Tribal politics on the right

Don’t miss an op-ed piece in the Canberra Times today by economist John Quiggin. He’s criticising the role of the Australian government at the recent G20 finance ministers’ meeting (and by implication at the main G20 meeting itself, scheduled for November in Brisbane), but his point is of much broader interest.

Let me start by saying that Quiggin and I start from rather different places: he is much more comfortable with a large role for government in the economy than I am, and I’m more sympathetic to austerity policies and things like privatisation. Nonetheless, I think he’s on to something with this account of the Abbott government’s motives:

But this is a government whose driving force is tribalism, not ideology. The government’s view of the world is divided into Mr Abbott’s memorable categories of ”goodies” (farmers, small businesses, the financial sector, private schools, health insurance companies) and ”baddies” (unions, environmentalists, the ABC, the public health sector, welfare beneficiaries).

Policies that help goodies, or hurt baddies, are good, and vice versa. So, the government has taken a hard line on assistance to manufacturers (punished for coddling unions), while giving a sympathetic ear to the union-busting management of Qantas and thrown as much cash as possible at drought-stricken farmers.

The “goodies vs baddies” theme builds on an article he wrote last month for New Matilda, which was even more pointed:

The list of “baddies”, which can be read off from the columns of Andrew Bolt or the diatribes of Alan Jones, is a long one: unionists, greenies, gays, feminists, Muslims, teachers (at least those in public schools), the ABC, welfare beneficiaries (except age pensioners and “self-funded” retirees) and many others.

The “goodies” by contrast are defined by default as ordinary right-thinking Australians, now a beleaguered tribe, threatened with extinction in their own country. The natural mental image of such a goodie is that of a middle aged white male, operating a small business, or perhaps an engineer or manager, with a practical knowledge of the world that enables him to see through such nonsense as multiculturalism and the theory of global warming.

On this view of the world, political issues are assessed not in terms of a coherent world view, but in terms of their symbolic significance in the culture war between goodies and baddies.

This makes the point that the picture of the “goodies” is vague and impressionistic (and to some extent changeable), while the government’s targets – the “baddies” – are highly specific. Policy is driven much more by hatreds than by affections.

But it’s not just about Australia. The above paragraphs, with only some minor changes of detail, could easily be taken for commentary about the Republican Party in the United States. Like our Liberal Party, it has fallen under the control of people with a relentlessly tribal view of politics, where what matters is not ideas or outcomes or even logic, but the drive to lash out at one’s perceived enemies.

So what’s new? Hasn’t politics always been largely tribal in nature? Well, yes and no.

Tribal loyalties, and therefore tribal animosities, are an important part of keeping political movements and political parties together, on all sides. But at the level of political leadership, one expects to find more sophisticated (or perhaps just more cynical) motivations. Leaders may be driven by ideas, or by policy goals, or by ruthless pragmatism, or some combination of all three, but we expect them to be more than tribal chiefs.

It’s certainly easy to find people on the left who show every bit as much tribalism as the Republican tea partiers or Tony Abbott and his circle. But they don’t run things; they remain at the margins, stirring up the troops but not setting direction for the whole. But on the right, as I’ve said before, extremism has been brought within the mainstream.

Proof that it doesn’t have to be this way can be found in the simple fact that neither the Republican Party nor the Liberal Party has always been like this, and that most centre-right parties in the democratic world don’t work that way. Europe is full of such parties that make decisions, right or wrong, on some view of their merits, not just on the basis of trying to upset their enemies.

Britain, as usual, straddles the American and European models. Its Conservative Party has been influenced by American-style “movement” conservatism, but it has not yet fully succumbed to the virus. While its policies towards Europe certainly seem to be driven by tribalism, in other areas, such as climate change, it remains linked to the reality-based community.

The big question for the future is whether (and how) parties that have become tribal can recover from that condition. If the answer in Australia is “no” it will not have a big impact on politics anywhere else, but the world desperately needs the Republican Party to somehow come to its senses.




13 thoughts on “Tribal politics on the right

  1. I don’t see any difference between the current governments tribalism to the previous labor government. Pretty much of a muchness, its just Quiggen is blind to his sides prejudice. And it was hardly fringe dwellers..when you had Wayne swan going after the mining magnates, Albo talking about how much he loved fighting Tories, Gillard and her hatred of blue tied men and perceived misogyny..pretty heedy stuff from the establishment left.
    Lets just all face it..politics Is tribal by definition. Left, right…doesn’t matter.


  2. Thanks Scott. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in saying that it’s not just about the rhetoric or the internal workings or the political point-scoring; when I talk about tribalism I’m referring (like Quiggin) to policy decisions being based on tribal hatreds. I just don’t see that happening on the left. The only thing you mention that’s a policy decision is the mining tax, but that came out of the Henry review, not out of Labor tribalism.


  3. That the mining tax was one of the few recommendations of the Henry Review (out of 130 odd) surely indicates a bit of bias against the miners.
    What about abolishing the ABCC for the unions? An example of that tribalism?
    The removal of the SkyNews tender for the Australian Network that was hand delivered to the ABC? (to please the News Corp haters)
    The Live cattle export ban to Indonesia? (to please the animal rights junkies)
    Taking Japan to the International Court of Justice for whaling?
    The NBN?
    Lots of examples out there. Again, I stand by my original comment.


  4. If “politics is the art of compromise,” then it is an art unknown to contemporary politicians.

    You say “So what’s new? Hasn’t politics always been largely tribal in nature? Well, yes and no.” Yet the fear of excessive partisanship in government has been around for a long time. Recall James Madison’s words in the Federalist no. 10 (which I paraphrase): A faction is a group of citizens with interests that are adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the best interests of the whole nation. Because of the nature of man, such groups (political parties) are inevitable. Moreover, in a free society, they are unavoidable, because they result from the different interests and opinions that arise from persons differently situated, especially with respect to the ownership of property. And then, we have Washington in his farewell address in 1796, warning that political factions are “likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

    Madison thought that a large enough democratic republic would contain such diversity of opinion that the effects of political factions would be buffered or muted. Unfortunately, history has proved him wrong.


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