Current Issue #488

Modern Times: An American Mirror for Australian Society

Modern Times: An American Mirror for Australian Society

We are right to ask what the American elections portend for Australia. We identify with the impulses that led to the outcome it produced. The febrility of American society is now evident. In an instant, America transformed from an ideal many Australians wished to emulate, to a mirror that reflected our own failings and fragility.

Neal Gabler, Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California, produced the most lucid, piercing analysis of the election, which could be equally applied to the Australian condition. “We all knew these hatreds existed under the veneer of civility,” Gabler wrote. “That civility finally is gone.” Trump’s election, in spite or because of his consistent attacks on immigrants, women and Muslims will empower those whose hatred was hidden behind a veneer of civility – in Australia as in America.

How has a country for so long idealised in Australia so quickly become a troubling reflection of our own weakness, and a portent of further social deterioration?

Different explanations have been offered, from vastly different perspectives. Australian conservatives see Trump’s victory as a great opportunity. Centrists feel threatened by more radical ideas that will come from both left and right flanks. The left in Australia is, as usual, divided both on how to explain Trump’s electoral success and what must be done to ensure that Australia does not follow a similar course.

Some on the left blame the failure of economic orthodoxy, which has produced extraordinary inequality and shoplifted hope from too many in our communities. Those who believe the greatest failing is economic will seek salvation in the redress of economic problems. Another strand of the left believes that misogyny, racism and homophobia are not economic failings but human ones, and should be treated as such. These do not need to be mutually exclusive perspectives.

It is difficult to deny there is popular anger at those who insist upon the economic orthodoxy that has produced unequal results across our communities. Advocates for the maintenance of any status quo tend to be those who profit from it the most. In Australia, as in the United States, blue collar workers are obliged to cope with greater insecurity, less opportunity and higher costs of living, while those who maintain that the current economic settings are beyond reproach continue to benefit from well-paid, secure jobs that allow scope for further income through financial speculation.

History shows that when opportunities are few and hopelessness pervades, our darker angels are invited to dance to the tune of distrust, fear and envy. But even if a sensible economic corrective is found and the veneer of civility returns, we will still need to address the hatreds that will remain behind the façade. Addressing our economic policy failings will not address latent hatreds or soft bigotry that now regularly come to the surface of our national life. They are unacceptable under any circumstances.

The source of such hatred is not economic inequality but ignorance, and multiculturalism is no longer enough to resist hatreds which have hitherto been hidden behind the veneer of civility. A policy that encourages greater intercultural understanding, rather than one that calls for tolerance alone, is urgently required.

Social mistrust and economic inequality are forced together with a yoke that is difficult to break. Redistributive measures, investments in necessary social services, and industry transition plans to deal with a rapidly changing economy have the potential to address inequality and provide opportunity for jobs and upward mobility. But they can only be paid for through higher taxation – and you don’t share with people you don’t trust.

Social trust has been in freefall for almost two decades. Responses to attacks on the legitimacy of asylum seekers, the unemployed and the dispossessed, who have been positioned as either dangerous, or as leeches on our society, or both – have become increasingly feeble. Popular hatred fuelled by unchallenged misconceptions have bubbled beneath the surface but they are now ready to emerge.

There is no reason why we can’t simultaneously return civility to our society and address inequality. To realise Australia’s potential as a great egalitarian, diverse and modern society, there is no other choice but to make our own path by walking it. America is no longer our beacon of civility, and we should do our best to avoid what lies beneath.


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