Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Newsflash, progressives:  conservatives have opinions too

Ever since the rise of the Tea Party in the United States and the community revolt against the Gillard Government's carbon tax, progressive journalists and commentators have struggled to grapple with the idea of a grassroots political movement that isn't left wing.

More used to anti-war moratoriums and union-led protests for equal pay or refugee rights, many left-leaning journalists appear to be on a mission to uncover the ''real'' cause of public dissent from their favoured big-government agenda, particularly regarding climate change.

It's almost as if, struggling to contemplate a grass roots movement that isn't left-leaning, they search in vain for a more satisfying explanation.  ''Ah ha!'', they exclaim, as they find the shadowy billionaire with a vested financial interest pulling the strings from afar.

There are two related elements of this world view.

Firstly, these journalists appear unable to conceive of a conservative philanthropist whose political activism is not motivated by greed and personal financial advancement.  This distinguishes them from left-leaning donor-billionaires like George Soros, who are of course pure of heart.

Secondly, they can't imagine a grassroots centre-right movement without picturing an eccentric billionaire having prodded them into existence to serve their self interest.  In essence, they subscribe to a simple formulation when it comes to assessing political movements:  left-wing activism is obviously genuinely grassroots, whilst right-wing activism is clearly astro-turfing.

In recent months, Fox News chief Roger Ailes has been treated to no fewer than three in-depth profiles by prominent American magazines popular with progressives.  First, Esquire, who asked, why does Roger Ailes hate America?  Then, the New York Magazine, who dubbed him the elephant in the green room, and accused him of hijacking the Republican Party.  Hot on their heels was Rolling Stone, who credit Ailes with building the ''Fox News Fear Factory''.

Unsurprisingly, none were flattering.  Each suggested that Ailes and Fox News are partly responsible for the Tea Party, president Obama's falling approval ratings and the allegedly-new coarseness of American political debate.

In a trend-setting article, the New Yorker -- a magazine with impeccable liberal pedigree -- made the astonishing discovery that US industrialists, long-time libertarians and brothers Charles and David Koch donate to organisations that support limited government.  The article, entitled ''Covert Operations'', suggested the Koch brothers were secretly funding a war on the Obama administration and were at least partly responsible for the creation of the Tea Party movement.

Rather than opting for the palatable and logical explanation that the Koch brothers' philanthropic support for think-tanks like the Cato Institute was motivated by their personal beliefs and ideology (David Koch was the Libertarian Party's vice-presidential nominee in 1980), the author suggested more sinister motives.  Noting that their political beliefs conveniently ''dovetail with [their] corporate interests'', the article goes on to suggest that their barracking for smaller government and increased personal freedom might be linked to their status as a major air polluter.  Unmentioned, of course, was their support for gay marriage, and their donations to the quintessentially-liberal American Civil Liberties Union.

But responsibility for the Tea Party spreads far and wide, even in the minds of these crack investigative journalists.  Talk-show host Glenn Beck, who appeared in stints on both CNN and Fox News, but who has now returned primarily to his radio show, also bears some of the burden.  In two separate profiles for the New Yorker, first in 2009 and then in 2010, Beck's pernicious influence on the American public was chronicled.

No doubt each of these figures played some role in the rise of the Tea Party.  But political movements can't just be conjured up at the behest of billionaire businessmen, media moguls or talk-show hosts.  And they certainly can't be directed exclusively by them to serve their commercial interests.

If that were the case, what took them so long?  Why did the Koch brothers -- who were involved in libertarian activism as early as the 1970s -- not ''create'' the Tea Party to tackle US President Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton, decades ago?  And if they're so powerful and influential, how come they've dismally failed to achieve their cherished goal of drug decriminalisation?  Their alleged pawns in the Tea Party haven't exactly taken up the cause.

A much more charitable -- and logical interpretation -- is that the Tea Party is a genuine community response to the record spending and debt accrued by the US government.  All published opinion polls suggest deep unease with America's national debt and the massive increases in federal spending over the past few years.

Though Australia lacks the same traditional philanthropic culture and history of political activism from its wealthiest citizens, this approach is far from unique to the United States.  Many Australian journalists seem eager to import the tactic.

For example, a report on the ABC's youth-oriented Hungry Beast news show on the Koch brothers appeared to be entirely sourced from the infamous New Yorker article.  Their report also attempted to link the backlash against Julia Gillard's carbon tax in Australia to an Australian who worked at an organisation partly funded by Koch donations and who now runs a political blog.

No doubt a badge of pride for the young conservative activist Tim Andrews and his website, Menzies House, but hardly a Walkley award-winning piece of journalism.

But Tim isn't alone, of course.

Another favourite fixture of the progressive commentariat, both here and in the US, is News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch.

Despite being on the record calling for the planet to be given the ''benefit of the doubt'' and driving efforts to turn his company carbon neutral, Murdoch also apparently stands in the way of the Australian public's deep-seated desire to be taxed into prosperity via an emissions trading scheme.  At least if you listen to Greens leader Bob Brown, and some journalists.

In an extraordinary press conference last month, Senator Brown lashed the Murdoch press as the ''hate media'' and accused it of hindering action on climate change.

In an essay for Australia's Monthly magazine -- which no doubt aspires to be a New Yorker on the Yarra -- Guy Rundle trundled out all the usual left-wing clich├ęs about Rupert Murdoch, Fox News and their respective roles in derailing president Obama's agenda and the creation of the Tea Party.

Clive Hamilton, writing for The Conversation, even hinted that Rupert Murdoch, through his tabloids and -- of course, Fox News, was in some way responsible for recent death-threats made against climate scientists.  Hamilton blames ''conservative think-tanks'' and ''fossil-fuel interests'' for the failure of some members of the public to jump enthusiastically at the prospect of drastic action to slash carbon emissions.

As much as it might disappoint some commentators, most conservative philanthropists are simply passionate about the philosophy of individual liberty and personal freedom, just as others are committed to human rights or finding a cure for cancer.  Surprisingly, even ordinary people can subscribe to these beliefs, and they don't need to be told by a reclusive billionaire or wacky media personality how to think.  It might be challenging to the worldview of someone who thinks the best thing for society is ever-growing government, but smearing people as simply self-interested or pawns of commercial interests won't make them go away.

After all, the simplest explanation is often the best one.  There isn't always a grand conspiracy lurking behind the political views you disagree with.


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