12 November 2016
by Dennis Glover
Memo to Labor: What just happened to the US Democrats could happen to you. If you think I’m exaggerating, think again.
For everyone from the centre to the left, Wednesday’s election coverage was pure torture, but there was one small highlight: watching political scientist Thomas Frank venting his rage against a Democratic machine that had delivered its nomination to a candidate its traditional working class base couldn’t stand. How could they have been so stupid?
Frank has been musing on this question for the last decade and a half, and his conclusion is compelling: the Democrats lost the working class because they betrayed it, replacing their party’s traditional social-democratic liberalism with a “liberalism of the rich” that champions the very forces steadily destroying ordinary people’s standard of living.
The Democrats, he argues, have a new base now: the multi-millionaires of Silicon Valley, and a new faith that what’s good for shareholders is ultimately good for everyone.
Under Obama and the Clintons, Democrats have connived with Republicans to export blue-collar jobs through free trade agreements, turning once-prosperous industrial communities into rust belts – failed communities where millions live in working poverty and die younger than their parents – all while a complacent party machine has busied itself doling out patronage to a clique of liberal-minded but severely out of touch party insiders and their children.
The damage this has wrought to the Democratic Party is easily measured statistically and electorally, but its real damage is psychological. In short, the Democrats don’t know who they are anymore. As a result of their endless proselytising for productivity, innovation and free trade, ways of life that have existed for generations have been wiped out, leaving thousands of communities – once full of valued, prosperous and proud Democratic voters – feeling devalued, bewildered and angry. Anyone who has watched Louis Theroux’s travels through the destroyed cities of the American mid-West will grasp what has happened and why it is a moral abomination.
By aiding in the destruction of its base in this way, the Democratic Party has dug its own grave. The idiots!
Could something similar happen here? Pauline Hanson certainly thinks so, which is why she was toasting Donald Trump’s victory in front of parliament house yesterday. Brexit, Trump, maybe Le Pen … what’s next?
The danger signs are everywhere. As those who have bothered to look will tell you, we have our own emerging rust belts, where the factories are closing, where well-paid jobs are being replaced by robots, where the streetscapes are broken, where the courts are full of people on methamphetamines and where the future for many young people is a dead-end, exploited 7Eleven-type job of the sort that Adele Ferguson has been so brilliantly uncovering in the pages of The Age for the past year.
Last year I wrote a book about one of these places – Doveton in Melbourne’s south east, where the car and canning plants started closing a generation ago. Our Detroit. Some decent Labor frontbenchers got the importance of my story, but do you think I could get the suburb’s own parliamentary representatives to take an interest in the suburb’s plight? Not one bit. In fact, I encountered hostility because I’d highlighted an embarrassing problem that has occurred on their watch, while their efforts were focused on factionalism and sundry right-wing policy obsessions.
Economic policies adopted without regard to their social consequences, factories flattened, communities forgotten, generations-long ways of working and living destroyed, a political base ignored, a once proudly social democratic party losing its way, wasting its energies on patronage, hobbling its caucus with the sorts of people its own voters detest, an insurgent party arising to speak for the dispossessed and steal its base … Does any of this sound familiar?