The conservative battle to win back lost ground here and abroad requires renewal and entering new territories, argues Sydney-based writer and cultural critic Adrian Nguyen.
Centre-right parties and governments across the West have recently proven to be disappointments, especially as a consequence of forgetting the core values that made them unique and strong. Soon after delivering a long-delayed Brexit, the then UK PM Boris Johnson brought the Tories into disarray through unprecedented spending condoned by the COVID-19 pandemic and various scandals reflecting on their leader’s inability to follow the public restrictions they put in place. Johnson resigned after losing the Conservatives’ trust. Australia’s Liberal Party was dismal in the run up to the Federal election in May, providing the Australian Labor Party—adequately led by Anthony Albanese—with the opportunity to defeat an incumbent conservative government for only the fourth time since World War II. A loose collective of ‘teal’ independents took some blue-ribbon seats from Liberal MPs, creating a new ‘progressive’ centre-left majority threatening Coalition credibility and relevance.
Meanwhile, in the US, conservatism is still thriving but undergoing an ideological transformation. In The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, Matthew Continetti—a journalist and senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI)—explores the many ideological factions currently competing for the mantle of conservatism, after first providing a broad overview of the history of the conservative movement in the US. Continetti writes:
The long and winding road on which the various bands of conservatives have traveled over the last century has brought them, at the time of this writing, to a fair amount of political power but also to cultural despair. The Right is confused, uncertain, anxious, and inward looking. The Weekly Standard’s building at 1150 Seventeenth Street [once the intellectual hub of the American Right] and the self-confident conservative ruling class it represented are gone. But the story does not end there. When you study conservatism’s past, you become convinced that it has a future.
From Continetti we can learn about the long history of conservatism ignored by today’s political elites, and in the process obtain a better understanding of the rise and presidency of Donald Trump and his influence on the Republican Party. The Right spans over a hundred years and traces the movement’s roots back to its opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal (1933–1939), by instead promoting a fusion of small government libertarianism and social traditionalism. This stance gained strength during the Cold War, when communism was the unifying enemy, and ruled during the glory days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency (1981–89). After the Cold War (1947-1991) the Republicans went for a populist and nationalist outlook, slowly eschewing free markets and focusing more on the culture wars being fought within longstanding institutions, which over time has devolved to absurdities such as the ‘critical race theory’ taught in public schools and the emergence of ‘wokeness’ in legacy and social media alike.
As a review of the book in Reason pointed out, Trumpism is not an entirely new phenomenon, and “Continetti puts the tension between populism and elitism at the heart of the conflict over conservatism”.
The book focuses on US conservatism, but Australians will find parallels—especially in the aftermath of our federal election. American conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart (1969–2012) famously said “politics is downstream from culture”, which is why conservative parties and institutions need to look beyond and expand upon their established bases. Many on the centre-right pride themselves on debating policy in a civilised manner, in contrast with the left’s penchant for personal attacks and ‘cancelling’ identities who dissent from their orthodoxies. In the midst of this conversation should be something everyone can agree upon. The creed of the quiet Australians must come first, and in the long term the battle can only be won once the movement can innovate and push forward their policies.
The first lesson from The Right is that more organisations should be built, accompanied by events that boost the morale, passion, and commitment of those who passionately hold these principles. Continetti argues the conservative movement was strengthened through events such as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), magazines like National Review, and think tanks including the Heritage Foundation. They promoted themselves to the grassroots and were more active in promoting private enterprise and preserving liberty simpatico with the Declaration of Independence.
The creed of the quiet Australians must come first.
The year 1976 was memorable in the US for being the bicentenary of independence and Milton Friedman winning the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, but it was also significant in Australia as the beginning of a conservative spring. The Institute of Public Affairs invited Friedrich Hayek, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974, to speak to its members and increase their appreciation of free-market economics. And in Sydney—working from the garage of his Pennant Hills home—then young schoolteacher Greg Lindsay established what would grow into the free market Centre for Independent Studies.
Another conservative spring is long overdue. In ‘Why We Need a Conservative Spring’ for Quadrant in February 2017—when merely the Deputy Leader of the NSW Liberal Party—the NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet wrote:
In the US, CPAC—the Conservative Political Action Conference—is famous for showcasing candidates and providing thought leadership. Maybe it’s time we held an annual CPAC here in Australia, with conservatives attending from across the country and overseas as well.
Our agenda must be based on and led by new ideas. We need an ‘ideas boom’ in the conservative movement. It must be proactive, not reactive. And there must be a moral energy to our cause where we talk about values, not just policies.
Over the years, there have been more Australian institutions and publications competing with the left. Publishers such as the Brisbane-based Connor Court Publishing and magazines like IPA Review, Quillette, and Quadrant remain the vanguards for non-left writing.
The liberal arts-based Campion College in Sydney and courses supported by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation provide an alternative based on a classical understanding of the humanities. Campaigns by groups including the Australian Taxpayers Alliance (ATA) and Advance Australia spread sentiments of freedom throughout the nation. The ATA’s centrepiece occasion, the Friedman Conference, is the largest annual freedom festival in the Asia-Pacific region, attended by many hundreds. Perrottet’s wish for an Australian version of CPAC was fulfilled when one was held in Sydney in 2019. A call by then NSW Labor Senator Kristina Keneally to ban UKIP candidate Raheem Kassam from entering Australia to speak at the conference provided international publicity and helped ensure the event’s runaway success. At the time of writing this article, CPAC Australia 2022 was due to place on the October 1-2 weekend in Sydney.
The second lesson from The Right is that while centre-right organisations can acknowledge their differences, they achieve more by speaking with one voice on the big issues. Conservatives should not be secluded in their institutions. In The Right Continetti makes an efficient and ecumenical exploration of the various motivations and beliefs within the conservative movement as it continues to evolve in the 21st century. Better understanding some strands—such as ‘paleoconservatives’ and ‘neoconservatives’—helps us better appreciate current sentiments within the Republican Party. In particular, the current populist attitude seems to contradict the three-legged platform established by neoconservatives in the 1970s and 1980s: free-market economics, hawkish foreign policy, and social traditionalism. Reflecting bitter feelings among Republican voters, Trump deemed the Iraq War a failure.
Ideas matter, but so does winning elections.
Personally, Continetti may well be ambivalent about this turn. In 2012 he married Anne Kristol, daughter of diehard neoconservative Bill Kristol and granddaughter of ‘the godfather of neoconservatism’, American journalist Irving Kristol (1920–2009).
Ideas matter, but so does winning elections. Trump’s 2016 triumph was achieved by taking a north-western region of swing states known as the Rust Belt, including West Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Missouri. The Rust Belt is notable for having a voting bloc of blue-collar workers and holding much of America’s manufacturing industry, which has been in economic decline largely thanks to outsourcing. During the 2019 general election, Boris Johnson won over the ‘Red Wall’ of working-class constituencies in Middle and Northern England previously represented by the Labour Party. Most—if not all—of these seats voted to leave the European Union.
Data on Australia’s economically anxious areas should not be underestimated. While a lot of attention has been given to the Climate 200 independents winning over affluent electorates in North Sydney and metropolitan Melbourne, the suburbs of Western Sydney and outer Melbourne deserve more notice. Many of these electorates remain safe Labor seats, but right-wing minor parties have experienced positive swings while the majors have seen negative swings against them. The seat of Werriwa—a predominantly migrant working-class electorate in south-west Sydney once held by Mark Latham and Gough Whitlam—suffered a massive decline in primary votes for Labor but saw positive swings to the Liberal Democrats (8.9 per cent) and the United Australia Party (4.5 per cent). Some towns in the area faced the brunt of NSW’s restrictions and lockdowns in 2021, resulting in mental health issues and increased distrust of government. Western Sydney residents are not as ‘woke’ as their inner-city counterparts. Seats such as Blaxland, Fowler, and Werriwa returned some of the highest ‘No’ votes in the 2017 same-sex marriage survey.
The Right’s accessible, detailed look at ideological factions within the American centre-right shows the intra-debates did not begin with Trump; but had been in conflict for decades during previous Republican presidencies. An apparent difference between factions within Australian and US conservatism is that the former is more focused on pragmatism and the latter is rather ideological, perhaps because the principles of freedom and liberty are engrained in the nation’s founding.
This suggests the key to winning back government in Australia is not just about a passion for ideals, but in being keen and active to win voters from across the political divide. The future of Australian conservatism lies in its heartland, and the centre-right must take the opportunity to compete for hearts and minds to win the battle.
Adrian Nguyen is a Sydney-based writer and cultural critic. His essays on politics and cinema have been published in outlets such as Quillette, Penthouse Australia, and The Spectator Australia.