Political failures are combining with increasingly progressive younger generations to present a clear danger for centre-right parties. It is well known that the youngest Australian generations are increasingly resistant to supporting the politics of the centre-right and more likely to embrace progressive causes. A recent CIS study, for example, shows that Gen Z and Millennial Australians should be a source of electoral strength for leftist parties for years to come. The Covid experience, wherein young Australians witnessed significant government intervention, has likely left a favourable impression.
This phenomenon is not unique to Australia. In the UK and US, support for the Conservative and Republican parties is stronger among the middle-aged and elderly, while those under 40 or so have strong sympathies with the centre-left Labour and Democratic parties. In Britain, the tendency is even more marked outside England and in urban areas.
In America, psychologist Jean Twenge, author of the recent book Generations, has conducted extensive research on generational differences and demographic trends. Her findings reveal shifts in social values and political ideologies, notably among young Republicans who display a greater acceptance of a larger government and expanded provision of services. Somewhere, Ronald Reagan is shocked.
But the other thing that Australia has in common with Britain and America is that this state of affairs has evolved because of a mixture of political failures by conservative politicians. Whether it’s the Republicans, Tories and Liberals, the centre right of politics in the past decade has failed to campaign and fight on several important fronts.
With rare exceptions, it has failed to advocate the benefits of fiscal rectitude and market reforms to create incentives to work, save and invest. It has failed to counter the belief that economic growth is natural or that money can be borrowed indefinitely to subsidise unlimited spending.
Above all perhaps, it has failed to fight back in the culture wars that the better-organised progressive elites have been prosecuting so effectively across the Anglosphere. This process has not been helped by a succession of poor and discredited leaders of conservative governments in the West.
Think of Donald Trump, whose presidency ended in an attempted insurrection. Think of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss in Britain, the former now branded a liar by parliament and the latter launched an economic policy so ill-founded that her prime ministership crashed within 49 days. And, though far less damaging, think of Scott Morrison in Australia, whose attempts to represent the ‘quiet Australians’ were undermined by his questionable personal integrity in secretly taking on ministerial positions during the pandemic.
All this means that the generation now embracing the doctrines of the left has heard very little of the opposing arguments in the political square. They have grown up with the notion that it is the duty of the state — and not of themselves or their families — to provide for them.
It used to be the case in the West that when people started to earn money and own property, they’d recognise that taxation eats into disposable income. It restricts not just what hard-working people can achieve thanks to their efforts, but in terms of being able to buy a stake in the country by way of home ownership. But people who own nothing and believe that nothing will ever change won’t embrace market capitalism.
Also, as a result of the cultural cringe the centre-right has taken towards the social and cultural attitudes of the left, those attitudes have started to entrench themselves in society by default. The result is that the left that espouses those values look reasonable. Just think of attitudes towards race that have served not to unite societies against discrimination, but to divide them.
Parties of the left thrive on the manufacturing of client-groups that allow them to operate on the principle of divide and rule: this is now common in the West today.
The right has made little coherent attempt to try to argue in favour of a different culture — not one that is cruel or inhumane, but one that respects the individual without seeking to coerce them into certain mindsets and fashions.
Thus the younger generation believes that identity politics in its various forms is the right way to proceed: because conservative politicians are so reluctant to go against a view that is mainstream not among the wider public, but among those who dominate the commanding heights of culture and nearly every elite institution, that they seem afraid to make the case against it.
There is also a tendency in the West for young people to delay adult milestones. This includes going into full-time employment later, marrying later, having children later and embarking upon home ownership later.
All this extends the time in which they might feel like indulging in the idealistic — and expensive — policies of the left. This means that those who are not of the centre-right by early disposition embrace the doctrine later in life than they used to, because of the delay in responsibilities that persuade of its soundness.
The Liberal Party, renowned for its longest-serving prime ministers, Menzies and Howard, must uphold its classically-liberal values and beliefs. But changing minds and enthusing younger voters also requires a sound strategy, great communications, courage and leadership.
Sadly, on the centre-right around the western world, those qualities are in increasingly short supply. If American Republicans, British Tories and Australian Liberals do not have a serious plan to address young people’s anxieties, it is they before long who will be the beleaguered minority.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies where Andrew Blyth is the inaugural John Howard Fellow and editor of John Howard: From the Pavilion – Shaping the Ascent to Power.
Photo by cottonbro studio.