American political commentator Thomas Frank’s Guardian editorial on Democrat censoriousness playing into the hands of right wing extremists and populist demagogues is supposed to rattle some cages, and does make some valid points about left elitism driving right extremism, even in an Australian context.
Frank was the founding editor of The Baffler, describing itself as a magazine of ‘left-wing political criticism, cultural analysis, short stories, poems and art’. Frank was a college Republican converted to left politics who describes himself as a left wing populist and publicly supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020.
His contention is that Democrats in the USA have been clueless in first embracing the economically unshackled opportunity for popular free speech in social media, and now seeking social media censorship to dampen the flood of vitriolic right wing sludge, fake news, and conspiracy theories that animates social media sewers instead.
More widely, he charges that Democrat elitism alienated blue collar voters, and rather than altering their elitist behaviours, they now seek to propagandize away the truth: that they do not represent the poorest white Americans.
Failures of the left?
In broad brush strokes, the same critique could be made of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and its fellow travellers. The ALP’s focus on urban intellectuals and well to do professionals has left behind millions of disgruntled unemployed and working poor, who are seen as perfect targets for the neo-fascist, populist demagoguery adopted by the Liberal Party since the 2010s.
Frank can be hard to read for Australian audiences, particularly because the use of the term ‘liberal’ in the USA, and by Frank himself, is ambiguous. In America, being a liberal means being to the left of the Republican Party, which is not hard, since that party now embraces even the most extreme right wing views.
Frank uses the term ‘liberal’ and Democrat almost interchangeably, but it’s unclear whether liberalism in that context includes socialism and Marxism.
Perhaps the better term than ‘liberal’ in an Australian context is ‘progressive’—political positions generally to the left of an imaginary, moderate centre, not shackled to ideology or unprincipled extremism, but focused on reforms aimed at egalitarianism and greater socio-economic equality.
Free speech and social media
In the American context about which Frank writes, liberalism is no longer egalitarian when it comes to free speech. In 2015, says Frank, celebrity liberal women glorified the power of social media as a ‘dazzling sunburst of liberation’ promising ‘anyone, no matter their gender, can share their story across communities, continents and computer screens. A whole new world without ceilings.’
A few years later, Frank notes, things have changed for these celebrity lefties:
Social media, we now know, is a volcano of misinformation, a non-stop wallow in hatred and lies, generated for fun and profit, and these days liberal politicians are openly pleading with social media’s corporate masters to pleez clamp a ceiling on it, to stop people from sharing their false and dangerous stories.
This dialogue hasn’t yet made it to Australian shores, where Twitter and Facebook have been less enthusiastically embraced by extremists, and it is critics of the populist right that are seen as dangerous to the interests of the governing Liberal National Coalition. We do have conspiracy theorists and American-style fascists, but their reach is no greater than the garden gnome fascisti populating Coalition ranks.
The Australian accommodation with social media has been about legally extorting them to pay local news media millions of dollars for publicizing their headlines. A move undertaken largely on behalf of the media magnate Rupert Murdoch, whose propaganda empire is failing financially for the rubbish it publishes. An old-style protectionism re-cast as innovative policy for new realities.
Australian motivations for censoring social media content are so unambitious they appear absent altogether. The same way only the public broadcaster in Australia ever faces criticism, while the commercial media can lie, mislead, and foment rebellion with hardly a raised eyebrow.
Arrogant elitism on the left?
Back to Frank. He traces Democrat discomfort with right wing extremism on social media to an inflexible elitism that strives to make it the party of urban, educated, affluent people, unwilling to embrace demographics of less well materially and intellectually endowed people, but dogmatically unable to recognize how this arrogant, sightless attitude drives that very demographic into the open arms of extremist demagogues.
For Australians there is a grotesque inversion in what Frank says about the impulse to censor free speech:
In liberal circles these days there is a palpable horror of the uncurated world, of thought spaces flourishing outside the consensus, of unauthorized voices blabbing freely in some arena where there is no moderator to whom someone might be turned in. The remedy for bad speech, we now believe, is not more speech, as per Justice Brandeis’s famous formula, but an “extremism expert” shushing the world.
What an enormous task that shushing will be! American political culture is and always has been a matter of myth and idealism and selective memory. Selling, not studying, is our peculiar national talent. Hollywood, not historians, is who writes our sacred national epics. There were liars-for-hire in this country long before Roger Stone came along. Our politics has been a bath in bullshit since forever. People pitching the dumbest of ideas prosper fantastically in this country if their ideas happen to be what the ruling class would prefer to believe.
Rewrite this to say ‘right wing circles’ instead of ‘liberal’, ‘Australian political culture’ instead of ‘American’, (take out mention of Brandeis, altogether, because Australia has no champions of free speech) ‘sports media’ instead of ‘Hollywood’, ‘Rupert Murdoch’ instead of ‘Roger Stone’, and we have an Australian perspective—from the extreme right point of view! With the suggested substitutions, Frank could have been conveying a message fabricated by Scotty from marketing, sans any of the obligatory vitriol targeting the ABC.
Frank goes on:
Consider the history: the right has enjoyed tremendous success over the last few decades, and it is true that conservatives’ capacity for hallucinatory fake-populist appeals has helped them to succeed. But that success has also happened because the Democrats, determined to make themselves the party of the affluent and the highly educated, have allowed the right to get away with it.
Substitute Democrats with ALP.
There have been countless times over the years where Democrats might have reappraised this dumb strategy and changed course. But again and again they chose not to, blaming their failure on everything but their glorious postindustrial vision. In 2016, for example, liberals chose to blame Russia for their loss rather than look in the mirror. On other occasions they assured one another that they had no problems with white blue-collar workers – until it became undeniable that they did, whereupon liberals chose to blame such people for rejecting them.
Substitute 2016 with 2019, and Russia with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
And now we cluck over a lamentable “information disorder”. The Republicans didn’t suffer the landslide defeat they deserved last November; the right is still as potent as ever; therefore Trumpist untruth is responsible for the malfunctioning public mind. Under no circumstances was it the result of the Democrats’ own lackluster performance, their refusal to reach out to the alienated millions with some kind of FDR-style vision of social solidarity.
Substitute Republicans with Coalition, last November with 2019, and FDR-style with Hawke-Keating-style (or even Whitlam-style). Trumpist untruth is as relevant to Australia as to the USA, albeit as the intended strategy of the Coalition, which seeks to maintain a ‘malfunctioning public mind’ as a strategic advantage over an opposition void of unity, vision, and vigour.
This is a party [the Democrats] that has courted professional-managerial elites for decades, and now they have succeeded in winning them over, along with most of the wealthy areas where such people live. Liberals scold and supervise like an offended ruling class because to a certain extent that’s who they are. More and more, they represent the well-credentialed people who monitor us in the workplace, and more and more do they act like it.
That’s been true, for some time, of ALP and Greens-aligned, educated, relatively affluent public servants and private sector bureaucrats (which includes quite a number of people who describe themselves as journalists).
Progressives fight only for the elites?
And herein lies the most disgraceful parallel between Frank’s vision of the USA and contemporary Australia. Self-interested censoriousness appears to be the only weapon Australian progressives can or choose to wield. Only topics that address their needs and egos deserve to be addressed. Other viewpoints are to be excoriated, or simply ignored.
Case in point: the recent scandals about rape culture, misogyny, and sexism in the workplace. Australian progressives can be forgiven for hoping this cudgel will lay low the patriarchal chauvinists in the Coalition.
Yet no one is saying what needs to be said: misogyny, in all its ugly forms, is an artifact of socio-economic inequality, to be addressed from the ground up. The recent outrage is by and about women who are already privileged: parliamentary, bureaucratic, and corporate workers. No one is talking about ten-year-old Aboriginal girls being beaten and raped in urban slums or remote camps; about migrant women being forced into subservient gender rôles; about the ceaseless domestic violence inflicted on countless girls and women who are materially and intellectually disadvantaged.
No one is considering whether less immiserated circumstances would make of many men less violent and bullying abusers of girls and women.
There is no grand vision on the left, of the FDR-style social compact Frank spoke about. Of the ‘Australia Reconstructed’ and consensus-driven models that buoyed the Hawke and Keating partnership in the 1980s. There is nothing to underpin the optimism of the ‘It’s Time’ moment pushed by Whitlam in the 1970s.
Australia’s progressives fail to address any topic that isn’t reactive, petty, and uninspiring to the majority of voters who aren’t privileged, who are likely to stay away in droves at the next election, again, from the ALP and the Greens. It’s almost as if political conflict in Australia is a staged civil war, not a real fight. A symbolic exchange of insults and rhetoric designed only to entrench and extend the privilege of the already privileged without ever improving the lives of less fortunate Australians.
In that environment, some progressives might be thought guilty of being those left-leaning observers Frank talks about, demanding intervention to support only their perspectives. And in making those demands, fuelling the rise of ever more grotesque disinformation, conspiracy theories, and extremism, justified as responses to a smug, self-serving elitism on the left.
But what about progressives horrified by an absence of state regulation to limit the damage to national interests, caused by ineffective or gleefully corrupt extremists, or by completely unprincipled mercenaries? What about progressives who might want social media to be regulated at least as tightly as conventional media, and for conventional media to be regulated much more tightly than they are presently?
Why, for example, don’t media regulations punish, by direct intervention, those media openly fomenting violent overthrow of governments not favoured by their owners? Case in point: how is Rupert Murdoch a fit and proper person to control Australian media after his American holdings openly and longitudinally supported a violent coup against the Biden government? Didn’t he do the same here already with the ‘Dictator Dan’ nonsense? Do we really have to wait until armed thugs attempt to storm Parliament House because Bolt, or Credlin, or Albrechtsen ‘told them to do it’?
Tribal skirmishes address and resolve nothing
Unfortunately, the answers to all these questions aren’t being sought in public debates at all. Mainly because public debates aren’t really public so much as skirmishes between various privileged classes, aligned to ideologically partisan tribes, which are further splintered into narcissistic ‘identity’ clans. Outcomes are inevitably restricted to political force majeure by those who can exercise it, and the increasingly primitive, brutal, gladiatorial contests, confined almost solely to marginal electorates, that we still call elections.
In Frankian terms, the failure of Australian progressives to stake out an unambiguous territory with mass appeal seems to stem from the same failing among Democrats: arrogant elitism that refuses to recognize its own weaknesses and flaws.
It is the disunity among progressives that allows the extremists on the right to succeed. It is the insistence by every one of the progressive tribes and clans that they, and only they, are right and virtuous (just the way Scotty from marketing thinks he’s virtuous for being a faux-religious hypocrite). It is the tendency to lecture others on how wrong they are, but never to explain exactly according to what yardstick or principle. It is a tendency to never offer a solution or genuine dialectic aimed at a unifying synthesis.
Progressives rightly hope that the current sense of urgency translates into a better deal for girls and women all round. But cynics might recall that reform fervour seems to stop once the upper socio-economic layers have been satisfied.
Recalling what happened with the same sex marriage moment, the symbolic moment was Qantas CEO Alan Joyce marrying his partner … and immediately returning to screwing his employees. Homophobia remains as entrenched as it ever was, and there are no plans to address it with any sense of urgency.