Anti-politics 2: We need a green populism

This is the second part of a series about the Australian “anti-politics” attitude and how the green left should respond to it. Part 1 lays out evidence for the attitude and speculates on its causes. This part argues the green left needs to distance itself from political elites.

In Part 1, I concluded that Australians are increasingly dissatisfied with the political establishment (reasonably though perhaps not for the right reasons), and are consequently either disengaging from the political process (unhelpfully) or voting for candidates they perceive (in my view misguidedly) as opposing the establishment. My analysis of what is wrong with politics is more Occupy than Tea Party: it is not democratic government that is the problem, but undemocratic corporate control of government. Of the sizeable Australian political parties, I believe only the Greens can fix Australian politics, because only they seek to break the stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry causing the climate crisis. Yet ironically, voters are deserting the Greens and flocking toward coal mining billionaire Clive Palmer.

The anti-politics mood can no longer be ignored. Therefore, the Greens and we who support them need to do more to emphasize our opposition to the political establishment.

Renouncing elitism

The election result suggests the Greens’ alliance with Labor has disappointed voters on both sides (with swings against the Greens and Labor in every state, but most of all in Tasmania where the parties were in alliance at both state and federal level). Greens leader Christine Milne has sort of acknowledged this, yet continues to oversell the legacy of the alliance:

When we have no political power to deliver outcomes in the Parliament, we build our political capital and then when we go into some arrangement which delivers excellent outcomes – like the clean energy package for example – we spend some of that political capital and we have to build it up again.

The Greens are at heart a radical party yet, presumably in response to being branded uncompromising extremists by the elites, they have gotten sucked into allying themselves with a major party, portraying themselves as one of the mainstream parties, bending over backwards to demonstrate their willingness to compromise, and arrogantly downplaying the fact that their vote is declining. In doing so, they have forgotten it was their strong radical stand that drew support to them in the first place. Conversely, many from left and right who hate the Greens perceive them not as radicals but as elitists: disproportionately powerful, highly educated, middle-class, urban latte-drinkers who think themselves better than other Australians. By striving to live up to the standards of the powerful, the Greens unwittingly played into this “elitist” stereotype (as well as reinforcing those standards).

We would do well to heed these words from Jeff Sparrow:

The left can easily fall prey to bitterness, a disdain for the public who voted in such a deeply reactionary figure. That would be a terrible mistake. Denouncing ordinary Australians as fools and halfwits, as slackjawed dupes of Murdoch too dim to grasp the obvious, might make us feel better but hurling abuse at those you want to convince has never been a successful strategy, particularly in a context in which the left is all too often portrayed as a clique of self-satisfied elitists.

Instead the Greens need to capitalize on the pervasive “anti-politics” sentiment – not to advocate smaller government as the Liberals do, but to advocate greater democratic control of corporations to protect the interests of the majority. Milne is on the right track with her narrative that the Greens represent the public interest and that the major parties represent big mining corporations.

Opposition to (perceived) political elites is part of the appeal of faux-populists like Palmer. We need to paint our own anti-elitist narrative. This shouldn’t be very difficult because (unlike Liberal, Labor, and Palmer) the Greens and the climate movement really are anti-establishment. However, we should support neither the populism of the right (which is out of touch with reality because of its anti-intellectualism, and hypocritical because its lead adherents are actually elites), nor the populism of Labor (which is ultimately self-defeating because it is driven by opinion polls often infected by right-wing framing).

Our green populism must be grounded in real-world science. Science should not be seen as elitist, because it is the only true meritocracy, the only human endeavour with effective built-in mechanisms to encourage the best ideas to rise to the top and discourage dishonesty and delusion. In contrast to the right-wing populist view of scientists as untrustworthy ivory-tower geeks on the taxpayer teat, we must recast science as the brain that provides society with the information we need to understand the world and make decisions.

Our populism must be persuasive rather than reactive, doing everything we can to shift the Overton window in our direction. It must point the finger at the real elites: the fossil fuel industry, big business, the Murdoch media, and the major parties. And it must discredit the ideological core of climate change denial: neoliberalism (also known as economic liberalism, economic rationalism, or libertarianism, it is economically far-right and promotes minimal government and free markets). Notably, these elites tend to live in the city too, and for all I know may well drink latte.

Seeking majority support

Adam Bandt once quipped that the Greens’ target vote was 51% (though I’m unable to locate the quote). At this election the Greens succeeded in winning the seat of Melbourne in their own right, yet their nationwide vote was merely 8%. Conventional wisdom says the Greens will struggle to grow their vote beyond a small group of “post-materialists” comprising ~10% of the electorate. But green ideology and policies are relevant to everybody because environmental problems threaten all of us, materially.

We will need massive public support to overcome the massive profit motive and force government and businesses to change their plans. The Greens desperately need to find ways to appeal to a broader range of demographics without selling out the planet. This might be less difficult than it appears, because the major parties are in crisis and much of their remaining support is due less to their ideology than familiarity, spin, money, voter apathy, and misunderstanding of the electoral system.

Jeff Sparrow recently argued that, against expectations, Tony Abbott’s misogyny has worked in his favor because he has been able to “present anti-sexism as the preoccupation of a tiny elect, irrelevant to the problems of the many”. Both major parties have used a similar strategy in attacking climate change activists as tree-hugging extremists whose irrational obsessions are destroying jobs and raising the cost of living for ordinary Australians. What we have to do is expose the falsity of their claim to represent the majority, by showing they actually represent a small corporate elite including the fossil fuel industry that is destabilizing the global climate.

The tide may already be beginning to flow back in our direction. The Lowy Institute Poll 2013 shows that after years of decline, support for climate action is finally starting to recover. When asked to choose between three statements on the seriousness of global warming, 40% of Australians chose the strongest, up from 36% last year: “Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.”

Getting the vote out

Because voting is compulsory in Australia, our political parties focus on swaying votes from their competitors; they are not used to having to get out the vote as parties do in other countries. Until recently they’ve been able to rely on the social norm of a sense of duty to exercise our democratic rights. But the present disengagement from politics has broken down that social norm.

4.9 million Australians eligible to vote in this election did not: up to 1.4 million citizens eligible to vote were not enrolled (of which 500,000 are aged 18-24), 2.7 million enrolled voters did not turn up, and 800,000 who turned up did not cast a valid vote. There were 12.9 million valid votes, meaning the 4.9 million non-voters comprise 28% of 17.8 million citizens eligible to vote. For comparison, 5.9 million voted Liberal/National (33% of the total eligible), 4.3 million Labor (24%), 1.1 million Greens (6%), 700,000 Palmer (4%), and 900,000 for others (7%). In other words, the number of eligible voters who didn’t vote is greater than the number of Labor voters. Whichever party can give citizens a reason to vote will be at an advantage in future.

Young voters are the Greens’ natural constituency because we will disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate change and other environmental problems, yet so many of us are not even voting. The Greens need to remind young voters how important it is to vote and communicate the threat to our future posed by the policies of the major parties. Imagine a TV ad campaign showing what the climate might be like a few decades in the future if we don’t act today and concluding with a slogan along the lines of: “Your planet. Your future. Your vote.”

In Part 3, I will discuss how we should communicate about climate change and what policies we should demand.

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