Culture war and conspiracism as election strategy

In this latest Australian election cycle, history repeats itself with increasing intensity as policy debate is relegated to a relic of history in favour of strategies of dissembling, distraction and scapegoating. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been emerging over the last two to three decades as parties scramble to resolve the deepening conflicts between the vested interests of their donors and the needs of a world falling further into socio-ecological crisis.

The presence of Katherine Deves as Scott Morrison’s handpicked candidate for the seat of Warringah clearly demonstrates this fact, as well as the latter’s interest in culture war discourse and the ideological construction of deviance as an electoral strategy. Issues like transgender women in sport come under the microscope despite support from Cricket Australia and Netball Australia, who support inclusive policies for the transgender and gender diverse.

In recent years, Australia has been through bushfires, pandemic and floods, but the biggest issue facing the country today, according to this logic, the Liberal candidate for Warringah, and the Prime Minister, is a demographic that constitutes less than 1% of sportspeople. This less than 1% are required to have been receiving hormone therapy for at least a year to offset any potential unfair advantage, and many transgender women who play sport have been receiving therapy for much longer.

This is nothing out of the ordinary for the LNP, whose habitual conflation of individual freedom, class privilege and autocratic corporate power is, for all their crowing about defending liberty from authoritarianism, conspicuously illiberal. And illiberal Australian politicians have not had to look far for inspiration. If the role Pizzagate played in the 2008 US Presidential elections wasn’t enough, the ongoing culture wars over Critical Race Theory are a perfect example of the kind of panic-driven scapegoating that has characterised every conspiracy theory throughout history. As seems the wont with apologists for racism, it is not racism which is socially divisive—rather, the acknowledgement that it exists.

The paranoid discourse associated with this conspiracism relies on fear of the Other, scapegoats targeted for demonisation on the basis of an exclusionary, Self vs. Other binary logic. The deviant outsiders are coming to get us, says this discourse, and anyone who undermines our rule gives power to the forces of doom. If thinking for oneself was formerly said to give comfort to the terrorists, now it aids the critical race theorists.

That much of the scaremongering around learning about history comes from corporate media, and from demagogues like Tucker Carlson, who doesn’t appear to know what Critical Race Theory is, tends to escape many who buy into the narrative.

The constructed panic of the culture war over CRT also demonstrates the utility of paranoid conjecture in constructing hobgoblins and folk demons where none are considerate enough to present themselves of their own accord. As Stanley Cohen, the father of moral panic studies, has demonstrated, deviance is a matter of who controls the meaning of the word in popular discourse, not a characteristic of anyone so labelled.

Workarounds for open debate have become the norm for a party whose policies are notoriously unpopular. At the beginning of the 1993 federal election, leader John Hewson introduced the Fightback! policy package. The shift it represented from the party’s traditional Keynesianism towards neoliberalism was soundly rejected by the electorate, who oppose neoliberal policies when stated openly, and the Tories were soundly trounced.

Since then, the Liberal Party has tended to avoid worrying the electorate with actual policies. In dodging policy in favour of scaremongering and dissembling at election time, it has demonstrated instead the ongoing truth of the observation from HL Mencken that ‘the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.’

This was the hallmark of the Prime Ministership of John Howard during the 1990s. Howard’s hobgoblins ranged from tyrannical organised labour oppressing logistics conglomerates with their demands for rights, to mendacious refugees attempting to bleed the country by holding it to its claim of ‘boundless plains to share’.

In this, Howard had infamously appropriated the policy platform of Pauline Hanson. Stealing her racist and xenophobic thunder, he demonstrated in the process the power of fear and suspicion as a weaponised tool of ideology. Howard’s use of the Tampa Affair to galvanise xenophobia and islamophobia, declaring at the time ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,‘ is widely credited with winning him the 2001 election.

It also demonstrated the power of panic-driven scapegoating to influence election outcomes—a fact that became even more obvious after the terrorist attacks in the US in September that same year. In the decade that followed, the oppressive climate of war fever ensured that election cycles would reflect the observation from documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis that politicians, having run out of dreams to inspire the electorate with, were instead scaring us with nightmares.

This approach, however, could only work for so long. By 2008, the style of government prevailing in the West was becoming impossible to notice as the Global Financial Crisis unceremoniously placed unregulated finance capitalism centre stage. Conservative governments were voted out in the US and in Australia.

After that point, the Islamic terrorism that had for so long dominated public discourse started to recede and was gradually replaced by white supremacism, culminating in the atrocity perpetrated by Brendan Tarrant. This was ideologically to what historian Frank Van Nuys characterises as the ‘national safety valve’ of racism as a scapegoating tool to be manipulated by the right. None can castigate white supremacist terror without giving up the national safety valve themselves.

For those desirous of avoiding having to formulate policy, or announce clearly what their policy intentions are, there remains to find new ways to keep the populace clamorous to be led to safety by invoking the ideological safety valve of scapegoating and culture war. These discourses are also useful for vested interests lurking behind the scenes, be they the dark money donors associated with the Atlas Network, Donors Trust and the Institute for Public Affairs, or the Murdoch Empire.

To these ends, the ideological construction of the Other demands constant innovation as previous scapegoating narratives are discredited, or conditions change, demanding the construction of new fairy tales to explain the indefensible. Old wine in new bottles is no less useful for polarising debate and avoiding unpleasant issues like the climate emergency and the corporate capture of parliaments—thus reduced to wholly-owned subsidiaries of Rio Tinto, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs and BlackRock.

As Jeff Sparrow has documented in detail in Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right, however, far-right culture wars constantly innovate in the construction of new, but no less imaginary, hobgoblins. The loss of the great bugbears of communism and terrorism is by no means the end of the ‘national safety valve’ or its conspiracism and ideological acting out.

Culture war provides practically endless hobgoblins, feeding conspiracism aggressively into public debate, conflating privilege with freedom and associating any challenged to entrenched social and class hierarchies with subversion of social order as traditionally privileged groups raise their collective tantrum that anyone else might share the freedoms they’ve always taken for granted to the level of ideology.

Facts contradicting conspiracist national safety valve  are not hard to find if one is interested in understanding all sides of the debate. The level of hysteria attached to culture war narratives, however, does mean that facts are not often allowed to interfere with a good story. For a prime minister whose performance has been such that he needs to force people to shake his hand, the value of a good imaginary hobgoblin is clear. His willingness to stand behind a transphobic bigot over the criticisms of his own party goes only serves to demonstrate the value of culture war and the ‘national safety valve’ to those whose time is up on any other count.



Image: Scott Morrison opening the Hillsong Conference in July 2019. Wikimedia Commons.

Ben Debney

Ben Debney is a doctoral candidate in history at Western Sydney University and author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan 2020). His current research examines the role of Othering in the ideological history of the climate emergency.

More by Ben Debney ›

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  1. “The paranoid discourse associated with this conspiracism relies on fear of the Other, scapegoats targeted for demonisation on the basis of an exclusionary, Self vs. Other binary logic. The deviant outsiders are coming to get us, says this discourse …”

    To get past that bind of fear of the Other, everyone would need to undertake psychoanalysis, that is learn to understand that our individual desires are always inextricably bound to the desires of others.

    Next please! (Shit there’s a fuckin long queue out there – I’ll be here for a lifetime, and mostly get nowhere as long as consumer capitalism hold sway.))

    1. Paranoia seems pretty deeply embedded in western culture; power structures have been selling their services as a protection racket against an endless series of imaginary hobgoblins since the days of Rome, and the spirit of Rome survives in the Catholic Church and all. If you think for yourself, the Deceiver wins etc.

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