Just as economists seem to be talking about nothing else but Thomas Piketty and inequality these days, it seems to me in reading political blogs that little else is more important in politics right now than the ongoing debate between populism and elitism. Yes, even more important than discussion of war in Iraq, because arguably that debate is just another aspect of the ongoing backlash against the elites.
The reaction of the American left to the American right's utterly predictable hawkishness on Iraq is to tell those wrongheads to shut up, as summed up by Paul Waldman and quoted favourably across the left poliblogosphere over there last week. After 9/11, political elites in the west enjoyed the effects of populism as they were able to channel the public's unfocused anger into support for a war on an unrelated target. George W. Bush is now universally reviled as the worst president in that country's history, which means the hawk agenda of the elites who benefited from his largesse is now similarly repudiated in the electorate.
For its part, the right these days seems to be trying to turn "populist" into an insulting epithet, much the same way as they have tried to tarnish the word "liberal". (They lost that one, as opinions inexorably turned in favour of liberalism on issues like gay marriage and abortion.) This is a reversal from a few years ago when populism benefited Dubbya, or in Australia when it lifted Pauline Hanson from obscurity into flag-draped power. In the age of Piketty where elites have over-reached, the right now condemns populism because the people actually want liberalism.
In democracies, it is not sustainable for a major party to attack populism over the long term. Will the right rediscover a blend of populism and ideology that will rescue their terrible poll numbers? While there is always a stream low level stories of racism and other right-wing populist techniques which supply the US leftist blogs with fresh meat on a regular basis, there is no discernible Hansonism in Australia at the moment, and that is because Clive Palmer seems to be going down a different road, as in this op-ed in the Fairfax papers yesterday.
How long will it be until this country gets a government that cares about its people? To serve in Parliament and to serve your fellow citizens should be the highest calling in our society. But that's not how the nation views those in Canberra. Rightly so.
Australia needs to project what we might become. The problems we have in this country have been made by Australians and they can be solved by Australians.It is pure populism without much ideology, and none of the xenophobia of Hanson. The consequences of the actions he sets out here would variously disappoint both left and right - he talks a lot about raising benefits and investing in education as well as blocking direct action, but he sidesteps the question of whether he will block repeal of the carbon tax.
Palmer is still playing small ball, nevertheless. Worthy as are his stories of pensioners and war widows, there is no vision there. The ultimate implication of this approach will be that if Palmer succeeds in blocking the nastier elements of Abbott's agenda, he will lock in the Rudd/Gillard legislative legacy for a generation. Seeing as the Abbott administration passed only seven bills in its first seven months, signs are that he and his parliamentary team don't have the skills to accomplish much in the House.
The Palmer United Party is still struggling for life at the moment, and the urgency which this brings to their policy pronouncements is a stark contrast to the inertia caused by factional divisions in both major parties. Tony Abbott is playing the tired old game that John Howard played before him, but as with Bush the public have seen it all before and we're not getting fooled again. This time, we demand more adherence to reality from our political leaders, more attention paid to what is actually happening to real people in the community.