 3 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds iden­tify as Angli­cans.

In the US, re­li­gious be­lief is stronger but in sim­i­lar de­cline. In 2007, 78 per cent of Amer­i­cans de­scribed them­selves as Chris­tians, while 16 per cent said they had no re­li­gious be­lief. Seven years later, 23 per cent had no re­li­gious be­lief and 70 per cent said they were Chris­tians, a rad­i­cal de­cline off a large base.

In Aus­tralia, in 2006, 64 per cent were Chris­tian and 19 per cent had no be­lief. A decade later, only 52 per cent were Chris­tian and 30 per cent had no re­li­gious be­lief.

In all three so­ci­eties, it is the older co­horts who be­lieve. Younger co­horts have a ma­jor­ity of non­be­liev­ers and they are not ac­quir­ing be­lief as they age.

Here is a bit­ter truth. In the end you can­not sus­tain a con­ser­va­tive cul­ture in the face of the col­lapse of tran­scen­dent be­lief.

None­the­less, there are plenty of signs of hope. The best strate­gic ap­proach is the Ir­ish one: sit­u­a­tion des­per­ate, ad­vance on all fronts.

Con­ser­va­tives be­lieve in di­ver­sity. But they are not very good at prac­tis­ing di­ver­sity

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