When political ‘centre’ is on the right, how far to find equality?
American political commentator Thomas Frank describes himself as having a deep pink political tinge.
His new book Listen, Liberal is a scathing attack, not on the US Republicans as you might expect, but on the Democratic Party. The Democrats have failed, in Frank’s view, to look after the interests of their core constituency. The book’s alternative title is Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?
Listen, Liberal is, according to best-selling social commentator Naomi Klein “a must read!” The Washington Post suggests: “Imagine Michael Moore with a trained brain and an intellectual conscience.” (This is interesting for the insight into the Post’s view of Michael Moore, too.)
The Democrats have deserted workers for the ‘post industrial, global economy’.
The answer to the question in the title, says Frank, is that the Democrats are no longer what we think they are.
They have fallen in love with the “professional” class, and they no longer believe in equality.
No more equality of income, no more equality of education, no more equality of class. The paradox, and the irony, is that the Democrats have become so alienated from their ‘natural’ supporters during America’s first African American presidency, and that of a man deeply imbued with the traditional Democratic virtues.
Again somewhat unexpectedly, the rot starts with Jimmy Carter, and is fully entrenched by the presidency of Bill Clinton.
It’s quite a subtle argument. The Republicans have gone on doing what they do best, representing the interests of inherited wealth and privilege, and the more conservative end of town. The Democrats, however, have quite deliberately sought a new constituency: not the forgotten worker, but the future – the ‘post industrial, global economy’.”
In Australia we still have functioning unions, but recent history shows similar path
Listen, Liberal is of course directed at the US version of the ‘liberal’, but Frank’s message resonates in Australia. We haven’t gone so far down the road of managerialism, we still have functioning unions, and – perhaps – there’s an innate Australian scepticism which holds us back from the wilder articles of faith.
We don’t have a Donald Trump, blustering about the need for business skills in government. But there’s no doubt that a similar process has been shaping Australian society: Think back to the Keating years, the fashion for deregulation and privatisation, and – did anyone mention Australian egalitarianism? – the bloated and barely credible financial rewards doled out to senior executives.
And what about nice, well-meaning, capable (and black) Barack Obama? Well, according to Frank, the Obama team, all highly qualified Ivy League professionals, simply went from bad to worse. Consensus and accommodation with Wall Street became the watchwords, as the Democrats moved even further away from being the Party of the People.
Frank was asked in an interview: would he vote for Hillary Clinton? Well, yes, he said, if he can’t vote for Bernie Sanders.
Behind the Springbok tour of 1971
So much has changed. And so much remains chillingly the same, as described in Larry Writer’s new book Pitched Battle.
“We were a scared and reactionary society,” says activist Meredith Burgmann, referring to Australia in the 1970s. In 1971, South Africa was at the height – or depth – of its apartheid period. The policy of apartheid (“Separate Development”) was maintained and reached bizarre lengths. It is pronounced, correctly and appropriately, as “apart – hate”.
In 1971, says Burgmann, the Australian media was “largely reactionary”.
In South Africa, police brutality was routine, black economic development was vestigial, and white South Africans lived a life of blinkered comfort. An important part of this comfortable lifestyle revolved around sport, particularly rugby. Even New Zealanders don’t quite share the Afrikaners passion for the Game they play in Heaven.
“We arrived in California in grey trousers and blazers, and came home in bell-bottom jeans, moccasins, beads, and had long hair.” 1971 Wallabies player
When seven young Australians, mainly from Sydney University, declined to be part of the Wallaby team chosen to play against the Springboks in 1971, it went far beyond a merely sporting boycott.
We are first introduced to Jim Boyce, who toured South Africa with the Wallabies in 1963. It was the turning point in his life, and not just because of the tries he scored. Today we would say he had become radicalised. From being a comfortable Sydney sportsman, he had become a campaigner for human rights.
Thinking differently considered eccentric and unpatriotic
By the time the Springboks were due to tour Australia in 1971, the world had moved on, and South Africa was no longer regarded so kindly. Sporting boycotts had been recognised as an effective weapon against the apartheid regime, though the seven Wallabies who opted out were still regarded by most people as eccentric, even unpatriotic.
The Vietnam Moratorium had politicised a generation of Australians. A leader of the protesting Wallabies, Anthony Abrahams, recalls a Sydney University rugby tour: “We arrived in California in grey trousers and blazers, and came home in bell-bottom jeans, moccasins, beads, and had long hair. It was a big change of life for us, and this was just before we went to South Africa.”
The book is called Pitched Battle, and that’s no exaggeration. Members of Australia’s militant Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) threw missiles, scaled fences, damaged football pitches, while members of the Campaign Against Racism in Sport (CARIS) handed out leaflets, wrote articles, and politely argued their case. CARIS included Wallaby players, which gave it a certain clout, and although there was rivalry between the two organisations, they formed a potent two-pronged attack on the establishment, notably premiers Sir Henry Bolte, Joh Bjelke Petersen, and Prime Minister William McMahon.
The sporting authorities maintained their conservative line, while on the ground the protesters faced a very violent opposition from right-wing groups such as the Fourth Reich Motorcycle Club and the Australian National Socialist Party. On the side of the angels were Bob Hawke of the ACTU, young Peter Beattie, youthful Gareth Evans, boyish Jack Waterford [later Canberra Times editor], and many thousands more.
A fascinating account of important Australian sporting and political history.