Cory Bernardi Exits, Stage Right

And so, with a swish of his senator’s robes, Cory Bernardi takes his leave of the Liberal Party, thus putting to rest months of speculation about whether he would stay or go. It feels like long past time, and only natural – he was always an awkward customer, what with his views on animal love and weakness for European blondes. But still, breaking up, you know … It’s the kids you feel sorry for.
The new party will be called the Australian Conservatives, which strikes me as a missed opportunity. Not to want to sound like Dee Madigan, but in this crowded political marketplace it’s essential to distinguish yourself. Why not Cory’s Tories? Or the Bernardi Party? Or the B Team? I mean, where’s the pizzazz?  
 
Whatever. The problem isn’t the name of the party. The problem will be its politics, which will be largely unsuited to the times we’re in, not to mention the world to which we’re headed. That, I think, is the story here: not that things just got tougher for Trumble, but that the alliance between liberalism and conservatism, which Bernardi is seeking to reengineer, is now in more or less terminal decline. Notwithstanding that Cory has some cashed-up backers and a decade’s worth of political contacts, he is changing ships on a falling tide.
 
It’s clear that Bernardi regards the Trumpocalypse as a verdict on our politically correct times. Along with Mark Latham and Ross Cameron, he was noisily excited by the Donald’s insurgency, and even took to sporting a red baseball cap with the words ‘Make Australia Great Again’ above the peak. Trump’s views, he suggested, were ‘absolutely mainstream’. Australian conservatives had to learn from them, or perish.
 
But Bernardi’s politics aren’t Trumpian. They are a mixture of libertarian economics – smaller government, lower taxes, deregulation – and social conservatism: respect for authority, traditional morality, support for the family, church etc. This is very different from Trump’s campaign shtick, which channelled a quasi-protectionist mood and was rooted, not in family values or religious posturing or traditional morality, but in a deep disgust for beltway politics and the economic chaos wrought by hyper-globalisation. Only climate scepticism and Islamophobia unite the two. Otherwise they’re chalk and Cheetos.
 
Indeed, if Bernardi had any grasp of factors underlying the challenge to the political ‘centre’ in the US, France, Austria, Spain, Greece, Hungary, the UK etc. he’d see that free-market libertarianism has destroyed, or is in the process of destroying, the conservative values he holds so dear. Capital is no respecter of tradition, of borders, of morality. Nor does liberal economics conceive of people as members of an organic moral community. On the contrary, its vision of society as consisting of free, competing individuals with nothing in common but their individuality is corrosive of the very solidarity conservatives are nostalgic for.
 
This is a story that goes back a long way. Time was when the very notion of a conservative party would have been regarded as absurd. Conservative was what you were if you liked how things were done, which you very much did if they were done for you, by gardeners and maids and the like. It wasn’t an ism; it was a state of being. Conservative parties only came into being in response to the emergence of liberalism, which was the ideology of the middle classes. Only then did it become necessary for the landed gentry to organise around King and Country, the Church etc.
 
Over time the two traditions grew together. The landed classes became less relevant, the business classes more so. Conservatives adopted liberal economic ideas, which did at least stress property rights and came wrapped in the rather pleasing notion that even vast discrepancies of wealth were the result of individual achievement and not inherited privilege. Partly the alliance was a marriage of convenience – a response to the threat from organised labour.
 
So, the rich got to keep their property, but at the expense of releasing into the world a dynamic force called free-market capitalism, which, as Marx noted early on, would destroy ‘the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”’ and drown ‘the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation’ – would do for the toffs, in other words. 
This process was supercharged in the late 1970s, when conservative and liberal parties, in response to another push from labour, adopted the suite of policies we now associate with neoliberalism: off-shoring, financialisation, anti-union legislation, low inflation etc. And while the politicians who carried this program forward did so under the banner of ‘traditional’ values – ‘Victorian values’ in the case of Thatcher, American greatness in the case of Reagan – its effect was to rip up the social fabric. Conservatives will often identify a relativistic politically correct ‘elite’ as the destroyer of traditional values; but the root cause is their own economic radicalism. Milton Freidman and family values don’t mix, whatever the conservative parties maintain.
 
Now that neoliberalism has been revealed as utopian and delusional, there is a backlash from the left-behind. The form it takes reveals the nature of the crisis. It is a politics of walls economic and cultural: a reactionary, though coherent, response to globalisation’s twin assaults on economic equality and social solidarity. It is protectionist and nativist. If Bernardi thinks his political move will catch this wave of populism … well, I think he’s in for a shock. The free market/strong state model he favours was well past its prime by the time Tony Abbott got his chance to shine, and we all know how that little episode turned out. Politics is simply moving on.
 
And then there’s the content of Cory’s conservatism. Bernardi clearly thinks his priorities resonate with the Australian electorate, but this is highly questionable. On one of his signature issues, same-sex marriage, he is at odds with the majority of Australian voters, 72% of whom now favour marriage equality, according to a Crosby Textor poll published in 2014. On another – Islam and its (assumed) incompatibility with traditional Australian values – he may perhaps get more traction, though One Nation has the subject pretty well covered. As for his demeanour – strong family man, God-fearing soul, all of that – I think it’s largely irrelevant, and possibly a drawback. If traditional morality was a factor in the backlash, US voters wouldn’t have elected Trump, the very picture of amoral capitalist trash. Whatever charms the Donald has, or is purported to have by his hardcore supporters, Christian rectitude isn’t one of them.
 
At any rate it will be fascinating to watch how Bernardi and his Australian Conservatives go. Guy Rundle thinks we shouldn’t underestimate them and makes some excellent points about the low esteem in which middleclass progressives are now held outside the political and media establishment. But my guess is that Bernardi’s brand of conservatism – anti-statist, Christianity-rich – is largely out of sync with that sentiment. It’s not time, yet, to break out the baseball caps.