“Islam is a disease; we need to vaccinate ourselves against that.”
– Pauline Hanson, March 2017
“The Jew is a global plague.”
– Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
There, I’ve mentioned him in the same breath as Pauline Hanson: Adolf Hitler. As much as people will inevitably complain about the parallel (and clearly the strangely inarticulate One Nation leader is unlikely to get any further than emulating Hitler’s evil rhetoric), Ms Hanson rather brings this upon herself. Indeed, given the ugliness of her stupid but obviously calculated remark – which came too late for inclusion in David Marr’s excellent Quarterly Essay – it would be gutless of any writer to pass over the comparison.
The very idea of a populist politician describing a vulnerable religious minority as a virus or bacillus must surely ring alarm bells. Anyone who reads Volker Ullrich’s extraordinary new 800-page biography of Hitler will be left in no doubt as to what the essence of that alarum is: the politics of the 1930s, over which Hitler triumphed by exploiting racism, is in danger of returning – unless we fight it with courage and intelligence.
This warning to us from Europe has been getting louder for some time. Five years ago, the satirical German novelist Timur Vermes shocked Germany with his bestselling Look Who’s Back. The premise was simple but brilliant – a petrol-soaked Adolf Hitler wakes up in Berlin in 2011 to find a strangely familiar world: armies of the unemployed, silent anger among the people, a religious minority to blame and a dissatisfaction with the prevailing circumstances that reminds him of 1930. Add the modern phenomenon of political apathy, this reborn Hitler says, and “conditions were absolutely perfect for me.” The reawakened Hitler is taken as an impersonator of uncanny physical resemblance and method-acting genius by a shallow media industry obsessed with celebrity; his racialist and anti-Bolshevist tirades are mistaken by the left and the right alike for subtle irony and go viral on “U-Tube”; he is given his own cable television talk-show, filmed in a purpose-built studio modelled after the Wolf’s Lair; he is offered a lucrative book deal by a leading publisher; and eventually all the mainstream political parties approach him for endorsement. He rejects them, of course – they’re all washed up – and decides instead to start his own party, complete with retro 1930s merchandising that includes the slogan: “It wasn’t all bad.” He feels he’s been given a second chance. History, as Marx famously said, always repeats: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, and no Australian could read Vermes’s novel without thinking about Dancing with the Stars or Channel 7’s Sunrise and seeing just a little bit of their own country in 2017.
The strength of Marr’s The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race is those last five words of its subtitle. No matter how much political tacticians and strategists may want to ignore the centrality of race to One Nation, Marr won’t let them. He deftly allows them to skewer themselves with their admission that while they know Hanson’s appeal is racist, they’re only going to talk about economic insecurity. Here, for instance, is a Labor spokesperson, quoted by Marr:
We can only address this through dealing with their economic insecurities … If you say to someone, “Vote for us because that woman is a racist,” we’d be classified as elites. We’ll get killed electorally. If all we do is try to address the cultural issues, we’ll lose.
While one can appreciate the tactical nature of this line of thought (and there is a need for tough political tactics, obviously), it does involve a degree of intellectual dishonesty and moral evasion that betrays political weakness. Marr responds: “Of course, the big parties could try doing both: confront the racism and deal with the economic issues. But that isn’t happening.” And this seems to me the essential issue: why aren’t the major parties showing a little more directness and courage in combatting Hanson’s racism? Can it only be a lack of political ability? After all, in answer to Marr’s plea, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating would have managed to walk and chew gum at the same time.
I suspect part of the reason lies in a superficially appealing but inadequate idea that has conquered the political left in recent times: the notion that it can outplay the right with a populist message of its own built around exploiting economic grievances. Left circles at present are abuzz with plans to create a progressive populist project that mimics Bernie Sanders’ (failed) primary campaign – one that is both economically egalitarian and socially liberal. Part of me wants to agree – every left-winger wants to believe that all grievances are ultimately economic: take away economic misery and you take away the impulses to intolerance – but deeper down something says no.
It isn’t just because the left will likely get it wrong. Trapped as they are in their academic and managerial mindsets, one can imagine the sort of slogan these progressive populists would produce – something like: “For a Gini coefficient closer to zero than to one.” Revolts from below generally don’t originate in seminar rooms. The problem is that this sort of thing misunderstands the nature of populism: populism isn’t nice or about promoting mutual tolerance and respect; indeed, “progressive populism” (taken as socially liberal as well as economically egalitarian) seems a contradiction in terms. Populism is about unleashing passions and hatred and blame. As the left discovered in the 1920s and 1930s, you can’t out-populist people like Hitler: they have the better formula for stoking resentment and will beat you every time. If there is a lesson from the 1930s – and Volker Ullrich is brilliant on this – it’s that you have to be strong in standing up to people like Hanson: never give them an even break or a second chance, never think you can do deals with them or control them or co-opt part of their program, never think that they are getting “more sophisticated” and it is therefore safe to deal with them as equals, as Arthur Sinodinos recently did. In other words, you need to show moral leadership in dealing with the likes of Hanson, and if you don’t they will exploit every weakness to steal your votes. They’re not here to play a supporting role; they’re here to replace you.
The left’s real Hanson problem is hinted at in another piece of evidence in Marr’s essay, provided by social researcher Rebecca Huntley:
The general conversation from the community is that politicians seem like a kind of a club: they all know each other, they all went to university. They see them as highly educated, highly connected, an elite they have never been part of.
Here’s Labor’s problem neatly stated: it’s not a lack of a populist economic message – which its Stiglitz-reading young economists seldom cease talking about – but a lack of connection with the working class and less-educated lower-middle class to whom Hanson appeals most strongly. Because its connection with such voters is increasingly tenuous, and because its approach to economics is largely theoretical, Labor can’t really understand and act on the nostalgia Hanson’s voters have for the world that the Hawke–Keating years of economic reform helped sweep away. No one can invent a time machine to take us back to that era, but Labor can’t seem to project that it understands what might have been lost and why for such people the past has an enduring appeal. The party doesn’t seem to understand the basic propositions that when things change they don’t always improve for everyone, that the losers can’t be waved off as unfortunate collateral damage, and that rising GDP on its own can’t fill the holes opened up in people’s lives by decades of accelerating economic change. In other words, it doesn’t understand the fundamental human appeal of nostalgia: that not everything about the past was bad – a lot, yes, but not everything. One suspects that until Labor can re-establish some psychological connection with its traditional working-class and lower-middle-class base, it will keep losing these voters to the likes of Hanson. Marr is right that we can’t bring back the old world of tariffs and White Australia and institutionalised sexual inequalities, and nor should we – but we can try to find new ways of expressing the essence of what made the past different to today: the idea that within living memory Australia offered something for everyone, not just the young and the winners. “Progressive populism” seems to me nothing more than a cynical tactical shortcut.
One thing’s for sure: Bernie Sanders’ playbook and Joseph Stiglitz’s economics won’t provide all the answers. Like everything difficult in politics, seeing off right-wing populist challenges like Hanson’s takes a moral effort to put aside the factionalism and the infighting and the divvying up of prizes to get back to the business of listening to the people and showing strong moral leadership. After all, as Marr’s essay tells us, there’s a big vacuum there waiting to be filled.
Dennis Glover is a Labor speechwriter and the author of An Economy Is Not a Society: Winners and Losers in the New Australia. His first novel, The Last Man in Europe, will be published in 2017.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 66, The Long Goodbye.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY