The new moral politics

American progressives have spent decades struggling with the moral politics of the right. But for the Australian left a morally motivated opponent is something new. Activists who developed their campaigning skills fighting neoliberalism in the 1980s and 90s risk being out maneuvered by a movement which fuses economic aspiration with family values.

In the old days right wing politics in America was all about getting government off our backs and dropping bombs on recalcitrant third world countries. But as exciting as it must have seemed at the time, Barry Goldwater‘s economic conservatism was not a big vote winner. So after Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential campaign a new movement formed around activists like Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips and Paul Weyrich. Viguerie was frustrated by Goldwater’s lack of interest in an alliance between economic and social conservatives while Phillips wanted elite, economically minded, conservatives to reach out to ordinary social conservative voters – the kind of people who cared more about drug abuse, busing, and abortion than they did about industry regulation or capital gains taxes.

Electoral politics is rarely about changing public opinion. More often it is about finding and mobilizing already existing beliefs and values. In 1976 Jimmy Carter, a born again Christian, won the presidency with the support of evangelical Christians. After Nixon an injection of moral values into political life must have seemed a welcome change. But when Carter’s administration threatened to withdraw the tax exempt status of Christian schools the New Right had an issue they could run with. This was the issue that propelled tele-evangelist Jerry Falwell into politics.

Rather than campaigning on abstract economic or social issues, the religious right focused on government policies which social conservatives saw as directly affecting their families and communities. For parents who were struggling to keep their children safe from drugs, teenage pregnancy, and sexual predators it was a powerful message. Liberals seemed to be hell bent on eroding the authority of parents. They ridiculed values like sexual abstinence and the work ethic and did nothing to help parents protect their children from a culture industry which glorified gang violence, drug abuse, and promiscuity. Bringing up teenagers was hard enough without having to fight the federal government as well.

If Family First win the balance of power in the Australian senate don’t assume that they will simply rubber stamp the Coalition’s reform agenda. While the party is likely to be supportive of changes to the unfair dismissal laws other reforms such as the full sale of Telstra and changes to media cross-ownership laws are likely to come at cost. Expect to hear a lot more about issues like joint custody, gay marriage, covenant marriage, mandatory filtering of internet pornography, and religious vilification laws.

Groups like the Greens will find that Family First are far better organized than One Nation and far more marketable than Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party. Evangelical churches like Hillsong are professionals at marketing , financially well resourced, and form a large part of the party’s support base. If Family First can win a senate seat then they will benefit from the media’s attention. More voters will hear about what they stand for.

To many suburban parents the idea of filtering pornography, making it legal to criticize Islam, outlawing gay marriage, and preventing lesbians from accessing IVF might not sound like the end of civilization as we know it. The Greens and other progressive groups will have a hard time convincing them if all they do is ‘expose’ Family First’s links to a Christian church or label them as bigots. To many Australians Christianity doesn’t sound like a bad thing. And don’t all Australians have a right to express their views on moral issues?

Family First won’t take votes away from the Greens but they will hurt the Labor Party. Labor is likely to respond by distancing itself from the Greens and gay activists. This will lead to tension on the left. There will also be tension on the right. It is hard to see Liberal partisans like Andrew Norton taking relaxed view of his party’s further drift towards hard social conservatism. Right wing think tanks like the Centre for Independent Studies have always struggled to hold together their economic liberal and social conservative wings.

Family First have a very small constituency. The Greens have far more supporters. But it’s never just about numbers. Any minority party that holds the key to senate majority has political power. And if Family First find themselves in this position then the tiny size of their primary vote will be irrelevant. Those who support socially progressive causes such as the recognition of same sex relationships, needle exchanges, and legal abortion will need to find supporters across old partisan lines. Chewing off chunks of Labor’s constituency will not be enough.

This entry was posted in Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
10 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

don ,
neither Hillsong nor the Assemblies of god Denomination are evangelical they are pentecostal.
They have never attended the meetings!
There is a major difference which any basic research should have told you.

It is a bit like saying the Greens are the same as the democrats.

Jozef
2022 years ago

Not so long ago H.L. Mencken, in his Notes on Democracy observed:

He is a man who has lied and dissembled, and a man who has crawled. He knows the taste of boot-polish. He has suffered kicks in the tonneau of his pantaloons. He has taken orders from his superiors in knavery and he has wooed and flattered his inferiors in sense. His public life is an endless series of evasions and false pretenses. He is willing to embrace any issue, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principle, however sound, that will lose them for him. I do not describe the democratic politician at his inordinate worst; I describe him as he is encountered in the full sunshine of normalcy. He may be, on the one hand, a cross-roads idler striving to get into the State Legislature by grace of the local mortgage-sharks and evangelical clergy, or he may be, on the other, the President of the United States. It is almost an axiom that no man may make a career in politics in the Republic without stooping to such ignobility: it is as necessary as a loud voice.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Don – I don’t think the CIS has really ‘struggled to hold together their economic liberal and social conservative wings’. There is general agreement on economic liberalism regardless of views on social policy. Personally, I agree with the general argument, made especially by Barry Maley, that the rise of single parent families has been a bad thing. The cumulative empirical evidence is so strong that I would need more tolerance for cognitive dissonance than I have to think otherwise. But I also think that policy can only affect this at the margins, so I am less convinced by some of Barry’s policy suggestions.

Some libertarians are uncomfortable with any discussion of the family – in the intellectual division of labour this is regarded as stuff for conservatives, against whom libertarians have traditionally defined themselves. There has been some libertarian criticism of the CIS family program and the CIS work on religion (both progams have ended, incidentally). But I see this as healthy discussion, not a ‘struggle’.

As for the Liberal Party, I think talk of ‘further drift towards hard social conservatism’ both exaggerates what has happened and is premature about what might happen. Even parties like Families First, on the evidence so far, seem mild by both international and Australian historical standards.

saint
2022 years ago

Just a note: Hillsong supported Liberal candidate Louise Merkel, one of their members, and who won Greenway. I get the feeling that Hillsong is on one side of a bit of a power trip within AOG circles.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Saint, high mortgage rates and very strong house prices had more to do with Greenway going to the Liberals than Hillsong.

There weren’t a lot of hillsong people on the ground in assisting the campaign.

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

I have a close acquaintance who is a member of the AoG. Discussing the election result she mentioned that a few of the Labor voters in her congregation were unhappy about the House of Representatives result, but quite happy that their Family First vote in the Senate had some impact. It’s my observation then that Family First voters might actually have dual loyalties and actually take some of the vote from both major parties only in the Senate (at this stage). Heavy criticism of Family First by the Labor Party may actually backfire and drive the party’s traditional Labor voters within these congregations somewhere else.

My two cents.

Graham
2022 years ago

Yeah, I think the ALP can hardly complain, given that their Victorian branch helped FF over the line…

Martin Pike
2022 years ago

Well as the biggest post election news and yet the greatest blind spot in blog discussions is FF’s announcements that they want SORRY to stolen gens, better refugee detention conditions, and are uneasy about selling off telstra, i’d say they may have plenty to offer the left in the balance…

saint
2022 years ago

Exactly Martin, which is why one must not equate “Hillsongers” (who fielded and supported a Liberal candidate – so much that Minchin even mentioned it) with FF (broadly AOG based) – which was the point I was trying to make Homer.

However listening to the FF party chairman last night on Lateline, it confirmed to me that they they had focussed so much on the social agenda (eg adult stem cell research, child cutody etc) that they were still vague on economic items such as sale of Telstra, media ownership despite some general public statements during the campaign. And, as Tony Jones did well to bring out, even if they formulated a stance, they didn’t seem to have a set policy of senators voting in accordance with ‘official party policy’

trackback
2022 years ago

politics

The results of the federal election have depressed me. The hegemony of social conservatism continues. It is all about families.