Two kinds of populism, but which one will win the election?

March 12, 2012

By Tim Soutphommasane

12 March 2013

In politics there’s nothing like picking a good fight to fire up one’s supporters. Treasurer Wayne Swan’s sustained attack on mining billionaires and vested interests will have given heart to Labor partisans.

The reason for this is simple. Labor’s new strategy means the battle is joined. Over the past two years Tony Abbott has dominated political debate with potent populism. Labor hasn’t been able to counter Abbott’s attacks on a ”great big new tax” and calls to ”stop the boats”. Beyond the mantra of economic reform, it has struggled to offer a political story that is distinctively Labor.

This doesn’t mean Labor can claim the moral high ground over Abbott and his demotic politics. The new battle will, after all, be one fought between two populisms: liberal conservative and social democratic.

That there can be more than one kind of populism isn’t always appreciated. There is the trap of what Isaiah Berlin called ”the Cinderella complex”. As Berlin explained, we can lapse into thinking there exists a shoe – the word ”populism” – for which somewhere there exists a foot. Like the prince always wandering about with the shoe, unsatisfied with all kinds of feet which it nearly fits, we can believe that there is a limb out there called pure populism waiting to be found.


More to the point, many wrongly believe that populism can only be reactionary in nature.

In its various forms, however, populism combines two ideas. First, a belief that the majority interest of the people is undermined by the minority interest of elites. Second, a belief that virtue resides in the people’s collective wisdom and traditions.

These elements can be detected in Abbott’s adversarial approach and Labor’s egalitarian alternative.

Since the 2010 election result of a hung parliament, Abbott has tapped into the frustrated will of the electorate and disillusionment with a Labor-Greens coalition. The Swan-led Labor version, meanwhile, takes a more cultural turn. As Swan expressed it in his essay in The Monthly, ”our egalitarian spirit is the product of our history and our national character, as well as the institutions and safeguards built up over more than a century”.

Which of these will prove more appealing?

Abbott’s version shouldn’t be underestimated. Many prematurely dismiss his politics as simply an importation of American, Tea Party-style populism. This involves a misreading of Abbott.

His success as Opposition Leader arguably reflects lessons gained from his experience as a prominent spokesman for the monarchist cause and as a conservative campaigner against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

Indeed, it is interesting to revisit some of Abbott’s writings about Hansonism during the 1990s. In 1998, Abbott argued that the distinguishing mark of the ”feral right” was its ”complete absence of optimism, total lack of any generosity of spirit and denial that politics always involves a process of give as well as take”. This could easily be a description of the tone he has adopted in public debate since 2010.

Labor, if anything, has borrowed the most from overseas developments. Swan points to the American experience of the Occupy movement (aimed at the 1 per cent) as part of his inspiration in attacking Australia’s mega-rich (the 0.1 per cent). But the greatest intellectual debt is owed to political historian Francis Fukuyama.

This year Fukuyama observed in Foreign Affairs that it was puzzling that in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, ”populism has taken primarily a right-wing form, not a left-wing one”. Any competing populism, though, would ”need to reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics and legitimate anew government as an expression of the public interest”. And ”it would have to argue forthrightly for more redistribution and present a realistic route to ending interest groups’ domination of politics”. Sound familiar?

Fukuyama highlights the fundamental challenge for democratic practitioners of populism. The test is to harness popular sentiment for a genuine politics of the common good.

In this respect, Abbott has struggled to make the transformation. His politics remain defined by his aggressive desire to wrestle government from Julia Gillard. Yet Labor may also struggle to prevent any social democratic populism from turning into mere sloganeering. Given that Labor has lost much of its capacity to persuade, even its most optimistic supporters should contain their excitement.

But if there is to be a politics of common purpose, building it on a fair go and egalitarianism makes good sense – especially for Labor.

From the time John Howard came to office, the ALP has tended to vacate the field when it comes to national values. It has yet to surmount Howard’s clever synthesis of economic aspiration and cultural nationalism.

Swan’s critics have countered with predictable cries of class warfare. The question is whether this will deter Labor from following the course set by its Treasurer.

With the cathartic purging of Kevin Rudd now complete, Labor has an opportunity to trade in technocracy for the authentic register of Australian egalitarianism. Whether it chooses to do so will reflect not only its confidence in the new populism but its confidence in itself.