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Populism, anxiety and race

Race Race Discrimination

Keynote speech to Australian Political Studies Association conference, Melbourne

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The American political sociologist Barrington Moore once said, ‘No bourgeoisie, no democracy.’ We are now seeing that formula being put through an interesting test. It seems that in just about every Western liberal democracy right now, the preconditions of democracy are under challenge. The Western middle classes are lashing out.

At least that is one interpretation of recent events. The Trump presidency in the United States, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, Marine Le Pen and the French presidential election, yesterday’s German election – these are all signs of widespread discontent with the democratic order. The middle classes are feeling squeezed, left behind, forgotten, or betrayed by change. There is a sense that Western democratic liberalism is in retreat if not crisis. It is being challenged by a new political populism.

There has been considerable debate about populism and whether it is a good thing. While some regard populism as a pathological force – something inconsistent with a pluralistic liberal democratic order – others would contend it is good for democratic politics in giving voice to people’s interests and concerns.

To some extent, your view of the matter depends on what kind of populism you’re talking about. Many would accept that some dose of populism has its place in liberal democratic politics. One criticism of modern politics is that it is bland and sterile – that its protagonists are dominated by well-educated professionals, who share the same technocratic mindsets, and speak in a language that is remote from the lives of those they represent. Populism can be a welcome infusion into an otherwise anaemic politics.

Yet other manifestations of populism can go beyond the pale. Indeed, when we are referring to expressions of populism today, we’re not referring to benign authenticity or readjustment. Rather, we are talking about far-right versions of populism associated with nationalism, xenophobia and racism. To anyone who accepts liberal democratic standards of equality and non-discrimination – and to the idea that political debates should be governed by a sense of rationality and civility – such populism is far from welcome.

Today’s far-right politics involves populism in a number of respects. It features an appeal to ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’, one that bypasses the conventional decorum of modern politics. Populist politics resorts to ‘bad manners’ and to constant evocations of threats, crises and breakdowns. In this, contemporary far-right populism has been favoured by the shift from old media to new media, and the constant hunger for conflict and spectacle.

Populism can also be understood to involve more than just a style of politics. The populist is, to be sure, someone whose politics involves being critical of elites, but the populist is also ‘antipluralist’. Populists not only claim that they represent the people, but they claim that they alone claim to represent the people. In his recent treatment, Jan-Werner Muller argues that populists dismiss their opponents as not properly part of the people – which is another way of saying that populism always involves a form of identity politics.

Understood this way, populism involves more than just an aesthetic or even necessary disruption to liberal democratic politics. As Muller explains:

What follows from this understanding of populism as an exclusionary form of identity politics is that populism tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens. The idea of the single, homogeneous, authentic people is a fantasy … “the people” can only appeal in the plural. And it’s a dangerous fantasy, because populists do not just thrive on conflict and encourage polarisation; they also treat their political opponents as “enemies of the people” and seek to exclude them altogether.

In other words, we have every reason to be concerned about populism, at least if we are committed to liberal democracy or democratic politics.

Populism and public debate

Populism isn’t a new thing. Nor is concern about populism new. For example, in the 1960s, scholars speculated about the effects of populism in debates about decolonisation. Ernest Gellner, the scholar of nationalism, even wrote in 1967 that populism in a decolonising age was ‘a spectre haunting the world’.

The dominant strand of contemporary political populism is of a distinctive kind. It has two defining features: it is fiercely opposed to immigration and cultural diversity, and its adherents pursue an ‘anti-establishment’ strategy that attacks mainstream parties. But it reflects growing angst from Western racial and cultural majorities about the reality of multiculturalism and the advancement of minorities.

I have already pointed out some of the indicators of this populism. Let me elaborate on how we have seen it in two of the countries with which we frequently compare ourselves.

In the US, it has been clear that the election of Donald Trump as president represented a dramatic racial turn. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has christened Trump ‘the first white president’, for whom ‘whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power’.

A sense of racial grievance undoubtedly defines Trump’s America. The 2016 American National Election Studies survey found strong support for Trump among people who felt that the government treated black people better than they did white people. It also found that whites who professed to believe their race very ‘important’ to their identity had warmer feelings towards Donald Trump. A Reuters/Ipsos poll this year found that almost four out of 10 Americans agreed to some extent that white people were ‘under attack’ in the US.

The racial factor seems only to have been underlined by recent events – namely, the racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, which featured neo-Nazi, white nationalist and so-called alt-right groups marching with lit torches and brandishing firearms in the streets, and which saw one far-right agitator driving his car through a crowd of anti-racism protesters. President Trump infamously responded by suggesting there was violence on ‘many sides’.

In the UK, far-right populism was at play in the Brexit vote. While it was a vote about the UK’s membership of the European Union, it was for many who voted ‘Leave’ a de facto referendum on immigration. Consider how the Leave case was galvanised in the closing weeks of the campaign by the now notorious billboard suggesting migration was putting Britain’s borders at ‘breaking point’.

The immigration factor is confirmed by research examining the Brexit campaign. The Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College London found that media interest in immigration more than tripled during the Brexit campaign, rising faster than any other political issue. The National Centre for Social Research also found that those voting in favour of Brexit were motivated by concerns and feelings about immigration rather than by the economics of EU membership.

Here, too, the Australian political scene has exhibited signs of a similar strain. Last year’s election resulted in four One Nation candidates being elected to the Senate. One Nation’s leader, Pauline Hanson, has been prominent in voicing her opposition to immigration and Islam. She has called for a halt to immigration, for a Royal Commission into Islam, and for the banning of the burqa.

The tone of political debates more generally has also grown more populist, as I have characterised it. It is now commonplace to hear complaints about ‘political correctness’, metropolitan ‘elites’ or ‘identity politics’ silencing people, and preventing them from speaking up about contentious issues. Never mind these complaints tend to emanate from those who have no difficulty getting coverage of their opinions on television, print, radio and online.

Alongside this culture of complaint is a new crassness. It has become acceptable once again to tell people with whom you disagree ‘to go back to where they come from’, if they should happen to be from a migrant or minority ethnic background. Some who regularly enjoy media platforms now openly muse about inflicting violence on others, as media personality Prue Macsween did in entertaining a fantasy about running down commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied with her car. And righteous outrage can drown out nuance on just about any issue – as happened when journalist Stan Grant proposed that an inscription be added to the Captain Cook statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park, only for that to be depicted on one newspaper front page as akin to the Taliban toppling a religious monument.

More fundamentally, the growth of the new populism has given a certain licence. It has allowed for ideas that would have been regarded unthinkable or unacceptable to become palatable if not also popular. Many of you would be familiar with the so-called Overton Window – a window which defines the range of policies that are considered political acceptable in a given climate of public opinion. Far-right populism has allowed for some proposals to be discussed as viable ideas, when in recent years they would likely have been condemned as outside society’s political morality. For example, earlier this year, there was significant coverage of proposals for the mass ‘internment’ of Muslim citizens and others suspected of terrorism. Immigration bans directed at particular groups, which would once have been considered fundamentally inconsistent with a liberal democracy that adheres to a principle of non-discrimination, have also become discussed within respectable company.

Race and class

So if there has been a growth in a populism involving nationalism and xenophobia, where has it come from? What is behind the rise of populism?

Shortly after the election of Trump to the White House, it became received wisdom that the Democrats lost because they had failed to listen to the concerns of the white working class. By contrast, Trump had made himself the candidate of the anxious and dispossessed. His pledge of making American great again tapped into a reservoir of civic faith. And he embodied in himself something of the everyman, which other candidates, products of a political system that was on the nose, could never come close to doing. J.D. Vance, whose bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy seemed to capture the American working class zeitgeist, would observe things this way:

Many in the US and abroad marvel that a showy billionaire could inspire such allegiance among relatively poor voters. Yet in style and tone, Trump reminds blue-collar workers of themselves. Gone are the poll-tested and consultant-approved political lines, replaced with a backslapping swashbuckler unafraid of saying what’s on his mind. The elites of DC and NY see an offensive madman, blowing through decades of political convention with his every word. His voters, on the other hand, see a man who’s refreshingly relatable, who talks about politics and policy as if he were sitting around the dinner table.

According to the conventional wisdom, Trump’s authenticity was only a factor; what really explained things is class.

In his assessment, Coates neatly characterises the orthodox explanation of Trump populism:

We are now being told that support for Trump’s “Muslim ban,” his scapegoating of immigrants, his defenses of police brutality are somehow the natural outgrowth of the cultural and economic gap between Lena Dunham’s America and Jeff Foxworthy’s. The collective verdict holds that the Democratic Party lost its way when it abandoned everyday economic issues like job creation for the softer fare of social justice. The indictment continues: To their neoliberal economics, Democrats and liberals have married a condescending elitist affect that sneers at blue-collar culture and mocks the white man as history’s greatest monster and prime-time television’s biggest doofus. In this rendition, Donald Trump is not the product of white supremacy so much as the product of a backlash against contempt for white working-class people.

Such diagnoses have also emerged within Australian commentary about race. In a much-cited essay for Meanjin, writer Shannon Burns argued that progressive middle class political discourse has alienated lower class white Australians. Middle-class grievances about racism and bigotry ‘now drown out lower class pain’, which explains why ‘the wounded lower classes come to embrace conservative discourses that ridicule middle-class anguish’. If there is any kind of backlash against so-called political correctness, it is because ‘those who cannot afford to see themselves as disadvantaged are instinctively repulsed by those who harp on about disadvantage’. According to Burns, the middle classes must learn they can’t force the issue: the working classes are entitled to kick back where it hurts if you are to impose on them a middle class morality that isn’t theirs.

However, is it the case that racial and cultural populism is a symptom of working class alienation from political elites?

Consider, in some greater detail, the American context. The evidence for the class thesis is far from convincing. One study of pre-election polling data, for example, indicates that those who supported Trump generally had a higher mean household income than those who did not. Another study highlights that of the one in three Americans who earn less than $50,000 a year, a majority voted not for Donald Trump but for Hillary Clinton.

It was not class that was the strongest predictor of Trump support – but rather something else. While Trump did win the white working class vote (he had a 37 percentage point gap over Clinton with respect to white voters without a college degree), he also won white voters across every major demographic breakdown. The Mother Jones website suggests that, had the 2016 electoral college votes only included the popular vote of white America, Trump would have defeated Clinton 389 to 81 (with 68 votes a toss-up).

As for the Australian context, data from the Australian Election Survey would seem to indicate it is culture that has driven One Nation’s electoral return. The AES data shows that 98 per cent of One Nation voters are Australian born. And it shows that the most salient factor behind supporting One Nation is immigration. Eighty-two per cent of One Nation voters consider immigration extremely important when deciding how to vote, with 83 per cent calling for immigration to be cut ‘a lot’. Seventy-nine per cent of One Nation voters believe migrants increase crime, and 67 per cent believe they take our jobs.

There is an element of class involved too. Based on the AES data, 66 per cent of One Nation voters consider themselves to be working class, the most of any political party. One Nation supporters are typically anxious about the economy – with 68 per cent saying their own financial position was a little or a lot worse than it was 12 months ago.

But there is a strong case to be made that cultural anxiety about the changing complexion of Australian society is the dominant factor behind One Nation populism. In his recent Quarterly Essay, journalist David Marr argues that One Nation is ‘a nostalgia party’, one whose supporters are bound by a desire to re-create an Australia of yesteryear.

Cultural anxiety

The extent of cultural anxiety about immigrants and multiculturalism in Australia can be overstated.

Earlier this month, the Ipsos Global @dvisor survey, an exercise involving 18,000 people from 25 countries, found 48 per cent of Australians agree that migrants make the country a ‘more interesting place to live’. This is one of the highest proportions among the nations surveyed, compared to the international average of 31 per cent. In addition, four in 10 Australians agreed that immigration ‘has generally had a positive impact’ on the country, far more than the one in five globally who agreed with that statement.

The annual Scanlon Foundation survey into social cohesion has found largely stable and strong public support for immigration and multiculturalism. The 2016 survey found that 70 per cent of Australians believed the current level of immigration was either about right or too low. Well above 80 per cent of Australians also believe that multiculturalism is good for the country, a level maintained consistently over the past few years. In short, Australia hasn’t experienced the extreme levels of discontent with immigration and cultural diversity that was evident in the US and the UK.

Yet the volume of discontent is significant. They may be in the minority, but those who are unhappy are far from silent.

There has been remarkable consistency in the rhetoric used to express cultural anxieties about race and immigration. In Australia, the seminal expression of this can be found in the debates about immigration during the 1980s. It was in the debate about Asian immigration during that time that we first saw public opposition to non-European immigration following the end of the White Australia policy in the 1970s.

The historian Geoffrey Blainey was at the centre of this debate. In 1984 his comments calling for reductions in Asian migration drew widespread attention. It began with a speech he delivered in Warnambool, Victoria. ‘Rarely in the history of the modern world,’ Blainey said, ‘has a nation given such preference to a tiny ethnic minority of its population as the Australian government has done in the past few years.’ Asians were the ‘favoured majority’ in Australia’s immigration intake. According to Blainey, this wasn’t accepted by ‘everyday Australians’.

Blainey would later elaborate on these ideas in his book All for Australia. There, he wrote about ‘old Australians’, who ‘live in the front-line suburbs’ where Asians immigrants were most likely to settle. He quoted letters from these Australians complaining about their neighbourhood pavements spotted with phlegm, and about chocking under the greasy smoke of exotic meat cooked on verandahs. Referring to one woman who wrote him, Blainey wrote of the fears she harboured for her eight-year-old son, and what would become of him when he grows up only to find that all the jobs will probably be taken by new migrants. He noted that this woman privately predicts race riots: ‘There will be bloodshed in this country.’

Blainey’s intervention had more than a touch of Enoch Powell, the Conservative politician who issued an apocalyptic warning about immigration in Britain. In 1968, Powell predicted that ‘in this country in fifteen or twenty years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’. Powell was also one who quoted from letters he received from ‘ordinary people’ under siege from foreigners. And he also made predictions about racial violence: ‘like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood’, as he said.

Others have since rehearsed similar points to Powell in subsequent decades. In his Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (2009), Christopher Caldwell refers to immigration, in particular Muslim immigration, creating ‘ethnic colonies’. Muslim immigrants are ‘patiently conquering Europe’s cities, street by street’, with a stubborn unwillingness to adapt to the host cultures. As Caldwell put it, immigrants were establishing foreign cultures on European lands as part of ‘a project to claim territory’. It has got to the point where European natives now look upon segregation ‘not as a fate endured by immigrants but as a project hatched by [immigrants]’.

It is interesting to read far-right populism against such antecedents. One of its most effective practitioners, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, famously expressed nervousness at hearing fellow train passengers speaking languages other than English. As Farage put it, ‘in scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable’. England was becoming a country where ‘in many parts … you don’t hear English spoken any more’. For Farage, ‘this is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren’.

From this, we see how the trope of cultural anxiety has been rehearsed over the years. It is the anxiety of ‘ordinary people’ who feel as though they are losing their country. They are the patriots who feel like foreigners in their own land; the majority who now feel like a minority being swamped or taken over. Right-wing populism didn’t create anxiety about race, immigration and multiculturalism – but it has fed it and it has capitalised on it. It is a force that is turning anxiety into anger and, increasingly, anger into hatred.

‘Identity politics’

How are we to respond to anxiety, anger and hatred? Among many observers of the populist challenge to liberal democracy, there is a view that we must change the way we conduct public conversations. If there has been a backlash against the system, the system itself must change. 

In his reflections on ‘the retreat of Western liberalism’, British journalist Edward Luce suggests that we have forgotten how difficult it is to contain ‘age-old human prejudices’, let alone shed them. But he blames, in part, an ‘identity liberalism’, which ‘treats society as less than the sum of its parts’. This identity liberalism ‘has helped to fuel a backlash by majority-white communities’.

In similar vein, American writer Mark Lilla has argued that there has been a self-defeating celebration of cultural diversity at the expense of commonality. According to Lilla, in the US Trump wasn’t the product of a so-called white backlash or ‘whitelash’. Rather it was left-liberals’ ‘obsession with diversity’ that ‘encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored’. Such people are not reacting against the reality of a diverse America, but rather ‘against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness”.’

There are echoes here of the recognition versus redistribution debate among political and social theorists back in the late 1990s. Then, as now, voices warned against privileging the identity claims of minorities above a national mode of politics. But is an identity politics – and what commentators really mean here is multiculturalism – really to blame? Has it gone too far? And if so, in what respects has it gone too far?

Those who diagnose an excess of identity politics are not so clear in explaining just where the line should have been drawn on multiculturalism. Let’s take the US as an example here. There, as we know, a great deal of Trump’s support was driven by a hostility against the Obama presidency (Trump did, after all, begin his political run effectively with the racist stoking of the so-called Birther movement). Was it a bridge too far that Barack Obama had become president? Did the very fact of his presidency, after all, embody something of an ascendant identity liberalism? And if we are really talking about identity politics, doesn’t white nationalist or ethnic majority populism count as a form of identity politics itself?

In more general terms, there is something discomfiting about the diagnosis of an identity politics in excess. To be sure, there is an important need for common ground in our politics. I will be the first to agree: in my own work in political theory, I was in the so-called liberal nationalist camp and argued in defence of patriotism, though one appropriate for a multicultural society. There is no necessary reason why loving your country must rule out endorsing diversity, or why supporting diversity must rule out loving your country. I would say this is political theory grounded not only in principle but also in reality; certainly what is reality for a comfortable majority of Australians today.

But the identity politics diagnosis may appear to imply two things, with which we can take issue. First, that recognising cultural diversity and all that is associated with it, may have been a mistake. It says that the claims for recognition may not have really been claims about rights or dignity at all, but rather just the self-interested claims of minority interests and ethnic lobbies. Second, it appears to imply that if we are seeing an explosion in intolerance, prejudice and bigotry, the proper response is to accommodate it. It says that our task should be to listen to grievances and establish a new equilibrium.

This would involve, in my view, a step too far. There is nothing wrong, of course, with listening and understanding. But if we are committed to certain liberal values, and to a certain idea of democracy, we must also seek to persuade. In his work on populist extremism in Europe, Matthew Goodwin argues that one of the strategies for responding to populist extremism must be interaction. There must be more contact and dialogue between different ethnic groups. More conversations, the logic runs, will lead to more familiarity and less fearful anxiety.

If there is to be more dialogue and interaction, it must also genuinely run both ways. There is a danger in much of the discussions about populism. The exhortations seem only to run in one direction: namely, for people to take heed of what those uncomfortable or unhappy about cultural diversity have to say.

We shouldn’t forget that when people express fears about immigrants posing a danger to our society, or when people say they are fearful of difference, this isn’t just an abstract point. For those in society who are immigrants – or even the children of immigrants – these aren’t debating points but rather something rather personal. They are statements that add up to people saying you don’t belong in a society, or that you have less of a claim to belong. Calling for such balance, you would hope, will not be dismissed as just another example of ‘identity politics’ or ‘political correctness’.


Debates about race and immigration have long been defined by an asymmetry of power, it must be said. In his magisterial history of Australia in the 1980s, Frank Bongiorno wrote of Geoffrey Blainey’s intervention that, ‘enthusiasm for a debate over Asian migration … flourished as never before among affluent, white opinion-makers; men, that is, who were unlikely to be called “slants” or “slopes” in the schoolyard or street, or to have their neighbourhood daubed in graffiti telling them to leave the country’.

In more recent times, we have seen a replication of this in debates about amending the Racial Discrimination Act – in particular, section 18C of the Act, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate others on the basis of their race. I won’t go into the details of that debate, though my view has been that the law in its current form strikes an appropriate balance between freedom of speech and freedom from racial vilification. I do not believe the law should be changed. What is striking, though, for the purpose at hand, is that the ranks of those calling for a dilution of legislative protections against racial hatred appeared not to contain many who had lived experience of being subjected to racial vilification. Within our debates about free speech and race, it would appear that there were some whose skin in the game was more about being able to engage in unfettered speech, rather than being free from discrimination.

Which brings me, ultimately, to my answer to the question of how we must respond to anxiety, anger and hatred. Too often, there can be a temptation to believe there can be a single answer. That it would be enough were we simply to cast off multicultural identity politics, or to listen more closely to cultural grievances.

As should be clear, I am unconvinced about the identity politics diagnosis. As for listening closely, I believe we should be listening to our debates more closely, but that includes listening to those who cop the brunt of any racism or bigotry.

We should avoid here making a false equivalence between those who have sympathy for racism and those who oppose racism. There are not two morally equal sides when it concerns racism in a liberal democracy. A forthright liberalism and a just democracy must stand firm in repudiating racism and bigotry. It isn’t enough for our society to be non-racist; it must be anti-racist.

Repudiating racism isn’t mutually exclusive from understanding cultural anxiety. To be anti-racist doesn’t mean that you are deaf to people’s concerns and resentment. In fact, you need to understand the roots of racism in order to counter it. There has been a tendency to regard racism as too much of an antiquated feature of the past – as reflecting some repugnant doctrinal commitment to racial superiority or purity – when the modern reality is that it is more often than not something that emerges from cultural anxiety.

This isn’t to say that easing cultural anxiety is easy. It isn’t easy. And that’s because it implicates the way people understand the world and their place in it. Anxiety isn’t felt by those who believe they enjoy power or privilege. It is felt by those who believe they are losing their place in society’s hierarchy. Perhaps we are talking here not of a deficiency that can be cured or remedied, but of a manifestation of social power.

But how we talk about race says a lot about the health of any liberal democracy. Of late, you get the impression that people get more outraged by racism being called out, than by racism being perpetrated. That we are being more inclined to see the rejection of racism, in its many forms, as just postures of political correctness – rather than as necessary correctives to injustice and exclusion.

In the face of rising populism, I believe it has become even more urgent and important that our society can be steadfast in rejecting prejudice and discrimination. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we must be prepared to say that if people don’t wish to be called racists or bigots, they shouldn’t blame others; they should begin by not doing things that involve racism or bigotry.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner